For many schools around the country, an unintended outcome of the COVID-19 school closures has been increased student behavior and interpersonal issues. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 87% of public schools reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted student social-emotional and behavioral development. Respondents specifically noted increased incidents of classroom disruptions from student misconduct, rowdiness outside of the classroom, acts of disrespect towards teachers and staff, and prohibited use of electronic devices.
A certain amount of this behavior is normal and in line with brain development; however, the loss of connection with peers, the disruption of routines, and the trauma of the COVID-19 lockdown appear to have amplified misbehavior. Many educators are finding themselves at a loss for how to manage this increase in negative student interactions and behaviors.
When a student struggles academically, educators are adept at examining the situation and identifying the intervention strategies and learning environments needed to help the student grow and develop academically. We need to utilize a similar approach regarding negative behavior. It helps to step back and acknowledge that the student’s behavior is often a reflection of an internal struggle beyond the student’s control rather than a conscious choice. By doing this, it becomes easier to work to create an environment that supports the social-emotional needs of the student.
So what can we do?
One of the more challenging issues for educators is figuring out the best way to respond to student misbehavior. Is it better to be strict or more forgiving? Do we utilize a points system where students earn or lose points based on their behavior, or does that become shaming and feel a bit like micromanagement? How do we change student behavior, so it doesn’t interfere with learning?
It is important to remember that the only behavior and emotional response we can truly control is our own. So, while we are not to blame for students acting out, it can help if we step back and look at ways to change our perspectives, reactions, and environments to help manage student behavior.
Q-Tip: Quit Taking It Personally
This is probably the most challenging part of dealing with student behavior. In situations where students are behaving poorly, it can be hard not to feel like it is personal– especially when students engage in name calling and verbal attacks. One thing we often discuss in our sessions is that it helps to remind ourselves that students who are acting out usually do so from a place of hurt unrelated to us as their teachers. We must remind ourselves that the student’s behavior is usually not about us. It is often a byproduct of outside events or feelings that our students are unable to articulate or share– often, they are unsure as to why they are feeling and behaving the way they do.
One of our favorite reminders when struggling with student behaviors is, “They’re not giving me a hard time. They are having a hard time.” A recent study found that an exercise called “perspective taking” shows great promise in improving student and teacher relationships. In this exercise, teachers think about the students who displayed the most challenging behavior and then shared their frustrations with the student’s behavior. Then, they retell the story or situation from the student’s perspective and brainstorm possible reasons for why the student is acting the way they are. While they don’t come to any clear conclusions about the student’s behavior, it allows teachers to think about the two-way relationship between student behavior and teacher reaction. It encourages them to learn more about their students. Study participants reported more positive student-teacher relationships as a result of this exercise.
Change the environment
Modeling and incorporating SEL into everyday learning in the classroom also goes a long way in helping with student behavior. Both CASEL and the EASEL Lab at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education have found that the best way to implement SEL in the classroom is through smaller activities and strategies infused into the academic content, rather than a single dedicated SEL lesson (want to know more about this strategy? Check out our blog post on Bite Size SEL). When educators can routinely work with students on social-emotional learning, the overall classroom environment can improve drastically.
Increase adult SEL
Social-emotional learning isn’t just for the kids. The more adults are trained in SEL and become aware of their brain states, the better the overall learning environment. When we are aware of the moments when we are emotionally triggered, it becomes easier to step back, take a breath, and try to respond from a calm place. As we practice this awareness and calm, it becomes easier to help our students do the same. The more we can help our students co-regulate their emotions by being aware of our own feelings, triggers, and implicit biases, the less instructional time will need to be spent on managing behavior in the classroom.
Approaching negative behavior the way we approach academic struggles will help create an environment where students are supported academically and social-emotionally and where educators and students can thrive.