Discipline: How to break your child’s bad habits

Are you going through that phase where your school-going child is being too difficult to handle, refuses to listen and is creating havoc at school? Do you feel embarrassed when he gets unruly in presence of other people? Is he being labelled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘notorious’ at school?

Are you going through that phase where your school-going child is being too difficult to handle, refuses to listen and is creating havoc at school? Do you feel embarrassed when he gets unruly in presence of other people? Is he being labelled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘notorious’ at school?

Experts argue that the majority of children’s poor habits have a close relationship with the environment where they thrive, mostly at home, where they learn from their parents, siblings or peers. The process of dealing with those habits inevitably involves doing something about their environment so that their academic development isn’t ruined.

Education Times’ Diane Mushimiyimana explores the commonest poor habits, and engages experts on the likely causes and solutions.

Habitual liars

Grace Ayebale, a nursery teacher in Kigali, says children can learn to tell lies from an early age, usually by around three. This is when the child starts to realise that you aren’t a mind reader, so they tell lies to get away with some of their misdeeds.

She says when children reach school-age, they might lie more often. The lies also get more complicated because the child has more words and is better at understanding how other people think.

“Once children grow old enough to understand the difference between the truth and lies, it is good to encourage and support them in telling the truth. You can do this by emphasising the importance of honesty in your family and praising your child for honesty – even if it sometimes takes you a while to get it,” she says.


Odette Uwimana, a clinical psychology graduate from the University of Rwanda, says kids of all ages from pre-schoolers to teens can be tempted to steal for different reasons. Very young children sometimes take things they want without understanding that things cost money and that it’s wrong to take something without paying for it. School-age kids usually know they’re not supposed to take something without paying, but they might do so anyway because they lack enough self-control.

“Whatever the reason for stealing, parents or educators need to get to the root of the behaviour and address the underlying problems, like drug abuse, that may be the cause,” she says.

Drug and alcohol abuse

According to Professor John Rutembesa, a senior clinical psychology lecturer at the University of Rwanda, the problem of drug abuse often appears in teenage children who may develop it from peers, or lack of the ability to move over a bad situation such as losing a beloved one, family conflicts and divorce, among others.

He says dealing with a child’s drug use can be very hard to handle.

“For experimental children, parents can intervene by being clear that drug use will not be tolerated, and set the terms of any ramifications to follow. For more developed abuse, parents can seek professional support or rehabilitation.

“Be responsive to the child’s efforts to correct the behaviour as a punishing attitude alone can jeopardize or damage the emotional bond between parent and child. If a friend is involved, consider contacting their parents. First, it will send a message that drug use will not be tolerated. Second, it can help the other parents to take measures to prevent their children from drug abuse. Third, it creates a dialogue around drug use between concerned parents,” he advises.


Ayebale argues that almost all young children act aggressively from time to time, and some will go through longer phases of being aggressive. Your child’s aggression will most likely decrease as her social skills and language mature.

She says in some cases, aggression can be a means of getting attention. If your child gets a big reaction from you when she acts aggressively, she’ll soon learn that it’s a good way to make you take notice of her.

“Aggression may also happen if your pre-schooler feels overwhelmed or frustrated, or when they are in an unfamiliar situation, such as starting nursery. A child may act aggressively if she can’t find the words to express the strong feelings she’s having. You can help her along by being aware of what’s likely to trigger her anger. Your child’s more likely to act aggressively when she’s tired, or when feeling hungry, thirsty, or generally low.

“You may be tempted to give your pre-schooler a taste of their own medicine by smacking them if they lash out at you, or raising your voice in response to shouting. But this won’t teach them to stay calm. Instead, it will just give them the impression that it’s fine to respond aggressively when faced with things she doesn’t like. Instead, encourage your child to say sorry, too,” Ayebale explains.

Removing that aggressive child from situations where they are behaving aggressively will help them to see that their behaviour has consequences. And it shows them that if they hit, kick or bite others, they will miss out on playing with them as a consequence, she suggests.

Poor hygiene

Uwimana says appearance and odour are signs of good hygiene, while greasy hair, dirty fingernails and clothes, bad breath and unbrushed teeth are indications of bad personal hygiene. Although most children arrive at school looking sloppy from time to time, continual and extreme dirt and bad body odour can be signs that the child is not being taught proper hygiene or is even being neglected.

“Young children can be taught the fundamentals of hygiene, starting with bathing, washing hands, brushing teeth and grooming. A child’s self-esteem is affected when he has poor hygiene. The main goal for parents, caregivers and teachers is to instill the value of a healthy lifestyle. A child who is clean and presentable feels good about himself and has an easier time making friends,” she notes.

Dodging class

Gasana Mutesi, an education activist and founder of Arise Education, argues that school refusal is a serious emotional problem that is stressful for both child and parent that can result in significant short and long-term effects on the social, emotional, and academic development of the child.

Given that school refusal is generally related to an underlying anxiety or depressive disorder, it’s important to get to the root of the problem and begin there.

“Tantrums, running or hiding from school, and lashing out with physical force are clear-cut signs of school refusal, but many students engage in subtler behaviors. Watch for these signs of school refusal that are sometimes overlooked.

“The best way to help children struggling with school refusal includes a team approach. While children tend to focus on what they don’t like or worry about at school, the truth is that the underlying issues can include stress at home, social stress, and medical. It helps to have a strong team that includes the classroom teacher, family, a school psychologist (if available), and any specialist working with the child outside of school”, she explains.


Dr Jean Chrisostome Habimana, a psychiatric at Ndera Hospital, reveals that children, unlike adults, don’t have the emotional capability to handle big changes in life, like shifting to a new home or separating from friends, joining a new school or addition of a sibling.

They strive on routine and whatever upsets their routine, saddens them. An inability to articulate their emotions or fear of the unknown can come as offensive behaviour, like hurting others physically or handling objects aggressively or screaming very loudly, he notes.

Before coming up with a set way of helping the child become disciplined, we must, as parents try and understand what is provoking that kind of behavior in the child

Habimana says when children don’t get as much attention as they seek, their basic emotional needs are not met and they tend to show their discontent through behaviour that they themselves don’t value. The feeling of being ignored is very hard for them to accept and they start behaving aggressively purely to get some attention.

“Sometimes the naughtiness may be a result of a feeling of being incompetent. Often when a child struggles with a subject at school, or feels he is not able to cope with something he notices other kids doing easily, he may act out because of the feelings of inadequacy or ineptitude. The child may then become defiant and rebellious with his school work.

“As a parent, express empathy and let your child know that you are always together in fighting all challenges that come his way. Make it known to him that being academically competent alone is not a determining factor of one’s worth. Recognize the various traits in him and make him feel good about himself. When a child feels content and gratified, his behavior will automatically reflect his thoughts,” he says.

Temperamental tendencies

Alexis Kayiranga, an early childhood expert, says different children have different personalities. “When dealing with a difficult child, it is important to understand what type of child you are dealing with. Is he stubborn? Destructive? Overly emotional? Pay attention to the child’s moods, and try to track the factors that recognize certain situations or events that might cause an outburst.”

He suggests that setting boundaries for difficult children can help them learn to behave in a more appropriate manner. Make sure that your child understands your household rules, and knows his or her responsibilities.

“Clearly communicate rules to your child. If they are young, you might have to repeat yourself every day. If your child is a bit older, try making a rule or chore chart. Being able to visualise responsibilities can help your child retain them. Hopefully, having boundaries will help you avoid future conflicts. You should also have boundaries for communicating during conflicts. Make sure your child knows that you will not tolerate screaming or any destructive behavior. Make that clear before, during, and after the conflict,” he says.


Professor Rutembesa explains that a hyperactive kid may have problems in paying attention and sitting still in their seats. They move around a lot. They talk too much, or interrupt other people’s conversations. Hyperactive kids fail to follow instructions, or do a step-by-step routine. They are impulsive, overenthusiastic and bouncing with energy.

Also, he says they can be impulsive, which means doing things without thinking about the results. Instability and inattentiveness make it difficult to handle hyperactive kids and more often than not you see them bouncing from activity to activity with seemingly limitless energy and ease.

“Hyperactivity is related to the brain and so the best way to handle hyperactive kids is to make them relax and take things one at a time. Parents and educators can handle it by engaging their body and mind. This may involve help them deal with their feelings by using music to calm their mind, outdoor sports for constant activity, and seeking behavioural therapy, among others,” he says.


Psychologist Uwimana explains that selfishness is the attitude of not wanting to share with others. Some common and less apparent reasons which may contribute to a child’s selfish attitude include when a kid is feeling neglected, your kid is jealous of a partner or sibling, kid resents how much you indulge yourself with luxuries and privileges, your child has poor emotional intelligence and has difficulties identifying or understanding other people’s emotions, she says

“A major step in squelching kids’ selfish attitudes is simply not tolerating it. If you really are serious about changing this attitude, you must stand firm and be consistent. Start by clearly laying down your new attitude expectations: “In this house you are always to be considerate of others.” Then loudly state your disapproval each and every time your child acts selfishly. Be sure to state why their behavior was wrong, and if the selfish attitude continues, consider applying consequences,” she explains.

According to education experts, if these habits are not addressed early, they can radically affect the child’s overall character and learning outcomes and continue to hack them in the future. Therefore, it should be a matter of concern for all parents and care givers to nurture positive attitudes beginning at a tender age, so that those children grow up with model values.


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