How Can I Get Through To My Kid That He Has To Stop Arguing With His Teachers So Much

By Caroline Maguire, M.Ed. PCC

You just received another text from your son’s teacher. He’s in trouble again for his outbursts and continuing to argue with his teacher. You’ve had numerous conversations with David, pleading with him to stop arguing, but nothing changes. 

When he gets home, you ask him about the encounter, and he seems to have no idea that he has been rude.  He tells you, “I wasn’t talking out of turn; the teacher just doesn’t get me.”  As a parent this makes you wonder if children with ADHD are more self-centered than other children. Of course not, however, some of the characteristics children with ADHD have can give the appearance of being rude and insensitive.

Some children with ADHD don’t have the perspective or ability to see how others interpret their actions and behaviors.  Take David for example – At first glance, you would see him as a bright elementary school boy. He looks easygoing and fun, but can’t stop butting heads with his teachers. He won’t stop arguing. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, David is right, and he will argue and debate it until he gets in trouble.

Children like David don’t have the capacity to understand how they come across when interacting with teachers and other adults. Their intentions are good, but they don’t really know how to tune in and “walk in the other person’s shoes.”

When feeling bored, overwhelmed, hungry, tired or face a self-regulating challenge, ADHD children like David can unintentionally forget social rules and without meaning to, come across as uncaring and bad mannered. They struggle with interpreting social cues, but with proper support, they CAN work to develop a better perspective.

Taking other people’s perspective and understanding that other people have an inner emotional life and being able to detect that point of view is known as Theory of Mind.  When someone has Theory of Mind it means they can detect the perspective, emotions and understand what motivates others.

Having Theory of Mind means understanding that other people’s thoughts and feelings may be different from your own. How many times have you heard someone tell you, “Think before you speak?” Children who do not have the ability to read the minds of others do not hear or notice that their tone, misguided humor, continual monologue, or how abrupt subject changes may alienate others. Parents are baffled as to what to do.

The Path to Change

When children don’t stop arguing, it is often because they do not easily interpret social cues and tune into the mental states (emotions) of others. They misread behavior and therefore do not understand how their physical and verbal actions affect other people. Teaching children Theory of Mind means helping the ADHD child consider others’ point of view, perspective, desires, motives, and intentions. 


Children with Theory of Mind Can:

·       Interpret how their teacher and friends feel

·       Decode the information in the environment

·       Envision someone else’s reaction to a behavior or event

·       Attribute beliefs and desires to someone

·       Walk in someone else’s shoes

·       Predict actions based on a person’s knowledge

·       Understand false beliefs

·       Recognize what information other people know

·       Uncover the speaker’s intentions and inferred message

·       Anticipate that one’s actions provoke reactions from other people

To teach Theory of Mind effectively, parents need to understand the open-ended questions technique.

So what exactly are open-ended questions and how can you use them with your child to get him to stop arguing? Open-ended questions are for parents who witness the sharp tones and behavior of their children – and are looking for a sound way to develop Theory of Mind. This style of questioning allows the parent to use a type of coaching communication technique that leads the child through a process to look at the feelings of others.

It provides the child with perspective to be able to examine his own behavior and choices. Children can learn how to alter their behavior and using open-ended questions is one way to help those who lack Theory of Mind to create a greater awareness of the mindset of others.

This coaching technique also eliminates a lot of unnecessary friction, for example, rather than telling David, “You need to stop arguing with your teachers,” think about asking, “How do you think your teacher feels when you speak out of turn and are always arguing with her?”  This coaching technique will allow the child to consider that other people have thoughts about his behavior and that his behavior can negatively or positively affect others – this builds self-awareness and Theory of Mind.

With proper support, parents can learn to effectively use the open-ended questions technique, initially taught by ADHD professionals. This is not a cure, there is no magic here, but used consistently, it does show a sustained improvement in the child’s Theory of Mind.

Step 1:

Open-ended questions use the words who, what, when, where, how, and why. They ask, rather than tell.  The process looks like this:

a) David, who thinks all facts are worth arguing about, even with adults, and often will go so far as to correct other adults. 

b) Ask David, “How do you think I feel when you correct me?” It can be beneficial to have him look at your face and interpret what you are currently feeling.

c) Then, no matter what the answer is, even if it’s a shrug and an, “I don’t know,” continue to ask him, “What do you think the appropriate behavior should have been?” 


This begins to help the child think about what the unspoken social rules were and what they are expected to do in the future.  The questions help the child with ADHD pause and reflect on other people’s state of mind.   In the minivan or on the go continue to ask him questions when his conversations present as forgetting other people’s feelings.

Questions can center on:

·       What do other people feel?

·       What is the reaction to their behavior?

·       What did the other people’s facial expression tell them about their feelings?

·       What was the behavior that would make people feel positive about them?

·       What was the appropriate behavior in the situation?


The open-ended question coaching technique walks the ADHD child through interpreting other people’s point of view to examine how their actions and behaviors affect others.  Self-regulation and other coping skills may need to be practiced to help children put their best foot forward, but the key is to help the child consider how they come across to those in every day interactions.

Step 2: 

On an ongoing basis and on the spot when the child is rude or dismissive, begin to ask him open-ended questions that allow him to reflect on his actions and how they might make other people feel.

Additional questions to insight conversation can include:

•        How do you think your classmates feel when you can’t stop arguing?

•        What do you think happens when you don’t show the teacher respect?

•        What were the circumstances and how did you adjust?

•        What were the typical behaviors in that environment?

•        What did you notice about the teacher?

•        What could you do when you are bored?

•        What happens if your tone is dismissive?

•        What do you think your peers think when you are bored disrupt class?


The main questions center around helping the ADHD child who struggles to mind read, to consider the perspective or point of view of other people. The idea is to ask questions! Open-ended questions help the ADHD child learn to consider what is typical or appropriate behavior in that situation. It also provides a path to better observe the people, actions, body language, environment and social rules around the child.

The reciprocal relationship between tuning into other people’s perspective or mental state and how those people treat us in return is a game changer. ADHD children, who can’t stop arguing, and therefore tend to dominate conversations, can learn to be able to interpret and consider the feelings of others. It’s a journey, and consistency is the key. Parents should find comfort in knowing that all ADHD children benefit from patient and nurturing parents and the open-ended questions technique is well suited to parents who wish to help their children turn social struggles into positive outcomes.

Become a Social Observer

To help your child stop arguing, help him become a social spy and let him see it first hand. Social spies observe people in different settings and then record their observations about social cues including, vocal volume, tone, eye contact, physical presence, interrupting, arguing, etc.

·       Build awareness

·       Go to a public place, hotel lobby, book store, mall

·       Watch and notice the social cues

·       Identify what unspoken rules the environment dictates

·       Create an image of positive social behavior to navigate toward

The Polite Pretend

Many children with ADHD can quickly become bored inside the classroom, leading to outbursts or just checking out altogether. Some will provoke and argue with the teacher to be funny or get a reaction from friends. Rather than lecturing your child, talk with him about the problem. Start by saying, “I’ve noticed that you sometimes struggle to stop arguing with your teacher and I understand you don’t mean to be disrespectful.” Ask him what happened in the specific situation. 


Talk to him about things that do not interest him and this dilemma of being polite. Remain neutral and calmly discuss why pretending to be polite is necessary. Rather than just telling him that he has to do this, use questions to help him reflect such as:  

·        What he can do during a conversation when he feels bored or when he’s too tired to participate in the conversation?

·        What happens in the conversation when her tone becomes dismissive and argumentative?

·        What are the benefits of a polite pretend?

Reading the Room

In each environment, there are expectations and unspoken rules. To present the best face to the world, you have to decipher those expectations by reading the room. Help your child understand that how he behaves sends messages to the world, which ultimately impacts how he is received.


Any social situation is just a problem to be solved. If you build those skills, your child will have the opportunity to improve his social awareness, stop arguing, and develop better relationships with his teachers.


My new book, Why Will No One Play With Me? will teach parents how to coach their child through any social problem. Be sure to take my new checklist to determine if your child needs social skills help at


How to Motivate Kids Academically with WIFM (What’s in it for Them)

Years ago, I had a high school freshman walk into my office, and he changed the way I looked at motivation forever. This student, we’ll call him Jackson, was a self-pronounced academic minimalist. When his English teacher asked him to write a paragraph about a book he read, he’d write only a paragraph. If a math test question required a two-sentence minimum explanation at how he arrived at an answer, he’d explain the concept in two sentences. If he was given a rubric for a social studies paper, he would only meet the requirements for a C grade. He was always shooting for the C, never for the A. He saw no value in academic work. School work was just something his parents wanted him to do. But like so many other unique kids, he was extremely intelligent and had many extraordinary talents.

Jackson had a fierce entrepreneurial spirit. He had started his own sneaker art business. People would pay him $80 to decorate their sneakers. In addition, he was also playing with the idea of starting a mural or street art business. He was very interested in figuring out how he could make a living from art. He also spoke fluent Spanish and was working at a boys and girls club for underprivileged children as a translator. When I first met him, he really wanted to go on a trip to Ecuador with the club.

Jackson’s parents were highly educated individuals; they both had Ph.D.s from an Ivy League school. They were extremely frustrated with Jackson’s lack of academic motivation. Jackson had failed out of boarding school, and now he was barely passing his classes at his public school. He would also consistently lie to them about turning in school work. They were worried that Jackson was ruining his chances of getting into a decent college with his “minimalist” attitude, and they didn’t approve of his interest in street art. His parents didn’t want Jackson to pursue his businesses; they wanted him to focus on getting good grades first, go to college, and then select a career. They also had flatly said “no” to the Ecuador trip because they refused to reward Jackson for his poor academic performance.

When I started coaching Jackson, I realized that the only way I would get him onboard with my academic coaching program was to use his passions as motivators. I had to get him to see what was in it for him (WIFM). Otherwise, he’d use his minimalist attitude in our sessions as well. I started by engaging Jackson in conversations about his goals and businesses. In the end, I negotiated a deal between Jackson and his parents. Jackson would do his school work and be honest about turning in assignments, and his parents would allow him to take art classes and pursue his sneaker business. If he improved his grades over the course of a year, he’d also be allowed to go on the Ecuador trip as a reward for good behavior. Every time we met, I connected the school work with his goals and interests. I helped him see how getting good grades would help him become a better entrepreneur, get his parents off his back, and give him more freedom and time to pursue his passions. Gradually, over the course of two years, Jackson went from a C student to an A student, and he and his parents were both happier.

Most kids like Jackson don’t realize that they need good grades in order to achieve their goals. They can’t see long-term like their parents can. So, pitching the idea that good grades lead to dream jobs doesn’t work with them. These kids need immediate reward. They need to see what’s in it for them (WIFM) now.

If you have a unique child who is unmotivated academically, consider using the WIFM strategy. Try to figure out what motivates your child. Your child’s motivator doesn’t have to be something that you think is an “acceptable” motivator. What comes up in my sessions all the time is that kids are motivated; they just aren’t motivated by what their parents want them to motivated by. For example, kids love Minecraft and parents hate Minecraft. But Minecraft time can be used as a reward for good behavior. If kids know that good behavior leads to more Minecraft time, they’ll exhibit better behavior.

Motivators can be anything from electronic time to not having to go to the learning center anymore. Below are some examples of motivators that have worked for my clients in the past:

Privileges – (walking home from school, choosing dinner foods, going to a concert, getting more electronic time, etc.)

Less Scrutiny – (graduating from an academic or social skills program, having less parental intervention, getting parents or teachers off their backs, etc.)

Freedom to Explore Passions – (time for art, music, video games, sports, etc.)

Tangible Rewards – (comic books, doll clothes, iPod gift cards, etc.)

When using the WIFM strategy, first start by asking your child open-ended questions. What does your child want? What are your child’s goals? Try to remain calm while your child explains his or her interests—no matter how far-fetched or cockamamie they may be. By allowing children to verbalize their goals, you are validating their opinions and creating partnerships. Together, choose rewards for good behavior, rewards that will immediately benefit your child. Also, clearly explain what your child will have to do in order to earn those rewards.  For example, they may have to turn homework in on time consistently for one month, or they may have to raise their grade from a C to a B by next term. Lastly, try to show your child how improving their academic skills will help them get what they want in the long run too. By tying their daily work to their larger goals, you can help kids make the connection between the now and the future.

When Jackson realized that improving his grades would lead to immediate rewards and help him achieve his long-term goals, he saw a reason to try harder in school. His goals (not his parents goals for him) motivated him to become a better student. All children have to be willing to engage in the change process in order for change to occur. By using the WIFM strategy, you can also motivate your child to be a better student.

The White Noise Experience: An Answer to Getting Work Done

In college, I could not work in the library. And I could not work in my dorm room. Baffled by the dilemma, I bounced from space to space, trying to find a place I could focus. Instead, I ended up wasting time and getting frustrated. In high school, I had achieved all academic milestones in front of the television. I had worked night after night with the TV on, which was hardly an ideal strategy. I now know that too much TV can actually hinder information retention. Still, something about having that background noise helped me focus, and I couldn’t find a good substitute for that study aide in college.

Flash forward a decade. At a conference I attended, I decided to try to multi-task and get some blog posts done during one of the lectures. I sat at the back of the room and wrote blog post after blog post. I was surprised by how easily the words flowed out of me. Alone in my quiet office, I struggled to write even one paragraph. But in the back of a lecture hall, I was on fire!

When I returned home from the conference, I took a moment to analyze why this environment increased my productivity. And I remembered that one of the greatest tools that helps ADHD folks increase their focus is to have a body double. A body double is someone who sits with ADHD students as they tackle tasks that may be difficult to complete on their own. For example, when I run on the treadmill, I run much faster when someone is running next to me because I don’t want the other gym member to think I’m lazy. That gym member acts as my body double. A body double serves as a motivator and reminder to help keep ADHD people on task and accountable. While no one was watching me write those blog posts in the back of the lecture hall, the mere bodily presence of others and their noise had the same effect on me. Perhaps, being in the back of the lecture hall created a noise body double.

I had seen this phenomenon work for some of my other ADHD clients as well. White noise helped them focus when nothing else worked. When I was prepping to talk about this subject on Attention Talk Radio, my co-host, Jeff Copper, said, “Oh yeah. That works for me too. I call it the white noise experience.” Now, I use Copper’s term to describe this tool I have used with my kids consistently over the last decade.

The white noise experience occurs when a person’s focus and productivity is increased by background noise. For some people, the hum of music, activity, hustle and bustle, or other background noise helps sustain their focus. Most of the students I work with are searching for the right moment, the right place, and the right mood to get work done. Driven by distractibility, they often struggle to work in study spaces in which they “should” be able to work, but they end up not being able to accomplish even basic tasks. When I suggest a non-traditional study environment with plenty of white noise to these students, they miraculously blossom.

For example, I once had a client whom we’ll call Alice. Alice was an English major, and she had difficulties getting her work done on time. By the time she came to see me, she had a month’s worth of work backlogged. She had tried all the traditional study tricks. One day, I suggested she sit in the back of a lecture hall in another department—such as calculus or chemistry—a subject that wouldn’t peak her interest. She ended up attending an engineering TA session. During one forty-five-minute session, she was able to finish two assignments, which was a huge productivity leap for her. After getting permission from the engineering department, Alice started attending TA sessions regularly, and her backlog of work quickly disappeared.

If you or your child has had similar struggles, consider using the white noise experience to help increase your focus. Try different study environments that can provide non-distracting background noise, such as coffee shops, school gyms during game time, or parks on nice days. If you find yourself too distracted in those places, try putting on some instrumental music, using a white noise machine, or plugging in a noisy fan in your bedroom or office. I know that this advice may seem counterintuitive. Most people mistakenly assume that a student or professional with ADHD should work in a quiet space without any potential distractions so they can focus wholly and completely. However, time and time again, clinical practice has shown that the ADHD brain can actually function more efficiently with white noise present. Because everyone is wired differently, this tool may not work for every person with ADHD, but I strongly urge you to test it out!

The Little Red Table

I am reading the Little House On The Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my daughter. I kept my old copies from childhood, the ones I read in fourth grade. I have kept these books for years because they were the first chapter books I read on my own. When I look at the tattered 1970’s-era covers with shockingly low prices, I remember what it felt like not to be able to read. I am dyslexic and reading did not come easily for me. 

The words swam on the page. I could not understand the powder blue phonics book my cheerful teacher brought to me each afternoon. I could not seem to spell or remember how words came together. When I was asked to read aloud, I stumbled and felt like there was a spotlight on me. The creeping dread of making mistakes and being exposed filled up my face until I was red and flushed and aching. 

I dreaded reading time. By the second grade, I had a problem: I was in the slowest reading group. Each reading group sat at a colored table. These primary colors were like banners announcing each student’s reading level. Blue was for the best readers. Yellow was for mid-level readers. And red was for the slowest readers. Even though the red table received extra attention and devotion from the teacher, I longed to move from the red group to the blue one. To me, the blue table represented a great frontier to be conquered. 

I was determined. I remember my envy of those at the blue table. But like many children with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, I was faced with both reading challenges and focusing difficulties. I often failed to hear instructions or to retain information. Additionally, I frequently drifted off into my own little world, only to tune back in to find the lesson had moved forward. 

My teacher was a lovely woman who spent time with me after school, and she seemed to know that I was paralyzed by reading aloud. She encouraged me to work hard, and over the next two years, I moved from a person who could not read to a person who could read. By third grade, we had individual desks and our reading levels were no longer color-coded. But to this day, I am proud that I was able to escape from the little red table. 

Eventually, my hard work paid off. Once I began to read, I loved it, and I read voraciously. I also learned a powerful lesson: hard work and extra help can pay off. I understand the children I coach because I once was like them.

Madame Ruggles

Kids will have so many different teachers throughout their young academic years – all with different teaching styles, different ways they relate to each child, some in their first years of teaching, some growing close to retirement, some good, and some bad. But we’ve all heard the stories about the one teacher that made a difference, and they may not have even known it.

If you have a kid with learning differences, the teacher can really matter. They can single-handedly change how a kid feels about school. They can give your unique learner a chance to believe in themselves, which will help them build confidence and the drive to keep trying. It’s really just having someone in their court, so to speak, that’s willing to push through the tough times to prove there are brighter days ahead.

Keep in mind, there are years when the teacher may not be a good fit or even may be a disaster. I remember those years too. I remember the teachers who did not get me, but it was the few who did who made all the difference. Here’s a bird-eye view of my journey as I look back.

In the fall of my senior year of high school, I was in French 5. Let me tell you, it was not pretty. As a dyslexic, I could never remember to put accents in the right place and my spelling was – well pretty bad. This was the 1990’s, and I was told that despite my good grades that if I opted out of foreign languages, I would not get into the college of my choice. How could one French class keep me from my dream school? I thought I was doomed. I may not have been a great speller, but by the time I got to high school, I had learned not to give up! I went to my teacher, Madame Ruggles, and told her – I had to get a B – according to my college counselor.

Without batting an eye, Madame Ruggles began to meet with me every day during school. She knew I was trying so hard, but my results did not turn out the way I had hoped. I still have dreams that I fail every test and do not get that B because it was such an uphill battle.

I had this sense that she was pulling for me. Madame, like so many language teachers, insisted we speak “en Français”. That was all right with me because it was the writing that I found so difficult. So over time, I was able to show what I knew by speaking the answers as opposed to writing them. It was a struggle, but I got my B – and then promptly dropped French in college. I struggled partly to be like everyone else. I think Madame knew I was in fact not like everyone else. And she seemed to convey in a few words that this too would pass and that in life I would be able to use my talents not my weaknesses.

I recently found out that Madame Ruggles passed away. After retirements, she had moved to my town. So all this time, if I had only known, I could have gone to visit her. If I had, I would have said, “Madame, merci”.

Parents are often frustrated by many of the negative academic experiences their child has, and I completely understand. But remember, it is the few teachers who really believe in us – who help the unique learner like me reach our destination, and those are the one that will be remembered forever.

Your Child Isn’t Defiant — His Skills Are Lagging

You wouldn’t expect a child to hit a baseball before learning how to swing the bat. Many children who struggle with behavioral challenges don’t have the skills they need to do what’s expected of them, and unfortunately, ADHD behaviors can lead to harsh — and mistaken — assumptions. There is the child who barges into a room, disrupting the conversation, or the one who laughs at a joke after everyone else has moved on in the conversation. These children may appear rude or awkward, but not all we see is what it seems.

How ADHD’s Executive Dysfunctions Impact Behavior

Certainly there are times when a child seems stubborn or selfish, but neuroscience suggests that it is a lack of skills, specifically the brain-based “executive function” skills, that hold him back — not willfulness or laziness. Executive function is the brain’s hub of skills — memory, organization, planning, self-regulation, and the ability to modify our behavior in response to others.

When these skills lag, advice about pushing through does not apply. Blaming and shaming only make matters worse. This is especially significant for children with ADHD, due to their complex differences in the brain’s pathways and processes for attention and behavior.

The conversation about ADHD and executive function skills most often focuses on academic skills. What’s missing, however, is recognition of how executive function affects social behavior. Social challenges are often traced back to underlying ADHD. Read on to learn how — and then, the next time your child’s behavior frustrates or baffles you, remind yourself: “If he could, he would.”

Kids Want to Please Their Parents

Generally speaking, children do not want to fail at being a kid or to disappoint their parents. Every child wants to succeed; every child wants to grow up to become a capable human being. The idea of “would if he could” is a lens through which you look at your child and reset your understanding of him. Once your child begins to develop executive function skills — whether by getting homework done or managing big emotions — his success will motivate him to want more.

[Self-Test: Does Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

Set aside discouraging assumptions about your child’s behavior and replace them with If he could, he would. A child needs continued support to navigate the academic learning curve and the social learning curve at the same time.

Here are some steps to turn this approach into action:

  1. Believe that your child has the capacity to learn, and that he has good intentions — because it’s true!

  2. Go for responses that encourage, illuminate, and engage.Recognize the qualities of character and effort that your child shows: when he shows empathy for someone, takes pride in something he does, or rebounds from a failure. Use comments that begin with “I noticed…” or “You showed…” to highlight the positive.

  3. Identify sources of stress and distraction for your child, and find specific ways to minimize them. Stress in one area leads to stress in other areas.

  4. Talk with your child about what he thinks is going on. Show curiosity and respect him as the expert on his own feelings and perspective. By doing so, you give him a chance to practice connecting internal feelings to outward behavior. That’s the executive function skill he needs to change behaviors that aren’t working for him.

It’s easy for a child to lose heart in the struggle to learn and grow. Show confidence in the qualities she brings to her challenges. The truth is that everyone is working on something.

[8 Confidence Builders for Kids with ADHD]

ADHD Success Story: Matt Overcomes School Hurdles

Matt, who is six, was barely through mid-autumn in his first-grade class when he started to not want to go to school. He had meltdowns when it was time to get in the car, or on the way. He hated school and his mother could understand why. He spent most of the day either making trouble in class or being reprimanded for it.

We talked with Matt about what was so hard about the school day, and we identified some of the problems: Matt had reading problems that needed to be addressed with one-on-one tutoring. Stress of any kind overwhelmed him, whether related to reading, communicating about a difficulty, social anxiety, or upsetting interactions with his parents and teachers. Matt needed help with his communication and self-regulation skills.

When Matt’s challenges were acknowledged, his parents got the help he needed to address them. Matt began to develop skills, and his behavior improved. Matt wanted to do well in school, and once he had what had been missing, he could.

[Free Handout: A Parent’s Guide to Ending Confrontations and Defiance]

This article was originally published in ATTITUDE. Reprinted with permission from the author.


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