How to advocate for your high-energy child at school

All parents want teachers to like their children, to appreciate and understand them.  Of course, parents also want their kids to learn and thrive, but this can only happen in a respectful, nurturing environment. Sadly, this environment is rarer than you might think, especially for high-energy kids.    You can and should advocate for your child and I will share simple ways how.

My friend and colleague, Ali*, recounts the first years of her son’s schooling.  They were a nightmare!  In preschool, Tucker* started “being bad.” Near-daily phone calls about his behavior sent Ali into a constant state of panic and anxiety.  She dreaded picking him up from school every day to punish him, but what else could she do?   As a teacher herself, she knew the rules and he was breaking them!  She took his toys away, his TV time, anything fun.  She even enrolled him in a tough karate dojo to instill some discipline in him, but nothing worked!  She started to think there was something really wrong with him!  

Ali searched the internet for an answer, any label that would explain his problems and lead to a magic “cure.”  Was he ADHD?  ODD?  Autistic?  Does he have too much sugar in his diet?  Gluten intolerant?  She just couldn’t understand why he would act that way.  She actually admits she stopped enjoying her son!   

Of course, she knew her son could be a handful, especially when bored.  So she filled their weekends with outings to zoos, parks, train rides, anything to keep him productive.  When engaged, he was his authentic self – a happy, curious, full-of-life little boy – but this was not the child teachers saw at school.

One summer day, an insightful horseback riding instructor noticed Tucker’s spark and nonchalantly cautioned, “Hey, Mom, don’t let ‘the man’ ruin your boy.  You got a good one there.”

The lightbulb went on.  Maybe Tucker wasn’t the problem.  Maybe school was.  He would be going into 1st grade in the fall and Ali decided to meet with his teacher right away and level with her.  She introduced herself and said, “Tucker is a great kid, but he has to be busy.  He loves reading, helping, playing outside, competition, and challenges.  Fill his downtime with any of these things, and he will be a delight.  Don’t, and he will find his own ways to keep himself busy.”

Luckily, this teacher took what Ali had to offer and ran with it.  It worked!  Tucker finally had an amazing year at school after a terrible preschool experience.  His “bad” behaviors were non-existent, he did well in his classwork, and his teacher actually liked him!  Ali’s frontloading of the teacher paid off, that year, but every year is different, and you need to be ready to go to combat if you need to!     

For the most part, teachers really loving, selfless, intelligent souls.  They just have so much on their plates and, let’s face it, high-energy kids make running a classroom much more challenging.  When managing a classroom, teachers use the tools they have – rewards and punishments often topping their list.  The goal is to build a working relationship with the teacher so you can work together to make life at school rewarding for everyone.  Here are a few insights on how.

Advocate for your high-energy kid through a positive relationship with the teacher

  • Meet teachers right away and level with them.  Share specifics on what makes your child successful.  Try something like, “My son is a sweetheart, but he is a handful!  He needs to stay busy.  Trust me.  Here are some things I know have worked with his previous teachers and that I use at home.”
  • Write all of your ideas and suggestions down.  After the dust of September settles, send an email reminding the teacher of your previous conversation.  Repeat your suggestions, ask how things are going so far, and how you can help support at home.
  • Relate personally to the teacher.  Express your desire to work with her, not against her.  Through candid conversation with your child’s best interests at heart, you can brainstorm honest supports together.  
  • Be professional.  You will get more bees with honey than vinegar, so be respectful always.  If you have to get more aggressive about asking for what your child needs, you will be better received if you have a reputation for being realistic, level-headed, and honest about the situation at hand.  Pick your battles wisely.
  • Listen to what the teacher has to say.  With a patient, gracious, objective ear, try to understand what behaviors the teacher is seeing in the classroom.   Be open to hearing the truth.  Is there something new that you didn’t know about?  
  • Talk calmly and frequently to your child about school.  If things seem OK, leave them alone.  If not, ask for specific examples. But don’t create a problem that isn’t there by prodding over the subject if it doesn’t come up naturally.  Let your child move on and grow out of it if he is ready to.
  • Teach resilience and thick skin.  Advocating does not mean being overbearing.  Your advocation should be in private.  Your child should not be privy to it.  Teach him to hold his own, make good choices, ask for what he needs, and face each day with a positive outlook.  He will be an adult someday and this is his training ground!

Take quick action  if you see that things are getting out of control

  • Be honest with your child and yourself.  If she was bad before and that earned her street creds, she may continue to push that identity with her peers.  It may be that once learned, your child really is playing the “bad” card.  You may need to talk about reputation and owning one’s actions at that point.  Talk about appropriate time and place for certain behaviors and how she is received so you can empower her to learn self-control.
  • Make “school rules” and “home rules” and be clear about how and why they are different.  Be calm and consistent with following through on consequences.  Maintain the simple law of cause and effect.
  • Prioritize and focus on three behaviors at a time, max.  Let the rest go!   If you overload your child with “No’s” and “Should have’s,” all you will get is a shutdown or a rebellion!
  • Look for triggers to behaviors.  What situations or patterns that lead to out-of-control or “bad” behaviors?   Empower your child by helping him identifying what they are.  Slowly teach ways to prepare for and handle these often unavoidable situations.
  • Remember to smile, laugh, and love your kid.  Discipline should teach, not punish.  If you need to cool off before communicating with your child about what may have happened at school, do!
  • Make sure your child knows you are on his team first and always! Everything you do is out of love, even if it doesn’t seem that way to your child in the moment.  When the disciplining is over, do something fun and meaningful together to keep your bond tight.
  • Take care of your kid’s spirit.  Constantly remind her of how special her spark is, how important her creativity is, and how much you love her unique being.  Build her up.  Some days will be better than others, but every day is a fresh start.   

Make tough decisions if you must

  • Not every teacher — or school — will be on your team.  You may have to make tough decisions and weigh your educational options.  You want a school that will serve your child’s needs and unfortunately, this may not be your neighborhood school.  Consider non-traditional options if you must.

Don’t Give Up on Your Child


Ali’s son, Tucker, is just wrapping up his 2nd-grade year and it was not great.  His teacher was super uptight and made every little thing a big deal.  She really didn’t like him.

Looking at the upcoming teachers at his current school, Ali fears he may have many more challenging years to come. Hopefully, she can keep his self-esteem up and his spirit alive in the process.

What gives Ali hope is the realization that many famous people also didn’t fit the mold as kids. They had to make their own path and wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Thankfully, most had supportive parents who let their kids break free of the mold and be fully themselves.  

Ali believes the qualities that make Tucker “difficult” today will lead him to be a major innovative success someday.  Her fingers are crossed because, as she says, “Rule followers don’t really change the world.”

For your reading pleasure:

* The names of my friend and her son have been changed.