Why Children Are Superstars At School and Terrors At Home

children are superstars at school and terrors at home

Multiple times a week I talk with parents who report the following: their children are superstars at school—calm, cooperative, collaborative—but are terrors at home. They break down over seemingly minor issues, don’t “listen”, and are very inflexible and demanding.

Like Eva, 4, whose teachers report that she is one of the most cooperative and best helpers in the class. She is kind to her friends and is good at sharing. She is empathetic—always the first one to comfort a peer who is struggling. In short, she is a total delight. At home, it is a very different story. Eva is demanding. She ignores her parents’ directions, and she melts down if she can’t have what she wants when she wants it.

Eva’s parents are thrilled that she is doing so well in school, but they are perplexed and angry that she “chooses” to be so difficult at home when she clearly has the ability to show much more self-control. They are at a loss for how to make sense of their Jekyll-and-Hyde daughter and how to get her to behave at home as she does in the classroom.

While this phenomenon is confusing and maddening to parents, when you look at it from your child’s perspective, it begins to make sense and opens up the door to responding in ways that can increase cooperation and reduce power struggles at home.

See It From Your Child’s Point-Of-View

1. School is stressful.

Don’t get me wrong—the stress kids experience as they learn to get along in a group is not harmful stress. It’s what we think of as “positive” stress because it leads to growth and the development of important new skills. This is happening in spades in early care and education settings. Think of the countless directions and rules children are expected to follow, and the many transitions they need to make throughout what is often a very long day. And then there are the inevitable frustrations and disappointments that naturally arise in a group setting, such as not being the line-leader or the page-turner at circle time.

This is a lot to manage for a young child whose “upstairs” brain, that is responsible for impulse control and self-regulation, is in the early stages of development. The mental and physical effort required to do what is expected at school is taxing.

By the time they get home, like many of us after a long workday, kids are fried. They have left it all on the (classroom) table. This is especially true for highly sensitive kids who tend to be more intense and reactive by nature. They reach their threshold for managing typical life stressors sooner than more go-with-the-flow kids and are thus more likely to lose it at home after a long day at school.

And then there is the COVID effect. Returning to school after such a long hiatus and after a year of so much change has made this transition back to school a heavy lift for many kids. The psychic energy it has taken for them to make yet another big transition is bound to put them over the edge at home.

Related: 4 Parenting Behaviors That Damage A Child’s Self-Esteem

2. School tends to be much more structured than home.

In order to run a safe and calm classroom, teachers need to implement countless rules and provide secure boundaries. This lets the kids know exactly what to expect: enter class, put the backpack in the cubby, sit in a circle (crisscross applesauce!), take a seat at the assigned space at the snack table, put the blocks in size order on the shelf, stop playing when the lights flick on and off… and so on.

The directions and expectations are crystal clear which is comforting to children. They know exactly what to expect which helps them prepare for and cooperate with the many rules they have to follow.

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Claire Lerner

CLAIRE LERNER is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE for more than eighteen years. Claire has been a practicing clinician for over thirty years, partnering with parents to decode their children’s behavior and solve their most vexing childrearing challenges. also provides training to local preschools and pediatric residents. Claire is the author of hundreds of parenting resources, including books, blogs, podcasts, and videos. She writes a column for PBS Kids, and her work has been published by several parenting publications. She has also served as a content expert for numerous national daily newspapers. Claire's new book--Why Is My Child In Charge? A Roadmap to Prevent Power Struggles, Increase Cooperation, and Find More Joy in Parenting Young Kids will be released in September of this year.View Author posts