Why do some kids behave worse at home?

A wide image in a naive, whimsical, editorial illustration style, depicting a child's contrasting behavior in school and at home, with a clearer home

This snippet ends with two cause & effect questions. How are they different to each other?

Parents may be familiar with this scenario: a child is well behaved at school and polite to their teachers but has a meltdown at home in the afternoon.

Or they say please and thank you at a friend’s house but are rude with their family…

Why is this so? And is there anything you can do about it?

They're both cause & effect questions but they run in two directions:

  • From the past: why does this happen?
  • To the future: is there anything you can do?

One is an explanation, and the other is a prediction.

How do the authors of this article answer the first question?

We've written a summary of their answer. Can you see the exact words that link cause & effect?

Some children learn that bad behaviour can make their parents give them things they want (e.g. attention, food, screen time, etc).

However, outside of home, those children don’t know whether other people will react the same way, so they are better behaved.

Meanwhile, in school, they might act differently because they are kept busy and because they model the behaviour of their peers.


We wrote the explanation above so as to make the cause & effect relationships very explicit.

However, the authors of the article explain it differently. 

Here is the original text of the article—it's clear, but not as explicit as our version.

  • Can you find 2-3 words that the authors use to link cause and effect?
  • Bonus question: Do they explicitly link every cause and effect that they mention? Or are some links implicit?

From the very beginning, a child’s behaviour produces results or outcomes. For example, babies soon learn crying is a very effective way of signalling they are in distress. Parents quickly learn to change a wet nappy or feed their infant when they cry. A smile often results in an adult smiling back, cooing or cuddling the baby.

So children quickly realise their behaviour can be an effective way of controlling the actions of others.

When children are with less familiar people, they do not know how others will respond or what behaviour will result in a payoff. In these circumstances it is common for there to be less undesirable behaviour, at least temporarily.

Children can also behave better at school than at home because teachers have very good systems in place. Children are kept busy with a variety of engaging activities, expectations of children’s behaviour are clear, and the payoff for desirable behaviour is reliable. Teachers are well practised at recognising and rewarding desirable behaviour through attention, praise and sometimes token reward systems.

Children also tend to imitate their peers’ behaviour, particularly if they see it gets results, such as attention from the teacher or access to prized activities.

You can see words or phrases like “so", “because” and “results in” that clearly link cause & effect.

However, a couple of times, the authors use phrases that only suggest cause and effect, but don’t explicitly state it, such as, “it is common for there to be less undesirable behaviour…” and “tend to imitate their peers…”

These are still cause & effect relationships, but they are suggestive rather than explicit.

A wide image in a naive, whimsical, editorial illustration style, depicting a child's contrasting behavior in two different setting

What about the second question, about what you could do to improve behaviour?

The authors of the article suggest the following:

  • Establish routines
  • Set simple rules
  • Notice good behaviour
  • Spend small but regular amounts of time together
  • Have realistic explanations
Choose one of these actions and explain why you think it might have the desired effect. (Feel free to make up details, but show your reasoning.)

Do you think the authors' suggestions are good?

To answer that you’d have to share your reasoning, showing us the link between each of these actions and their effects:

  • Establishing routines helps because
  • Set simple rules so that
  • Noticing good behaviour will make

For example, if bad behaviour is driven by hunger, boredom, or tiredness, then routines can help you pre-empt each of those conditions by supplying food, stimulus, or rest.

What we've learned so far

We've already learned quite a bit about cause & effect reasoning:

  • We use cause & effect reasoning to link events.
  • We can ask causal questions about the past or the future:
    • How did this happen? (An explanation)
    • What will happen if…? (A prediction)
  • We use specific words and phrases to link cause & effect: because, so, in order to
  • Sometimes we are explicit about cause & effect, and sometimes we’re suggestive.

Next, let's take a look at a completely different style of reasoning, one that has nothing (much) to do with cause & effect.