Kids are communicating. Are we listening? Are we paying appropriate attention?
The news is filled with reports of frustrated students acting out at greater levels than we saw pre-pandemic. This does not appear to be a local issue. Reports are coming in from across the country. Fights are breaking out. Students are demonstrating and staging riots. Chairs are being tossed, tables kicked over.
What in the world is going on?
It would be easy to conclude that these kids have forgotten how to behave in school, that they aren’t used to following rules or routines. Now, as we ask them to behave in a civil manner, they act out. And, that would be true, at least partially. Let’s face it - they are out of practice. They haven’t been expected to “do” school for a long time. And for younger students, they have never experienced in-person learning or the culture of schools. A typical first grader missed out on the opportunity to experience kindergarten, and probably pre-school, with other children. Of course they are out of practice! But, this issue goes deeper.
Kids are communicating with their actions. Many are frustrated, agitated and frightened. Others are in pain; experiencing anxiety, separation issues and depression. When people are in pain, we tend to lash out: either inwardly, causing self-harm, or outwardly through aggressive and uncharacteristic behaviors.
How are schools and school systems responding to these behaviors? Sadly, a frequent response is traditional, punitive disciplinary interventions: separating children from their peers, isolating them in suspension rooms or removing them from the school for a period of time. While I understand the impulse to get the problem out of our hair, even briefly, I have to ask: Does it solve the problem? More importantly, does it address the root cause that the observed behavior is a symptom of?
A school district near where I live has decided that the best way to address student mis-behavior in the middle school is to send them all home, and return to virtual learning for two weeks until the system leaders can get things figured out. Can you imagine? Suddenly, parents have to make last minute arrangements for their children. Teachers have to dust off their virtual teaching chops with little warning or time to prepare. I hope they have some brilliant problem solvers near by. I wish them well. I truly do. However, two weeks hardly feels like adequate time to address an issue this important and complex.
The strategy the district intends to utilize is to seek the input from adults: teachers primarily and other community members. While folks are trying to unravel the dilemma, they shouldn’t overlook the opportunity to solicit feedback, perspectives and ideas from kids. After all, they own the behaviors that are causing the concern. Asking them about their feelings could be the most illuminating perspective of any of the participants. I hope the list of informants includes social workers and mental health experts because the root cause of what it is they are trying to address is not instructional.
Allow me to repeat myself. The issue at hand is not instructional. It’s about feeling safe. It’s about managing stress. It’s about navigating in unfamiliar terrain. It’s about regaining a degree of confidence. It’s about trust. The best teacher in the world is not going to be able to gain any traction with kids unless these emotional issues and a sense of mental well being are in place.
It is my position that, right now, schools need to focus on creating connections and rebuilding community. This is not the time to be focused on administering the pre-SAT. This is not the time to implement a new initiative. This is not the time to institute a new schedule and a structure that will upend students and adults alike.
The biggest mistake schools and school districts made in planning to return to in-person instruction was the assumption that we could pick up where we left off and just slip back into normal. We neglected to recognize that “normal” would now need to look different because we, all of us, are forever changed by the impact of the pandemic. We know that now. The kids are showing us. We each need to allow ourselves, and each other, the grace to heal that which is raw by tending to how we each feel, not just on what we know.
This is the time to get to know one another, to reestablish meaningful relationships, and for every child to believe, to know, that they are seen for who they are and that they are a valued member of these communities we call “school.” This is the time to reinvent routines and to reaffirm the community’s collective values. This is the time to teach, or re-teach, expectations and protocols. This is the time to focus less on each child as a learner, but to instead focus on each child as a human.
Just for a little while.