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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Model Student Behavior

Q. A top student in my third grade class reported that thumbtacks were regularly being put into her shoes when all students removed their shoes each day for circle time. Eventually staff stake-outs to catch the unknown culprit involved as many as five teachers. After no success, a staff member suggested that the student herself was the culprit. Shockingly, this proved to be true. My question concerns appropriate consequences for her deceit and manipulation of staff. Also, why do model students do something like this?

A. I can understand why everybody is peeved with this girl--but my approach would focus less on this student's deceit and manipulation, and more on helping her express in words what she has expressed in thumbtacks. That's not to say there shouldn't be appropriate consequences, but there should also be a long-term plan to help this girl. I don't know what motives or feelings underlay this girl's actions, but as soon as I hear the term model student, I begin to wonder about what's really going on in this girl's inner life.

We know that many model girls in elementary school go on to have serious problems in adolescence and young adulthood--such as eating disorders. (You might be interested in the book, "The Best Little Girl in the World", by Steven Levenkron, which describes an adolescent with anorexia). I wonder if your student was trying to find a way of saying, "I may look like a model on the outside, but inside, I'm hurting--and I need to show you all how much."

Clearly, she needed to make herself the center of everybody's attention and sympathy--but why? I would wonder how things are going at home, on the playground, and in this girl's head. Certainly a meeting with her parents would be one reasonable step, if that hasn't already happened. I would probably involve the school psychologist in this. If there is any indication from such a meeting that the girl has shown a change in behavior recently--e.g., more irritable, change in sleep or appetite, fights with siblings, etc.--this would raise my level of concern that some underlying disorder might be showing itself; e.g., childhood depression.

In that case, I would want to see the girl entering into some treatment with a child mental health professional. A meeting between the school psychologist and the girl alone might also be a good idea, to see if anything worrisome about her home life comes out. If all this turns up nothing, I would still keep my eye on the girl--not to monitor her behavior, but to see if she does show signs of poor attention in class, seems unusually sad or angry, etc.

I would then follow up with the parents or school psychologist. I am not suggesting pampering this girl--withholding some kind of privilege as a consequence of her deceit may be appropriate, both at school and at home. But I'd try to get at the root of the problem, rather than cutting off the thorns.

April 2001

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