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“Problem Child” Isn’t the same for Black children

I was reading Dr. Peggy Drexler’s Problem Child on Huffington Post about what to do when your child is the school “problem child.” It has some great tips on what parents can do to help their children but it is very clearly written for White families. Dr. Drexler recounts the story of “Ben” who in Kindergarten pushed a child to the ground and urged other children to kick him. If this was a Black boy words like “violent”, “aggressive” and “gang” would be used. Not “problem child.” I have no doubt that more than a phone call home would have occurred. There would be meetings and discussions of suspension or expulsion.

Often my practice gets calls from parents who need a professional opinion about their child’s behavior at the request of the school. Many times these are Black and African-American parents whose children go to predominantly White schools. They call with concerns that their sons are close to being suspended or “asked not to return” the following school year because of behavior problems.

Unlike the mother that Dr. Drexler wrote of the parents who call me have so many different layers of emotions that they must plow through before taking action. There is anger (What did my child do?!), frustration (I’m sick of getting the same reports/calls home.), and suspicion (Is this because he’s a Black boy? Is this racism or am I being paranoid?). Oftentimes when parents call my office it is after they have struggled with this for many months. Parents tell me that they have tried punishing their child and they’ve tried working with the school. They have done all that they know to before they give more weight to the possibility that race may be an important factor in the situation. It’s not that they think the school is out to get them as much as they cannot take it at face value when an all-White system of teachers, school counselors, and principals say that there is a “problem” with their Black child.

What should you do when you are unsure if your child’s behavior at school is truly disruptive and problematic or being highlighted and magnified because of race?

First, be open to the possibility that your child is wrong and doing wrong. You know your child and ideally know what they are capable of. I love my children dearly and also know the ways they can be bad. They’re not angels and I don’t ignore that.

Second, observe your children. When they are with their friends or peers be close enough to watch their behavior and listen to their conversations without becoming part of it. Yes, I’m saying that you should eavesdrop and listen to what your kids are saying and doing! This doesn’t mean holding a glass to a closed door but be visible and listen.

Next, find someone who you trust who has interactions or observations with your child and ask their opinion. This may be a karate teacher, piano teacher, or neighbor, anyone who interacts with your child and you trust. This point is more challenging because people who we trust and like us will be less likely to say there is a problem with our child. One technique is to be candid with them and tell them what you’re dealing with. Tell them that your child’s school has concerns about his behavior and you want to hear what other people think and observe.

Finally, consult with professionals. Talk with your child’s pediatrician who can refer you to a developmental pediatrician if necessary. Consulting with a child and family therapist is another avenue. They will give you an objective opinion about your child’s behavior. They can also assist you with advocating for your child whether or not there are legitimate problems. If there are problems with your child then you will need to address them as a family and with the school. If there are not behavioral issues then it will be useful to have a professional state that to the school and help you advocate for your child.

Has this happened to you or your child? What did you do to address and resolve it? I would love to hear your experiences, opinions, and suggestions to help others! Contact us:


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