For many, the expression "class clown" brings back fond memories of the student who was always making faces behind the teacher's back or the student who was the first to pipe up with a joke at a classmate's expense. But when you find yourself the parent of the class clown, the scene isn't quite so amusing. While a little levity is always useful in the classroom, it can be a short distance from a gentle joke to a disruption of the class and a trip to the principal's office.
Why do some children like to be the center of attention and always go for the easy laugh when they are in a group?
Experts and parents suggest a variety of reasons, but they all say that if the acting up isn't funny to the teacher, a parent needs to take the behavior seriously and try to remedy it. Class clowns might be shy or struggling in school, or they might have low self-esteem and would rather be the goofball than have their shortcomings discovered.
"Without question, he likes to be the center of attention," Kathy Woods, of Teaneck, says of her eighth-grader son – who has ADHD. She says the goofing off "affects his schoolwork because he misses stuff, and once you are behind, it's hard to catch up again."
Parents also struggle with the funny guy who is not extroverted at home but acts out at school to mask insecurities. "He acts up so everyone will like him at school," Maureen Brennan, of Fairview, says about her son, who is also in eighth grade. "But at home, he expresses that he is insecure about how his friends feel about him. He is worried that he's not popular, but the teachers say that everybody likes him and he's so funny."
Kevin Brennan, a licensed clinical psychologist in Glen Rock, says if your child gets to the point where he is readily identified by adults at school as a class clown, he is already in the danger zone.
"If the child did not have problems," he says, "their humor would go largely unnoticed by teachers and be seen only through appropriate outlets. The colloquial term, as I have seen it, usually implies some type of classroom disruption. And kids in general do not want to be disruptive."
Tammy Gold, a Bergen County parenting coach who offers advice on her website, goldparentcoaching.com, says this type of behavior can be categorized in two ways: attention seeking or attention diverting.
"It's either attention getting," she says, "when other things are going on and they want to drag the teacher's attention toward them, or diverting if they feel uncomfortable doing things like taking a test or going to gym." Parents and teachers should work together to identify possible trigger situations and to tackle the issues head on.
Woods has noticed that behavior with her son. "He is internally distracted," she says, "especially when he feels stressed out or overwhelmed and will do things like fidget and bite his nails. He calms himself down with telling long-winded stories, joking and laughing."
Being the class clown isn't always bad, as long as the child has enough self control to rein it in when asked. In fact, clowning around is the hallmark of a child who has some pretty advanced social skills.
"It takes real smarts," Brennan says, "to be able to understand social situations well enough to think of the jokes and gags, and to seize on opportunities to use the context of their surroundings to get some giggles. It also takes a good-hearted child to do so without earning the other disruptive name: troublemaker. These children generally grow up to be people one would say have charisma."
Maureen Brennan adds that as her son has become older and "more comfortable in his own skin," the clowning is now seen as a positive attribute by peers and authority figures. "He likes doing assemblies and things where he speaks in front of people," she says. "And the teachers tell me that in the classroom, he is the one to keep the conversation going and ask questions.
• Stay in contact with teachers.
• Attend parent-teacher conferences with your child, if possible, so he can understand first hand how his behavior affects the classroom.
• Let the teacher know you will be responsible and take complaints seriously.
• Use the online resources your school offers to monitor homework, grades and attendance.
When the fun can turn into trouble:
• Your child is being punished in school for goofing off.
• Your child doesn't have good recall of what happened in class.
• Your child seems to have poor impulse control in other areas (always interrupting conversations or not completing projects).
• Your child seems to use humor to mask insecurities or low self-esteem.
• Your child seems to have a poor grasp of situations in which humor is inappropriate.