239: How to Address 5 Common School Behavior Challenges

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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In this episode of Beautifully Complex, I’m diving into behavior challenges at school. We’ll discuss the common struggles faced by children with ADHD, autism, and other developmental delays, and explore effective strategies to help them navigate these challenges. From poor frustration tolerance and off-task behavior to big emotions and argumentativeness, we’ll unpack it all. Join me as I share practical tips, insights, and stories to empower parents, educators, and professionals in supporting these beautifully complex individuals.

3 Key Takeaways


Understanding the underlying reasons for behavior challenges in neurodivergent children is crucial in addressing and supporting their needs. It is important to identify developmental delays in emotional regulation, social skills, and frustration tolerance, and provide appropriate strategies to help them succeed.


Building frustration tolerance in various environments can benefit children in different areas of their lives. It is important to create calm and quiet areas for students to work without feeling punished or sent away, and to provide support in getting started on tasks.


Seeking professional help outside of school, such as occupational therapy, can be beneficial in addressing behavior challenges. Functional behavior assessments (FBAs) can provide valuable insights into the function of behavior and guide the development of effective strategies. Collaboration with guidance counselors, special education teams, and other professionals can also provide valuable support for children with behavior challenges.

What You'll Learn

The common behavior challenges neurodivergent children face at school, such as off-task behavior and big emotions, and how these challenges can be related to developmental delays like ADHD or autism.

Why some children struggle with getting started on tasks and learn strategies to help them overcome this difficulty.

The importance of building frustration tolerance in various environments and how it can benefit children both at school and at home.

The role social skills and interactions play in managing big emotions and how guidance counselors can assist children in developing these skills.

What a functional behavior assessment (FBA) is and the importance of conducting an FBA to understand the function of each behavior and develop effective strategies for changing behavior challenges.

Strategies to teach flexibility and appropriate debating skills.


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Penny Williams [00:00:04]: They are not going to be able to sit still just because they're being asked to. These are kids whose bodies need to move. Their neurology is giving them clear signals and taking action all on its own to keep them stimulated so that they can focus. And so, really, what you have to do here for kids who need a lot of movement is give them movement. Asked. Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid.

Penny Williams [00:00:48]: Let's get started. Hello, everyone. Welcome back to beautifully complex. I am here to talk to you today about some behavior challenges that happen at school. And these are 5 common challenges that I hear from parents a lot They've experienced myself with my own kid, things that tend to come up a lot for neurodivergent kids, so Those students who have ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities, these are some pretty common sort of complaints, honestly, from school and from teachers. You know, we get calls home, notes home about these things that are happening, and Often, that's because teachers and educators just don't know what to do about them or why they're happening. And so as parents and other caring adults in the lives of our kids. We have to help people first to understand what's happening with our kids, And then second, with some strategies and tools that might help to transform some of this behavior.

Penny Williams [00:02:05]: So let's just jump right in. I have 5 different behavior challenges that I see as Some of the really most common challenges for kids who are neurodivergent, and the first one is being off task. This happens so very often to our kids who have ADHD especially, and it often happens too to kids who Are finding the work too challenging or finding the environment too challenging? So let's first Just dive in a little bit to what is off task behavior. What does that look like? It's pretty simple, really. They are not doing their seat work, their schoolwork maybe. They are seeming like they're not paying attention during something like carpet time or a specific activity. They may look like they're daydreaming or they're not paying attention. And often, kids who look like they're not paying attention are actually paying attention.

Penny Williams [00:03:06]: I'll just throw that in there. You know, kids who are doodling, kids who are not looking at what is happening are often paying attention and taking it and processing, and that's what they need to be able to do that. Not everyone needs to be looking at who's speaking or what is happening in order to be on task, in order to be paying attention and processing and learning. So that really off task behavior can come from being distractable. So maybe they are daydreaming. Maybe they are paying attention to something that's happening out the window or a noise that they hear or a visual distraction. Sometimes, it's avoidant behavior due to executive functioning challenges or learning disabilities. If a worksheet is too difficult or the task, maybe the essay is too difficult, then I might avoid doing it.

Penny Williams [00:04:00]: I might avoid getting started because I know it's going to be hard for me. The other ways that we see kids really sort of struggle to get their work done, and it looks like avoidance, but it's actually really that they're having trouble with getting started. And this is an executive functioning task, getting started with something. Many of our kids who are neurodivergent have trouble with knowing how to get started or being able to sort of make that transition into something new. So what do we do when we are getting a lot of feedback or complaint from school that our kids are off task. First, we really have to drill down to exactly the reason for that off task behavior. And this is true for every single one of these common behavior challenges that I'm going to talk you through in this episode. We always have to get to the root of the issue for each individual because it's very different.

Penny Williams [00:05:07]: My kid might be distractable because he has ADHD, and his mind goes down a 1000000 paths at once, and he's just thinking about something else. Your kid might be distractable because there's a really obnoxious sound in the background, and they can't focus on anything else. Or, you know, another person's kid might be distractable because it's really not even distractibility. They're just having a hard time with focusing and getting started or getting something completed. So it's really important that, first, we understand what is going on under the surface, why is this behavior happening, and then we need to map out just some ideas of what might help that student in those situations. So let's say that an environment is distractible to a student. Can we have them go work on their task in the library? Can we give them a quiet corner in the classroom where they are away from the group. Could they even sit outside and do their work.

Penny Williams [00:06:13]: Maybe the whole class goes outside to do their work sometimes on nice days. Is there another teacher who might have a free period during that time where they can just go sit in the corner in that teacher's classroom where it's quiet. And they don't have to sit in the corner, and I I shouldn't say in the corner, but I just mean, like, a quiet little place off to the side where they can focus. So what are some quiet areas, some calm areas in the school building where the student can asked. Work and not feel like they're being punished or sent away. Be very careful in the ways that you frame that with them, but give them the opportunity to have an environment where they can succeed. If they're having trouble getting started, sit down with them 1 on 1 even just for 2 or 3 minutes to help them get over that hump of getting started. Help them with the first problem or question on that worksheet.

Penny Williams [00:07:12]: Help them with brainstorming what they wanna include in their essay. Help them brainstorm what topic they want to choose if that's where they need to get started, And, also, notice if the student is having challenges around one particular subject for one particular learning task. So if they're constantly having challenges with writing, but they're not necessarily with math or with reading, Is it time to maybe recommend an evaluation for some writing disabilities or just some extra help in that area. That's a possibility too. So I've given you a lot of different ideas for starting to work on off task behavior. The 2nd behavior I wanna talk to you about is disruption. What a lot of times we hear is disruptive behavior. Your child is being disruptive in the classroom.

Penny Williams [00:08:09]: Your child is being disruptive in the hallway. This can be so many different behaviors, and it often depends on sort of the tolerance level of that teacher or educator, honestly, because sometimes the tolerance level is very low, and they quickly go to it being disruptive behavior. Whereas other times, You know, a teacher is really trying to work with a child. They understand that they're neurodivergent, that they have differences, that maybe they need to move more, and their tolerance level is higher, and so they're not really gonna call it disruptive until it's reached some sort of extreme level or a higher level. And in that case, we really want to first Understand exactly what this teacher or administrator is communicating to you as disruptive behavior. Ask them, what does that look like? Can you tell me more about that? Can you give me specifics on what happened at this point that you're calling disruptive behavior. What was it specifically? First, you have to know that. So it could be that your kid isn't sitting still in class.

Penny Williams [00:09:24]: It could be that they're talking a lot when they shouldn't be talking. It could be that there's emotional things that are going on here or reactivity, which is my number 3 and 4 in the list, so we're gonna talk about that more in a minute. But let's focus here on disruption being more of a physical sort of disruption. So kids who can't sit still, who can't stop talking, who need a lot more movement and a lot more activity, kind of physical stimulation. That can be disruptive in a classroom. It can also be labeled as disruptive behavior. So what can we do about kids who have a hard time sitting still? It doesn't matter how much we tell them to sit still. It doesn't matter how much we punish them.

Penny Williams [00:10:14]: They are not going to be able to sit still just because they're being asked to. These are kids whose bodies need to move. Their neurology is giving them clear signals and taking action all on its own to keep them stimulated so that they can focus. And so, really, what you have to do here for Kids who need a lot of movement is give them movement. Give them activity. Give them ways to get this input that they need, because they can't just turn it off. So allow a kid to stand in the back of the classroom or walk back and forth in the back of the classroom, provide fidgets given that they're not more distracting or disruptive. Some kids need music in one ear, and I can hear a lot of you going, oh my gosh.

Penny Williams [00:11:06]: How could they pay attention? They can't possibly focus on what a teacher is saying if they have music in one ear. I am here to tell you that 3 of the 4 of us in my family Need music piped in one ear all of the time. That is how they focus. That is how they get stimulation. That is how they remain calm, and so that is what they need. And my son did have this accommodation in some classrooms in high school. It was sometimes difficult to get teachers on board, and what I always said was, just try it. And if it is more of a distraction, If it's not working out, if it's disruptive, then you are welcome to say, this is not working out in my classroom.

Penny Williams [00:11:51]: We need to find some other accommodation for this. Just encourage people to try something. Because just because It would be a distraction for you. It doesn't mean it's actually a distraction for another person. For me, it would be a monumental distraction. I would not hear or process 1 word that anyone else said to me. I would only hear and process the music. So for me, it absolutely wouldn't work.

Penny Williams [00:12:17]: But for a lot of our kids, it's actually helpful. The other thing to think about too is things like Chewing gum, how do we get movement while we're sitting still? How do we get sensory stimulation while we are sitting still? That can look so many different ways. My son in 2nd grade, 3rd grade, the kind of middle elementary years, He had Velcro stuck to the bottom of his desk, the bottom of his chair, the bottom of his notebooks and binders so that he could rub on that Velcro and get sensory input, but it was completely not disruptive to anything at all. He was just getting a little bit of sensory input in a quiet manner, and so that was really helpful. So If your kid is disruptive in the ways of talking a lot, moving a lot, how do we give them that sensory input that they need, that movement that they need in ways that aren't so disruptive. Asked. I wanna talk a little bit too about kids who are talking a lot. They just need more conversation.

Penny Williams [00:13:32]: So if a kid is really talking a lot during maybe seat work that's supposed to be more quiet or more focused on getting their work done, Maybe you can have a short conversation with them over at your desk about what is so interesting about this activity that they're doing, the task that they're doing, or maybe they just really wanna tell somebody about this really cool thing that happened to them last night. So you hear them out, and then they're able to go and get back to work. And these are very small things I'm asking for teachers to do. I'm talking about giving a kid 2 minutes, a 120 seconds, and then having them move on. Because sometimes that's really all it takes to help them to be able to get a little more focused, talk a little less, and get on task. The 3rd common behavior challenge that we see at school is big emotions. So many of our kids struggle with big emotions. That doesn't just happen at home.

Penny Williams [00:14:37]: That happens in every environment that they're in. Yes. They're gonna work extra hard to manage their emotions when they're at school because they know through social pressure that it's not really acceptable in that environment. They know through rules and consequences and punishments, that it's not really acceptable in that environment. So they are gonna work extra hard on keeping it together. But still, most kids are going to struggle to keep it together because there's more going on there. Again, if it was a matter of just saying, manage your emotions, and your child can magically manage their emotions. This wouldn't be a behavior challenge at all.

Penny Williams [00:15:20]: Right? So what does big emotions look like at school. It can be due to poor frustration tolerance, poor social skills, Poor emotional regulation. All of these skills are things that are often lagging behind in neurodivergent kids. Because, remember, ADHD, autism, these are developmental delays. So if we're talking about a 5th grader, What we're talking about as far as development, as far as emotional and self regulation, as far as social skills and other skills, We're looking at a kid who's really maybe 2nd or 3rd grade in a lot of those areas. And so in 2nd or 3rd grade, you're dealing with more big emotions than you might be in 5th grade, or you're having more of a reaction or more trouble managing those big emotions than you would, say, as a 5th grader who's at a 5th grade developmental level, which is around age 10. So what can we do to help kids who have big emotions at school? We can work on those lagging skills. We can work on helping them to build frustration tolerance, and that goes for at home and at school.

Penny Williams [00:16:41]: We can build that skill in all kinds of environments, and that will help kids in all areas. Right? So if we're working on building frustration tolerance at home, that's gonna help with frustration tolerance at school and vice versa. Often, big emotions also come into play when social skills are a problem or social interactions are a problem. A lot of our kids have trouble with reading other kids, with taking turns, with that social reciprocity, and so they often will End up having big emotions because social interactions don't go in the ways that they expect them to or in the ways that they had sort of mapped out or planned in their minds, so they need help with that. They need help with navigating social interaction with building social skills. And all of these things can be worked on with the help of the school guidance counselor. This is what they're here for. They're here to help kids with social skills.

Penny Williams [00:17:50]: They're here to help kids with those emotional regulation struggles. And so you can enlist the help of the guidance counselor to work with your child 1 on 1, to come in your child's classroom and help them through maybe times where They do have a lot of big emotions, like maybe recess. Recess was a time where we had a lot of big emotions because it was free play, and that meant navigating social interactions on his own, which was very, very difficult for him. So ask the guidance counselor. Ask the special ed team in your school Who can help us with these challenges with big emotions? How do we give the teacher some tools and strategies to help kids with big emotions in the classroom from day to day. Number 4 on my list of common behavior challenges is reactivity. So many of our kids are very, very reactive. They have a very sensitive trigger for reactivity, And this plays hand in hand with the big emotions that we were just talking about.

Penny Williams [00:19:09]: But, oftentimes, too, if we see a super reactive kid, It can come out in ways that look very aggressive or that are aggressive. You know? Just because a child has a reason for behavior doesn't change the level or the intensity or the concern level, really, of that behavior. And so if we have an aggressive kid, We need to still be working on those big emotions and the ways that we talked about. We need to be getting a guidance counselor involved to help that child work with their big emotions and work on sort of calming their reactivity, helping to be more proactive as well. So we're giving them tools and strategies that they can use when they're in those situations. And I can give a personal example here. My son in 2nd grade started punching all of the other kids. He is the sweetest, kindest kid in the world.

Penny Williams [00:20:15]: Hitting someone is way, way, way outside of his personality and his normal. And so I knew that something was going on there that was completely different. And it turned out that he just has this really high sense of justice and fairness. And he was basically policing the other kids in his classroom with his fist, which, of course, is not acceptable in any way, shape, or form. Yes. His intention was good, but his method was very reactive, and it was not acceptable. And so we had to work on changing his reaction to every time that someone broke a rule. And these were things like someone cutting in the line, someone borrowing or taking maybe a crayon from another student without asking, and it didn't have to happen to him.

Penny Williams [00:21:14]: If it happened at all, He was hitting that person that he felt had wronged another or had broken a class rule. And so every time this happened, we had the same conversation, and it went something like this. Tell me what happened when you hit John today at school. What happened before that that made you hit him? Well, he took Sally's yellow crayon when we were completing our social studies worksheet, and He didn't ask her, and we have a rule in our classroom that you ask people before you touch their particular belongings, and he didn't do that. And so somebody had to tell him that that was wrong. He needed to know that he broke a rule. And then I would say, okay. But is hitting the right way to do that? No.

Penny Williams [00:22:10]: You know, he knew He knew full well that it was not an acceptable behavior, and he felt bad about it after the fact. So it was clearly an instinctual reactive behavior that he was not in control of. And so then the conversation turned to alternatives, and this is sort of behavior modification. So getting him to think about alternative reactions that were acceptable and getting him to replace that unacceptable aggressive behavior with an acceptable behavior. And so I would ask him for ideas of what would be an acceptable alternative, and he would list things like talk to the teacher, use words to tell John that he needs to ask first, walk away, and take a breath. And then I would say, okay. So next time that someone borrows something without asking, what are you gonna do? And he would list one of those acceptable alternatives. And after a few months, that behavior changed.

Penny Williams [00:23:11]: He was no longer hitting other students. He just turned 21 yesterday as I'm recording this, and he has never hit someone since. One time he did, and he was being punched in the head. It was provoked, and he was trying to defend himself, but he's never ever hit another person. He is not an aggressive kid. It was clearly reactivity and not being able to stop and think. You know, it was very impulsive, and not really knowing how to manage that in better ways. So providing alternatives for that behavior And really drilling those home, making them the acceptable normal response rather than The unacceptable aggressive behavior is the way forward there.

Penny Williams [00:24:04]: But, again, as I said in the very beginning, We also have to look at the root cause for that individual child. Something that can be really helpful in a school setting is requesting a functional behavior assessment, also often called an FBA. And that is a process where the school will bring in a behavior specialist, and they will look at each behavior that's happening, and they will look at the function for the child of that behavior, and they will identify strategies to try to address that behavior, to change that behavior. And this is something that is really, really helpful when you have a kid who's aggressive because we do need to change that behavior. The other students need to be safe, and your child needs to be removed if they are causing harm to other kids. And so we really wanna focus on addressing reactive behavior and helping kids to change that behavior to something more positive and helpful. Number 5 on my list of common behavior challenges is argumentativeness. And this is something that we see most commonly in kids who are on the autism spectrum because they're very black and white and concrete thinkers most of the time.

Penny Williams [00:25:25]: And they often also struggle with flexibility or, more to the point, inflexibility. And so it comes across, it feels very argumentative, when actually it's just Their need for things to be very precise, very exact, very literal. And, again, I'm not using the behavior because we don't want kids who are very argumentative. It is very off putting in a lot of situations. And so we have to teach these kids when that Sort of debate and looking for meticulous detail is appropriate and when it's a time where you can just kind of let it be, which not every kid is going to be able to let it be, and this is, you know, a skill that you have to work on as well, flexibility. It can be worked on at home and at school in different environments. Occupational therapy can really help with flexibility, also with emotional regulation too, as well as other types of therapy. So enlisting professional help outside of school can help with some of these challenges that your child is having inside of school.

Penny Williams [00:26:50]: I want you and the educators to really reframe what feels like argumentativeness. Reframe it to recognize that sometimes that student needs very exact detailed information. They need to clarify something to be very exact. For example, I always round time to at least the nearest 5. So if it's, say, 12:10, I might say 12:10. But if it's 12:12 or 12:13, I might round that to 12:15. My kid cannot handle that. He needs to hear 12/12, 12/13.

Penny Williams [00:27:36]: He needs it to be exact, And he will double check me even though he asked me the time and then correct me. And so I just learned over time to be more exact for him and just to change the way that I communicate that information so that it is what he needs from me. That's a very simplistic example of what we're talking about here. But whenever you can be more detailed and exact, do that for these students. Also, sometimes, you just need to give them a couple of minutes to clarify or debate. Sometimes they just need to talk it through. They just need to let you know that in their head, there's a more precise way to talk about this. And that's okay because you have reframed that behavior.

Penny Williams [00:28:26]: So you know when your student is saying to you that, you know, actually, this army who was flanking on the northeast side in this battle and not the north side. Just allow the student to make that clarification. Thank them for being more precise maybe. Don't view it as a student correcting an adult, because then you're setting yourself up to feel like it's a behavior issue when, really, this isn't a behavior issue. It's a matter of giving this child what they need and also just reframing what's happening in your own mind. The guidance counselor, again, can help here. They can help with social reciprocity skills, which is sometimes what is needed here. Sometimes, they need to understand that the teacher is giving information, and you don't necessarily speak up right in the middle of class and correct your teacher.

Penny Williams [00:29:22]: You might wait and have a private conversation with them after the lecture is over and then have that conversation about being more precise with your teacher. Right? So sometimes it's a matter of social skills, social norms. And the guidance counselor again as somebody at the school that can help with that. So that is the 5 most common behavior complaints that we tend to run into with kids who are neurodivergent. And I've given you a lot of options on how to help with those skills and those challenges as well as accommodations and other professionals or other people at the school that you can enlist to help with these behavior challenges. I want to just, again, quickly asked. Reiterate. Reinforce the fact that every kid is individual, and you do need to drill down to exactly why these behaviors are happening for that specific child and what they need in order to have a different response, reaction, behavior in these different situations.

Penny Williams [00:30:39]: For the show notes for this episode, go to parentingADHDandautism.com/239 for episode 239. I will have some reference material there for some of the things that I've talked about here for you that you can reference in diving deeper on this content and helping your kid and helping the educators that are working with them to help them to transform some of the challenging behavior that they're having at school. And I will see everyone in the next episode. To take good care. Thanks for joining me on the Beautifully Complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share, And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingadhdandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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About the show...

I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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