Class Clown


I am a parent of a very bright second grader. He reads at roughly a fourth-fifth grade level and has very strong math skills. The problem is he seems to have developed the role of class clown.The disapproving responses from his teacher have given my son a negative view of himself. The school has never suggested testing to see if he’s “gifted,” but I feel the behavior problems stem partly from boredom. Any suggestions for classroom strategies that might help?

Answer from NEFC co-founder Ruth Sidney Charney:

Thank you for your question. The issue of “class clown” is complex, one that we need to respond to with care. Recently, going through ancient files, circa 1970, I found a small purple booklet titled “My Life as a Class Clown.” It was written by a high school student looking back honestly on his own mischief and ruses, behavior which began in the early grades and then stuck with him, netting him too many years of trouble and poor grades. A special teacher finally recognized his potential and helped him confront his learning issues and take himself seriously. His story, published and beautifully bound, fortunately documents a process of transformation and eventual success.

Why children clown around

Children become class clowns for many reasons. The boy who told his story in the booklet used clowning as a way to cover up various reading and writing difficulties.

In the case of another student, who was highly theatrical, whimsical, and physical, his “witty remarks” and antics were both a physical release and a real desire to amuse. Often he didn’t understand that his playfulness sometimes felt to others like disruption and sass. Finally in eighth grade he began to use some of his skills to write comic stories and to emcee a class drama project.

I remember a very verbal and bookish student who was afraid of being labeled a “nerd.” He used clowning as a way to cover up his intellectual strengths and gain peer acceptance.

There are also children who act out when the curriculum doesn’t engage them enough. They may be under challenged. They may complete a task more quickly than expected and not know how to direct themselves to another purposeful activity. Sometimes we expect our bright students to be also self-motivated and able to extend or enhance an assignment. But good work habits and keen intellectual capacities do not necessary come hand in hand.

Some children clown around simply to have fun. We all have a basic need for fun and play. When our school days don’t give children legitimate, positive outlets for fun and game playing, children will concoct their own—sometimes negative—outlets.

Look together for alternative ways to meet needs

Whatever the reasons for children taking on the role of class clown, their behavior should not be ignored. All too often, when we let the behavior go, the bad habits “stick,” as does the children’s reputation as trouble makers.

To help these students, we need to see them as individuals. We need to resist the urge to make quick assumptions, but try instead to understand the student’s needs.

One strategy I have used is called the “social conference,” a private one-on-one conversation with the student. The objective of the conference is to try and understand what the child intends by his/her behavior and work together to come up with alternative ways to meet those goals.

During the conference, I name positive things I observe about the child’s behavior, and I name what I notice about the clowning. For example, I might say “I notice you love to read and have such good ideas about what stories mean. I also notice that you are quick to think of funny comments. Sometimes it’s fine to make people laugh. Sometimes, though, I notice that your jokes make it hard for people to do their work.”

I also ask the child what he/she notices. Together, we then search for possible reasons for the behavior. I pose some possibilities in the form of psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs’s “Could it be . . . ?” questions. For example:

  • “Could it be that you’re afraid you’ll make mistakes with the work?”
  • “Could it be that you get done early and don’t know what to do next?”
  • “Could it be that you want your classmates to pay attention to you and think you’re a really funny guy?”

Depending on the answer and on whether the child seems to recognize his/her own motivation in one of these “Could it be . . .” questions, the student and I go on to the next steps. We talk about why the behavior is a problem sometimes, then try to generate some alternative strategies. For example:

  • If the clowning is a cover for fears of failure, the teacher might be able to provide or arrange for instructional support.
  • The teacher and student can agree on a secret signal for the teacher to use to let the child know when jokes aren’t appropriate.
  • The teacher and student can think of constructive ways to use humor in the classroom, such as making up plays, writing funny stories, and sharing riddles or playing silly games at appropriate times.
  • The class can take some time to brainstorm about things students can do if they finish an assignment early. Ideas can be written on poster board and hung visibly on the wall.
  • The student can be given jobs that channel, in more constructive ways, her/his need to be known and valued by peers. Jobs such as telling an appropriate joke at Morning Meeting or doing improvisations as part of a reading lesson may validate the student’s strengths and help turn the student’s behavior into positive contributions to the class.
  • The teacher can try to ensure that school work is sufficiently engaging and challenging for the student.

In sum, it’s important to pay attention to clowning behavior and its possible disruptions for the individual and the class. Trying to understand its specific source will help guide our best interventions.

For more about social conferences, see Teaching Children to Care by Ruth Sidney Charney.

Ruth Sidney Charney has taught children and teachers for almost 30 years. She is the author of Teaching Children to Care and Habits of Goodness.

Tags: Challenging Behaviors, Misbehavior