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Child Development - School and Home Behavior: Why Are They So Different?

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Image of toys, including some wooden blocks and a puppet.

By Maura L Rouse, PsyD, HSPP
Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics
Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development

Problems at Home

It is not uncommon for children’s behavior to vary in different environments; these differences are often particularly obvious between school and home, especially for children with learning difficulties, autism, ADHD, anxiety, social difficulties, etc. Some children show more positive behavior at school; they use a significant amount of their energy to follow directions, play appropriately with classmates, and follow along academically. Their teachers may have no complaints about their behavior. Once these children arrive home however, their behavior is very difficult for their parents to manage. For example, a child with ADHD may use significant internal resources to maintain attention and regulate their behavior (e.g. sitting, keeping his hands to himself) during school; when he gets home, he “lets loose” and his parents have difficulty getting him to use these same skills to have him complete his homework, eat a complete meal, and take a shower. For other children, tantrums may last hours; they may be aggressive toward others and their parents do not know what to do.

Behavior Problems at School

Other children, however, may find the demands (e.g. social, academic) of the school day to be above and beyond what they typically face in other environments, which then trigger behavioral problems. Many aspects of school make that environment unique to any other. For example,  many stimuli (i.e. sights, sounds, physical touches, etc.), a structured daily routine, unexpected changes in routine, challenging academic work, and many others are all present in a classroom and school, but not present at home. Children with ADHD and anxiety often have a low frustration tolerance; when situations become more frustrating than they are able to tolerate, behavioral problems often ensue.

Problems at Grandma’s House and Wal-Mart

Children also may act different, that is, show more positive or negative (for example, more tantrums or aggression) when they are at a family member’s home or a friend’s house, or even/especially, in public (such as at stores). How often do you walk through the aisles of the grocery store or stand in line at Wal-Mart and hear a young child asking (loudly) for a treat or a special toy before they leave the store? Or for those children with grandparents or close family friends, how common is it for a child to follow directions for grandparents or friends, but not for you? This difference in behavior in these environments may be due to very similar factors as were noted above. For example, children may have learned that when they are with grandparents/friends, they get special treats or do not have to clean up their toys like they do when they are with their mother and father. If they do not follow the rules, it is ok (as opposed to the punishment that happens at mom and dad’s house). Children have learned that it is much more difficult for their parents to put them in time out (or use another punishment) in stores than it is at home, so they take advantage of this, as anyone would.

Decreasing Problematic Behaviors

To help children at home and school, maintaining an open collaborative relationship between parents and teachers will encourage open home-school communication. With this, parents and teachers will be informed of behaviors at home and school, with goals of sharing beneficial strategies each have found. Similar strategies can be used for improving behavioral challenges at family members’/friends’ homes and in public places. Maintaining consistency in expectations for children is needed. Parents and teachers/other caregivers can also work together to ease transitions from one setting to another. If behaviors continue to be difficult for parents and other caregivers to manage, behavioral therapy to improve self-regulation skills, as well as developing a more structured behavior management plan, could be warranted.

To learn more about behavior management strategies for inattention and hyperactivity, the following resources are available:

  • How to Reach & Teach Children with ADD/ADHD: Practical techniques, strategies and interventions (2nd Edition)by Sandra Rief
  • Raising Your Spirited Child: A guide for parents whose child is more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent and energetic (Revised Edition) by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
  • Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD
  • LD Online

To learn more about behavior management strategies for decreasing fears and worries, the following resources are available:

To learn more about behavior management strategies for decreasing disruptive behaviors, the following resources are available:

  • Parenting that Works: Building Skills that Last a Lifetime, by Edward R. Christophersen & Susan L. Mortweet. This provides practical techniques for preventing and addressing behavior problems. It also provides information about encouraging prosocial behavior in children.
  • The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children 3-8, by Carolyn Webster-Stratton. This book provides information about various parenting strategies for addressing common child-rearing difficulties.
  • S.O.S. Help for Parents, by Lynn Clarke. This parent-friendly book talks about practical strategies that your family can use to improve your child’s behavior.
  • Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, Revised and Updated Edition, by Rex L. Forehand and Nicholas Long. This user-friend book provides a description of an empirically proven six-week program for improving the behavior of children ages 2 to 6.
  • Your Defiant Child, by Russell Barkley and Christine Benton. Provides concrete advice with step-by-step instructions on strategies to use with young children.


Dr. Maura Rouse is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Riley Child Development Center and Indiana University School of Medicine. Dr. Rouse provides diagnostic consultation and psychological evaluation to children. Clinical interests include the evaluation and treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), behavior disorders, school/learning problems, anxiety, and developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Cristy James

Cristina James is the Data Coordinator, Associate Training Director, and Family Discipline Coordinator in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development at Indiana University School of Medicine. She has over 10 years of professional experience and a life-long lived experience in neurodevelopmental disorders which, combined with her analytical skills, allow her to effectively span across functions to help provide and improve many LEND outcomes.