February 23, 2023

A teacher just starts their lesson when a student gets up from their seat, swears at the teacher, and walks out of the room. This behavior seemingly comes out of nowhere. Thirty minutes later, the student comes back into the classroom and sits down as if nothing happened.

During lunch duty, a teacher who is monitoring the lunch is surrounded by a group of twelve middle school students and is being yelled at and told they are being mean. The principal walks into the cafeteria and tells the monitor they need to understand the kids better.

Why do I tell these two stories? Because I believe that schools are struggling with how to address poor behavior by learners.

The pandemic created deficits in socially acceptable behavior in many kids.

Think about it, some of these learners were not in a physical classroom for almost one full year. Instead of being in a classroom, they were at home getting their education online.

Many times, their homes were filled with high anxiety as parents were unsure of their jobs, their health, and were stressed out.

Let’s not forget the uncertainty of friends and families dying from COVID-19.

All of these factors have absolutely impacted kid’s behavior right now and will continue to impact it into the future.

Schools must understand learners’ anxiety (and how they manifest it).

Schools must strive to be a safe place for learners.

Schools must constantly change to address the emotional needs of the learners.

Our goal in schools is to do all of these things while also retaining order.

You see, I think educators have fallen into two camps on the question of discipline in schools.

On one end of the spectrum, you have educators who believe in their hearts that children are hurting so much that the school must be super understanding of outbursts to help kids cope with all of the anxiety in the world. In this lens, the behavior of the student is seen as a symptom of something so much bigger in society that the best thing the adults in the schools can do is to increase leniency to help students cope.

On the other hand, there are educators who refuse to believe that our children are legitimately hurting and that ANY misbehavior must be dealt with in a “black and white” way. Through this lens, when a student breaks a rule, the discipline must be the same for everyone, regardless of the context or situation. Students who cannot behave must be segregated from the rest of the student population.

Of course, both extremes, in this case, are wrong…the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Schools must recognize (and respect) the fact that our children right now, in 2023, are living through the most turbulent, anxiety-provoking times since the Great Depression. Schools must also help students by providing boundaries for proper behavior and help them understand there are consequences if you act beyond those boundaries.

Now, I am not an expert on school discipline, restorative practices, or even public education in general! What I do have is over thirty years of experience which leads me to three conclusions for learner-centered leaders when it comes to pandemic-related discipline issues.

1. Be Human!! No one (including you) is perfect. Act with compassion toward your learners and staff. Create a positive, understanding culture in your school. There are many students (and staff members) in your school who are emotionally suffering. A school leader must look upstream from the daily discipline problems and address the culture of the school that allows for misbehavior to take place. What are the underlying structures in your school that might exacerbate pre-existing anxiety for learners and staff.

For example, if your school has a policy mandating that a learner can’t go to a vocational school because they have to take a remediation class to pass a state-mandated test, then you must review that policy.

2. Give time to your staff. One of the unfortunate aftereffects of the pandemic is that school systems have thrown a lot more work onto the shoulders of teachers. For example, placing teachers in classrooms with students segregated from the rest of the student population because of discipline problems without training them on how to teach in that situation. Maybe the school (with the best of intentions) has implemented an “SEL” curriculum and “restorative practices” without taking anything off the plate of the teacher.

At the end of the day, the best example for learners about how to handle anxiety and stress is the behaviors of the adults in the school. The old adage “do as I say, not as I do” comes to mind. A school can have the “best” SEL curriculum, but if the teachers do not have time to properly incorporate it into their everyday practice, then it just becomes window dressing. GIVE YOUR STAFF THE TIME THEY NEED TO BE THE TEACHERS OUR KIDS NEED RIGHT NOW!!

3. Don’t try to “fix” society. Educators have a flaw directly tied to our greatest strength…we think we can (and must) fix everything wrong with a learner and the world they live in. Let’s not fall into that trap and just worry about the time we have the kids and create a place of mutual respect, honoring both the learners and the adults teaching them.

Let’s put our heads down and direct our energy toward the time we do have the learners in our buildings. We don’t make excuses, judge, or forget about the larger society kids live in, but we understand we can’t fix a larger society.

Writing this post was a challenge, and I hope I conveyed my thoughts clearly.

At the end of the day, kids need boundaries and consequences, but it must be done in a positive culture of respect where we honor their experiences.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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