When Your Kid Is the Classroom Problem Child

What would you do if your third-grader shoved teachers, destroyed his classroom, and hid from everyone?

Video: New York Magazine
Video: New York Magazine
Video: New York Magazine

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Whenever Kim gets a call from her son Alexander’s school, she presses “record” on her phone so she’ll have evidence, just in case. These calls come frequently. For example, recently, Alex, who is a handsome third-grader with longish wavy brown hair and sleepy eyes, climbed on top of his classroom’s closet, which juts out from the wall. The school’s parent coordinator FaceTimed Kim to see if she could talk him down. Kim shared the audio with me.

“Hey buddy … can you come down, sweetheart?” Kim coaxes over the phone, which is on speaker. Alex starts throwing school supplies down at the parent coordinator.

“Please don’t throw stuff. Stop kicking that, buddy.” The parent coordinator’s voice rises in panic: “I want you to see the dangerous situation he’s in … I’m not going to stand here and allow him to throw me with stuff … have a good day. BYE.”

After the call, Kim, who is a single mom and who asked that she and her son go by pseudonyms, picked Alex up early from school. A few years ago, she quit her job as an office manager because these calls — and that task — interrupted her day so frequently. “I felt like no one could support him but me,” she says. Now, she barely makes ends meet as a part-time yoga instructor. The family is on Medicaid and food stamps.

Alex loves to read — especially “tales of good and evil,” he told me. He shows signs of being academically gifted and has a diagnosis of ADHD as well as various cognitive- and auditory-processing difficulties. Educators call this mix of challenge and promise “twice exceptional.” Then there’s his behavior.

According to official school documents, Alex’s “problem behavior” is “noncompliance that leads to aggressive behavior toward peers and staff.” In practice, this means that he refuses to follow repeated instructions. He runs away from the classroom. He hides under desks, pulls his hood over his head, and puts his hands over his ears. He climbs. He throws things and rips up papers and books. He has kicked, hit, and shoved teachers and other staff, often when they’re trying to come near him while he’s having a meltdown. He has also gotten into fights with other students.

If you have a child in public school, Alex’s issues may sound familiar. Many classrooms have a kid (or two or three) with behavioral problems severe enough to disrupt the entire class. “What the data shows is that behavioral and mental-health incidents have only been increasing,” since the return to in-person learning, says Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan, who specializes in ADHD and behavioral disorders and works with schools to help kids who act out. This is likely because kids of all ages missed out on key socialization years and children with special needs, in particular, benefited very little, if at all, from remote learning. “The effects of the pandemic include increased anxiety, stress, depression, and trauma that have not gone away. There’s been no return to normal.” In a recent federal survey, 84 percent of public-school leaders agreed students’ behavioral development has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. (Perhaps the most extreme example of the behavioral plague in city classrooms: a recent string of student-inflicted stabbings.)

By law, every single child has a federal right to a free public education in the “least restrictive environment” possible. This includes children who are struggling to control their emotions and, yes, even those who hit. Special-education experts like Anderson insist that these behaviors can be resolved, “if we can get there early.” That means a whole-school approach some call “positive behavioral intervention and support.” It entails surrounding kids from pre-K onward with caring adults who coordinate their efforts and provide consistent reinforcement.

“Once [kids] get the services they need, those behaviors subside,” says Mary Nevin, a longtime special educator. She used to run a “last chance” school called Success, in Rutland, Vermont, for kids whose next stop was prison or an institution. Now she works as a private consultant helping families, including Alex’s, navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the New York City special-education system. (Kim used part of a small inheritance from her father to pay her; Alex’s dad chipped in too.) If regular public school isn’t working, the city has District 75 schools, which are supposed to provide “highly specialized” instructional support. Then there are private schools, which the city will pay for if the Department of Education concludes that no public school can serve a particular kid’s needs.

Nevin calls Alex’s behaviors “mild to moderate” compared to some she’s seen. “[Alex] is bright. He’s really nice, personable. He’s a feisty kid and he’s a boy, but I think if those needs are met in the right way he’ll be able to get control of those behaviors.” But so far, Alex’s trajectory has only exemplified the systemic failure of New York City’s public schools. Many public schools in New York City and around the country are not set up, either in their physical buildings or in their staffing, to provide consistent, skilled responses to difficult behaviors that challenge the norms. Nevin has met with Alex’s school leaders and says they’re working hard to accommodate him. “But the school itself isn’t really equipped to deal with some of the issues that he has,” she says. “If he is having an emotional moment where he’s feeling stress and anxiety, he really needs a safe place to go to where he can maybe calm down, talk to somebody who has the knowledge of his behavior plan, and get him back into a calm space. They really don’t have that.”

Before she became a mom, Kim was a self-described “free spirit” who performed in indie circus acts at warehouse parties and went to Burning Man. She reconnected with an old flame while teaching at a yoga festival in Bali and got pregnant at 41. The pair split when she was six months along. Alex’s dad now lives in Europe, and Alex visits him in the summers.

As a physical performer, Kim wasn’t surprised to have a very active, even reckless, toddler on her hands. “He didn’t have as much personal space awareness as maybe some other kids. And being my only child, I didn’t have a comparison,” Kim says.

Kim’s neighbor in her building Jen, who asked to use a pseudonym, is among the only moms willing to host Alex for a playdate. She tells me: “Even as a baby, Alex would randomly fall or run into walls and just not notice. It was cute at the time, but it meant that he did need more supervision than my kids did.” That still holds true. The other day, Alex climbed up the net of an outdoor soccer goal. Her two sons followed. “My kids went down when I asked them to. But he wanted to climb more, so we had a harder time getting him down.”

Kim wasn’t too alarmed when Alex was hitting at ages 2, 3, and 4. “In pre-K all the kids are kind of hitting when they’re not supposed to,” she says. His preschool teachers thought differently. On their recommendation, Alex got a neuropsychological evaluation and was diagnosed with ADHD; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends evaluation and treatment for the condition starting at age 4, younger than in the past.

Alex was given a paraprofessional — a teaching assistant who can be assigned to one student all day long — starting in kindergarten. Paraprofessionals, often called “paras,” are the frontline defense in special education. They are the people who spend the most intensive time with kids with the most intense needs. Yet the certification level and experience of paras can vary widely. Some only have a high-school diploma (and have completed some required online training modules). They earn a minimum salary of $29,621 a year in New York City; perhaps not surprisingly, parents and teachers say there have been severe shortages in recent years. 

Alex started kindergarten at his neighborhood public school in Brooklyn in the fall of 2020. Because of COVID, the class was split in two — just over a dozen kids instead of 25. The hybrid learning schedule meant fewer hours of sitting still each week. Kim was teaching yoga on Zoom and getting Alex outside as much as possible, which helped them get through the year.

But the next year, in the late fall of first grade, trouble struck. On one Friday after school, Kim was volunteering with other PTA members, helping to put away an outdoor learning structure. Alex was playing tag and hit another kid too hard. According to Kim, it was an accident. The other child’s dad, who was also there volunteering, saw it differently. “The little boy started crying and the dad freaked out and basically threatened my kid,” as Kim recalls.

Alex grew afraid of the dad, who he would see at drop-off in the mornings. Soon her 6-year-old became increasingly emotional and started acting out more at school — running away from his para, withdrawing during class. One day, as Kim recalls it, Alex was upset and tried to hide in his classroom’s closet. His para pulled him out, at which point, Alex became so overwhelmed that he couldn’t speak. That’s when he destroyed his first classroom: “ripping books and throwing things,” Kim says.

The school called Kim in for a meeting and told her they could no longer handle Alex. They recommended a transfer to a particular specialized school. “I looked it up and it seemed like all kids on the spectrum were nonverbal. And being that he was very verbal, and on grade level, and has a high IQ, that’s not the right place for him.”

Instead, she chose to pull him out and start over at another neighborhood public school in January 2022. “When he first transitioned he probably had a week or two of hitting and throwing things and getting overwhelmed. From there, it kinda smoothed out. It got better,” she says.

Alex has a seven-page behavior intervention plan (BIP) that is supposed to guide his school experience. New York State regulations require these plans when a student’s conduct seriously impacts their education or the education of others and is determined to be related to a disability. His current BIP was created alongside his individual education plan (IEP), which covers his learning differences.

The plan describes Alex’s problem behaviors, from level one (“does not follow an instruction … said three or more times”) to level five (“hits peers or staff”). It also instructs all the adults who interact with Alex on what to do when his problem behaviors occur. The prescribed response is almost comically simple. On page one, in a box, the behavior plan says that when he’s acting out, he should get “teacher/adult attention, [be] given time to himself” and “avoid non-preferred activity for a period of time.” Translation: If he really doesn’t want to do something, let him take a break and not do it.

But in the real world of a classroom with 25 to 30 kids, several of whom may have IEPs and/or behavior plans, that command often isn’t so simple to follow. Teachers depend on every student in their classroom engaging in the same activity at the same time, for the most part. And when a new unprepared adult enters the equation, that person is not always aware, willing, or able to give Alex special attention or to let him sit out of activities.

For example, one of the days that Alex, Kim, and I are due to meet, Kim goes to pick up Alex from his after-school program, but he’s hiding somewhere in the building. He had been happily reading when the art teacher asked him to participate. “I had a little freak-out,” he tells me while slurping hot chocolate through a straw at the counter of a small café in Brooklyn, after Kim found him. “They took my book out of my hand and yelled at me. I got mad and scared, so I ran up the stairs and hid from them.”

In the past, Kim has had a lot of confidence in the behavior plan. “Teachers from prior years figure out what’s working. If they keep following it, it should help. But that requires people to read it. And then remember. And if they don’t read it, you’re kind of, like, at a loss,” she says.

Nelson Mar is the senior staff attorney at Legal Services NYC, a nonprofit that represents many families like Kim’s. “It’s not uncommon,” for behavior plans to be ignored, he says. “Staff don’t read through the [plan] thoroughly, or at times do not read it at all. I’m not trying to condone it, but I do understand sometimes it is challenging, especially if you’re working in a class where a lot of kids have IEPs.” Nevin, the consultant, reiterates that Alex’s teachers are well-meaning. “His classroom teachers seem like they’re willing to listen; they’re willing to try.” But some of them, and many paras, “don’t have the training, the kind of training that would help in something like this.”

Transitions are especially hard for Alex, but they’re also unavoidable. The summer after kindergarten, Kim sent Alex to Summer Rising, the New York City Public School’s free summer program. On the first day, Alex asked for a break, and the para, who Alex had never met before, said no. Alex “got mad,” Kim says. “He hit a hand-sanitizer dispenser that was on the wall. And then I think [Alex] started to fight the para holding him down, which probably added to more pressure of the restraint, which is why he had bruises on his arm and his back had a scab and was scraped.”

A similar incident occurred the following summer in another program with more brand-new adults. “The very first day I get a call: He hid under a table, the teacher pulled him out, he had finger bruises on his arms,” recalls Kim. Physical restraint is only supposed to be used “to prevent imminent danger of serious physical harm to the student or others,” according to Erica Conley Komoroske, a spokesperson at the New York State Department of Education. Kim filed complaints with New York City Public Schools both times, but she’s been too overwhelmed to follow up.

Mar says that every year his agency sees a couple of students, often with autism and developmental delays, who sustain bruises and other marks at the hands of school staff. Student injuries are supposed to be documented at the district level, and starting in September 2024, at the state level, too.

Komoroske said state regulations require annual training for all staff on proper restraint techniques; students should never be restrained as a form of punishment, for example, and never face down. When I ask Mar about the quality of training that New York City school staff actually receive on restraint, he laughs bleakly. “I’m sorry, but I laughed because teachers don’t even get trained on classroom management,” he says. It varies by school, but in general, “they get very little, next to none, on how to manage a classroom in terms of students who may be disruptive.”

Last year —second grade — was generally a more successful year for Alex. His new para followed the plan, giving him breaks when he needed them. “They used to take me down the hallway and let me run up and down the stairs,” Alex explains. “This helps me get my energy out for a bit and then I’m able to focus on my work studies.” His teachers told Kim they weren’t seeing any of the problem behaviors mentioned on his plan. “His teachers were patient and calm. His para would take him to the gym; he could have a snack,” says Kim. He got into recurring fights with another boy, but according to Kim, they eventually worked it out and even became friends.

Alex also learned to read last year, which became another way for him to calm down. He loves the Dog Man and Diary of a Wimpy Kid graphic novels. And he started to learn more about his own condition. “I’m happy that I have ADHD because it helps me multitask,” he tells me. “It helps me focus on two things at once, and I’m also very good at math.”

But third grade has been a different experience:  “This year it went to shit,” says Kim.  In the fall, she tried to be proactive, reminding Alex’s teacher and para about his plan and what had worked in the past. But the phone calls home started almost immediately.

 “All the incidents seem to begin with he asked for a break and they said no,” says Kim. Things often spiral quickly from there. Alex will climb into a closet or under a desk, and then a teacher or para will pull him out. He panics when he doesn’t have a place to go where he can calm himself. In part, the problem is a function of New York City schools’ outdated classrooms. It’s a best practice to have a designated, accessible quiet room where kids can go to calm down — a lot better than a closet. But these kinds of spaces aren’t commonly found in New York City schools.

In the fall, Alex trashed a classroom again. “He ripped decorations off the wall, ripped all the books, threw chairs. Anything he could get his hands on he would throw,” Kim says. “They locked the door on him and the rest of the kids got evacuated to the library.” Another day, in November, Alex climbed up a pipe that runs inside the classroom. “It’s probably 12 feet high. And he put his feet on the ceiling light. And the teachers freaked out, obviously, because it’s dangerous. Later, I asked him why he did that. He said, ‘They wouldn’t let me go in the closet. They wouldn’t let me hide under the table. They locked the door. I’m afraid they’re going to hurt me’ — because the teachers have hurt him, right? And so his only safe place is to go up.” He has repeated the climbing move several times since.

Earlier this month, the school called 911 on Alex for the first time. The nonprofit organization Legal Services NYC sued New York City schools a decade ago for calling 911 on students that didn’t have a medical emergency, dubbed EMS-ing. The DOE promised schools would only call if a student presented “imminent and substantial risk of serious injury” to themselves or others. But schools still resort to it. Some children in the midst of meltdowns wind up handcuffed by police or brought to wait in crowded psychiatric emergency rooms. Kim arrived at school in time to speak to the EMS team and refuse medical treatment for her son. Rather than getting into the ambulance, Alex went home with his mom. “He was calm when I got there,” she says.

During one afternoon that we meet, snow is falling in NYC, but Alex won’t put on his snow boots or his gloves. Wearing slip-on Nikes, he slams his elbow to crack the ice on parked cars as we walk down the sidewalk, then darts into the street to break icicles off an orange parking barrier. Kim keeps having to stop mid-sentence to correct him.

When he sees my tape recorder, Alex speaks up. “I want to tell you something. In civics, we’re supposed to write about something we want to change. I’m writing about how ADHD kids should get more support … School is hard. They don’t give me the support I need.”

For the child acting out and their family, school is frustrating and exhausting. For that child’s classmates, it can be frightening.

Robin works in communications and has a 6-year-old daughter at a public elementary school on the Upper East Side. A child in her daughter’s class has severe behavioral issues.  “I don’t think the school is equipped to handle it,” she says. “He’s been rough. He screams in class. I volunteer at the school and I’ve seen him growling, yelling, being restrained by a school security guard.”

Robin’s daughter actually gets along with the boy, so much so that their teacher sometimes has her stay in the classroom at lunchtime to keep him company. Other boys have been kept out of recess for the same reason, and their parents are “livid,” she says. “‘My child is missing out on recess to babysit this child? My child is not a therapist.’”

Robin isn’t sure how to feel about it. She’s sympathetic, to a point. “I don’t want to raise a princess. In life there are going to be difficult situations. But I worry. He has tried to strangle a boy. That little boy was terrified. Imagine having your kid terrified at school. That’s a place they need to feel safe.”

Kassie, the mom of another boy who overcame severe behavioral challenges, recalls: “My son told someone in second grade he was going to kill them. He would talk about burning things. Those kids would go home and tell their parents. Parents would be like, ‘Who is this horrible kid? Is he a bully?’” She worried they were thinking, Is he going to be a school shooter? Kassie remembers an instance when every other kid in the grade was invited to a birthday party. She called the birthday boy’s parent. “I reached out and said, ‘I want to be clear, my kid seems to think everyone’s invited but him and I just want to tell him that’s not true.’ And they were like, ‘No, we did it on purpose. We don’t want your kid.’”

Parents can blow up the group chat, ostracize a child socially, or advocate to move their kid out of the problem kid’s class. But these actions only create a problem in another classroom or another school. They don’t solve the problem of giving every student the education to which they are legally entitled.

In some ways, Alex is lucky. Some kids with behaviors like his have never been evaluated, making them invisible to the special-education bureaucracy and the resources it can provide. Some of them come from homes that are the source of their trouble.

Many lack parents like Kim, who has white privilege, is a U.S. citizen, speaks English, and is willing and able to put everything else in her life aside to go to bat for her son. It’s a lot of pressure. “It’s hard,” Kim tells me as she starts to cry. “Really hard. I do my best to be the best mother and human I can be, but my humanness is secondary. If my kid is in crisis, it doesn’t matter.”

Other parents judge her, from the dad on the PTA who confronted Kim after Alex hit his son to the mom who warned her son to stay away from Alex after the boys were getting into fights. Kids sometimes start to feel like everyone hates them. Alex became so afraid of one staff member at his school that he told his mom, “I think she’s going to kill me.”

Elementary school is a critical time to intervene with kids like Alex. “With elementary-schoolers, we can create this kind of supportive space for them,” says Anderson. Classes are bigger in middle school; students have more teachers who don’t know each kid as well. Adults have less influence in general. Kids escape from their negative experiences with school into problematic peer groups, drugs, and worse. By this point, if kids don’t have the right support in school, Anderson says, “this is where the school-to-prison pipeline really comes in.” At some point, adults stop thinking of kids like these as children who struggle with diagnoses or histories of trauma, or students with a right to an education, and start using terms like juvenile and perpetrator. “If a kid has anxiety or depression, our hearts go out to them. If a kid is screaming expletives at you, that does not inspire empathy, but the kid’s hurting just as much,” he says.

After he destroyed a classroom in November, Alex’s new school, like the old one, recommended he transfer to what’s called a “nonpublic school.” When school leaders recommend a transfer to a school on this list, that means the city will pay the tuition. This time, Kim agreed that it was the least-worst option. But the process would take months to sort out; many of the schools had long commutes, and few seemed set up to serve kids who are academically gifted like Alex. Alex stayed on at his public school while his mother worked to sort out the details.

But once Alex’s school called 911 on him, Kim no longer felt comfortable sending him there. For the past two weeks, he has been tagging along with her on errands, to yoga classes, the library, and the park, or sitting at home listening to audiobooks. He should be starting at a new private school on April 2, where there will be six students and two teachers in each classroom and a personalized curriculum geared toward college preparation. But the school is not on the DOE’s approved list, so Kim had to hire a lawyer to sue the DOE and hopefully compel them to pay. She used her inheritance to cover the tuition while she waits, anxiously, for the process to unfold. “I can’t afford it, that’s for sure,” she says.

Mar cautions about pushing children into specialized schools too quickly. “These schools are not the cure-all. They are working with a lot of children who have significant needs. Some really require that restrictive setting, but the research does say that students with disabilities do better when they’re educated alongside their nondisabled peers.” The experts I talked to all agreed that in a perfect world, every public school would have the trained staff, the setup, and the flexibility to meet the needs of kids like Alex.

But Kim is hopeful that this new school will be the right fit at last. And Nevin, the consultant, is optimistic. “Kim is a very involved mom and she wants the best for him. That’s more than 50 percent right there. Do I think that he can make it in life with the right programming and the right modifications and the consistency of home and school working together? I think that he can. I think he’s going to be okay.”

When Your Kid Is the Classroom Problem Child