Naughty or in need of support? How to tell if your child needs help

Disobedient or disorganised? How to tell when your child genuinely needs more support, and four strategies you can use to help them.

All children have their moments. But what if they’re constantly having ‘moments’? What if they’re not simply being wilful and disobedient, but genuinely struggling? How can you tell the difference, and what can you do to help?

Mary Mountstephen from Kids Can Succeed is a former primary head teacher and expert in child development. She explains the signs your child may need help, and what you can do to support them.

Does your child need more help?

If your child is frequently disorganised and struggling at school, or seems to be purposefully ignoring you and acting impulsively, it may be a sign they need more support.

However that doesn’t mean you instantly need to worry about dyslexia, dyspraxia or attention deficit disorder – or all three. Many children have mild developmental difficulties that may not be significant enough to lead to a specific diagnosis, but do cause you, your family and school to be concerned.

And some children are often able to perform to a very high level on some tasks, but struggle with others, such translating creative ideas into a well-constructed piece of writing.

Indicators your child may need support

It’s important to be aware of some of the signs to look out for that your child needs support; if their needs are not recognised, they can slip through the net and fail to reach their potential.

Here are some signs that indicate weaknesses that can impact on daily performance and achievement:

  • You experienced difficulties in the pregnancy or birth process.
  • They’ve had sleeping or feeding issues from birth, as well as persistent crying and restlessness, with no identified medical condition.
  • They were slow to meet some of their developmental milestones, such as crawling or talking.
  • They didn’t crawl, instead they bottom shuffled or missed this stage.
  • They have slow or subtle processing problems when presented with instructions.
  • You need to repeat basic instructions over and over again.
  • They don’t seem to learn from experience and are often impulsive.

Four strategies to help younger children

So what can you do if you believe your child needs more support? Here are four strategies you can adopt.

1) Check there are no physical issues

Acquiring the ability to both sequence and organise is an essential part of your child’s development. Disorganised children often have problems with sequencing events, symbols, numbers and tasks.

Start with checking that there are no medical or physical reasons for any delay, such as visual or auditory weaknesses. This is a useful free resource.

2) Make sure they get plenty of exercise

Regular exercise helps to improve balance and coordination, so make sure they get plenty. Some apparently disorganised children may have developmental delays that respond well to a physical programme following an assessment.

For these children, difficulties in pregnancy, the birth process or the first years of life might have led to immaturities in the ways in which they process information. This means that their disorganisation, lack of concentration and focus are the result of physical factors that can often be improved.

3) Introduce simple routines

At home, tackle organisation in the bedroom by rotating toys. Put some away to reduce clutter and increase their novelty. Set simple routines and use charts to keep on track (Victoria’s Charts are a great resource).

Disorganised children cope better when these routines are reinforced visually as well as verbally, and it works better when your child is actively involved by cutting out pictures, adding photographs or drawings, and using stickers.

4) Wind down before bed

Bedtime can sometimes be an issue, and bedtime routines should include a ‘quiet time’. Some children like a warm bath and to be tucked in firmly, or may even sleep better in a sleeping bag. In some cases a special pillow has been found to help (I can vouch for this as some of my clients love theirs).

Research also indicates that temperature is an important factor in getting off to sleep. (You can read five expert tips to help your child get to sleep at night here.)

Mary Mountstephen MA (SEN) is a former nursery and primary head teacher, special needs coordinator and international presenter and consultant. She’s currently working on doctoral research at The University of Reading.

If you would like a formal assessment, you can contact Mary through her website. Mary is happy to advise and support schools, families and homeschoolers.

Photo by Patryk Sobczak