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Dr. Wade Horn on Kids:

Having class-clown son
is no joking matter

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: My son is eight years old and will be entering the second grade this fall. Last year, his teacher reported that he was the "class clown." His grades were pretty good, but we're unsure as to whether we should be worried about his class clown behavior. He has always had a silly streak in him, and does like to be the center of attention. School will be starting up again in a couple of weeks, and we would like this year to go well for him. Should we be worried, and if so, what should we do about his class clown behavior so that second grade will go well for him?

A: There are at least three different types of "class clowns." What one should -- or even can -- do about the behavior depends upon which type of class clown we are talking about.

The first category of class clowns encompasses those children who by temperament are more prone to seek excitement than other kids. These are children with an inborn tendency for what psychologists call "stimulus seeking." They like to be where the action is and if there is no action, they like to create it. Bart Simpson comes to mind.

There is little anyone can do to change a child's inborn temperament. In fact, a parent shouldn't even try. Instead, what parents (and teachers) need to do is to better match their parenting (or teaching) style to the needs of a child's particular temperament.

Children who enjoy lots of stimulation are not likely to do well in classrooms that provide little of it. Rather, these kids do best with high energy teachers who provide lots of opportunities for interesting and physical activities combined with clear rules and consistent limit setting.

A second type of class clown is the child who is attempting to mask an underlying learning problem. Their class clownish behavior is really a device to divert attention away from the embarrassment of their academic struggles, due perhaps to an undiagnosed learning disability.

The appropriate intervention in this case is special education. Only by increasing the child's ability to succeed in school will the need to engage in silly behavior diminish. The first step in determining whether this might be the underlying cause of class clown behavior is to look to the child's overall academic record. If the child is doing reasonably well in school, there is probably little reason for concern. But if a class clown is also struggling academically or has uneven performance across academic subjects, an evaluation by a qualified school psychologist may be in order.

The third type of class clown is a child who lacks appropriate social skills. Unable to gain the attention of others in more appropriate ways, they resort instead to all sorts of immature and silly behavior.

The answer for this child is social skills training, perhaps within the context of a therapeutic play group. Until and unless the child develops more appropriate skills for garnering the attention of others, his only recourse is to act-up. Parents and teachers should also examine their own behavior to make sure that they are not inadvertently reinforcing silly and immature behavior by attending only to it and not to more appropriate and mature behavior as well.

Whether a parent should be concerned with a child's class clown behavior depends upon its frequency, intensity, and pervasiveness. The more frequent, the more intense, and the more pervasive the behavior, the more concerned a parent should be.

So this father should ask himself the following questions: Does my child engage in silly and clownish behavior much of the time and in most situations rather than only occasionally or in certain types of situations? Does the clownish behavior interfere with his ability to interact with peers and adults in more appropriate ways? Does his silly behavior seem very immature for his age? Is his clowning interfering with his ability to be successful in school?

Answering "yes" to one or more of these questions suggests that your child may need some help. Exactly what kind of help will be determined by the underlying cause of his clowning.

Otherwise it may be your son is merely displaying a good sense of humor and an exuberance for life. Just because someone acts silly once in a while doesn't necessarily mean any intervention is necessary. This is especially so if he has many good friends, can moderate his silliness when he needs to, is doing reasonably well in school, and is able to gain attention in other ways when it is appropriate to do so.

Who knows? Maybe he'll just grow up to be the next Robin Williams or Billy Crystal. That wouldn't be all that bad, now would it?

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