By Dan St. Romain

The Problem
The struggle is real. Another school year is in full swing, and teachers are trying to do the job for which they were hired—to teach. Unfortunately, this seemingly straight-forward task is not as easy as it sounds. With larger class sizes, greater diversity of student needs, fewer volunteers, increased academic expectations, and “other duties as assigned,” educators seem to have the cards stacked against them. Throw in the challenge of dealing with student discipline issues and it becomes understandable why teachers seem to be leaving the profession at a faster-than-normal rate.

Behavior management has always been something educators have had to contend with, but over the past few years the task has become more difficult. And it is an issue taking up one of educators’ most valuable resources: time. As one teacher described it, “Rather than having a small percentage of my teaching time interrupted by misbehavior, I now feel like I’m squeezing small amounts of instruction in between continual redirection of students.”

Contributing Factors
How did we get here? Why are kids struggling so much with social, emotional, and behavioral issues? The obvious answer is the pandemic. However, as any school administrator can tell you, problems were mounting years before we were faced with Covid-19; the pandemic simply threw gasoline on an existing fire, moving us from a state of concern to one of crisis.

When examining this issue, it is helpful to remember that external behaviors often communicate internal needs—meaning, students behave in certain ways, often unconsciously, to get certain needs met. Accordingly, if we can identify the needs, not only do we have better insight into why the behaviors are occurring, but we can also use this information to determine how best to address them.

The Need for Routine
Human brains are pattern-seeking. They like patterns because patterns help them predict. When we can predict what is coming, we do not have to be on high alert; we do not have to make constant decisions; we can develop routines and function on autopilot.

Ever had your daily routine interrupted?

  • Not get your morning coffee?
  • Substitute not show up?
  • Parent issue needing your immediate attention?

It’s not pretty.

The enemy of routine is change. Sadly, for some students, change is their norm—changing caregivers, parent jobs, homes, people in their lives—with school being the only consistent routine to which they can cling. And that was before the pandemic hit.

Since then, we have all been in a constant state of change—and this change has ushered in high degrees of anxiety and tension which is ultimately trickling down and manifesting through the kids’ behaviors.

The Need for Experiences
Living in an age filled with technology has its advantages; however, it also comes at a cost. With technology use rising, kids spend a great deal of time in front of screens, and in doing so, they miss out on face-to-face time with others. This lack of experience results in deficit social skills students critically need.

When I worked in a behavior unit many years ago, a young boy in my class called a little girl “stupid” and in response, she slapped him across the face. As I recall, he never did that again. He learned through the experience of that natural consequence.

Unfortunately, technology has made it possible for youth to say things on social media they would never say to someone’s face without an immediate consequence that would otherwise change their behaviors. The pandemic has only added to this problem, creating unprecedented social and emotional developmental lags.

Teachers are finding 10-year-old students, for example, acting more like 8-year-olds, due to a 24-month gap in interactions and experiences with others. This issue is most evident in early childhood settings because the younger individuals are, the stronger the developmental gaps—and thus, the more pronounced the behavior concerns.

The Need for Instruction
When students have deficit skills, they need help from adults; they need instruction. The school system was designed to meet this need—cognitively. However, over the years, skill deficits in the areas of social, emotional, and behavioral development have become more prevalent.

Support for these needs has historically been provided by counselors, social workers, and select special education staff. However, as concerns have gotten greater, caseload numbers have outpaced the adults needed to support them. Accordingly, teachers fill in the gaps; however, most do not have training needed in this area to best deal with the concerns faced.

Another factor to consider in this category is the behavior of adults. One of the strongest ways we teach is through modeling—and unfortunately, be it when driving in traffic, listening to a political discussion, or watching a sporting event, we do not have to look far to see adults behaving badly. Examples are all around us, and sadly, these modeled behaviors are internalized by our kids.

The Need for Safety
I was sitting in a school parking lot when I heard about the tragedy at Columbine High School on the radio. We had never encountered something like that before; it was the first mass shooting of its kind. That was 23 years ago. Today, incidents like these have become weekly occurrences. It is no wonder that safety is a big concern for students.

Over the years I have known many students for whom school was their safe place. School was the port in the storm and a place where they could let their guard down. However, the climate inside our schools has changed, given all the factors occurring outside our walls—civil unrest, wars, economic conditions, political division, a pandemic.

Each of these issues has taken a huge toll on adults, and because adult emotions feed children’s emotions, adult concerns about safety are being felt and passed on to our students.

The Challenge
As teachers work to meet the needs of students and deal with their behavioral challenges, administrators work to do the same and support the staff’s efforts. However, the task becomes more complex because at the administrative level, changing student behaviors often requires a change in adult behaviors. And change is hard—for all of us.

Practices and Perspectives
So, where should we start? One way to create change in student behaviors is to provide teachers with effective strategies. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Because our practices sit on our perspectives, the same strategies are often interpreted and implemented differently by different educators.

For example, using intentional eye contact with students is a powerful strategy for changing behaviors. However, while some teachers use eye contact to model appropriate behaviors, create engagement in learning, and make connections with students, others use the strategy sparingly, stopping instruction, and giving students “the look.” Notice the strategy does not change, but how it is implemented does and is based on the underlying perspective of the teachers. The first group approached the situation with a belief in the power of the relationship; the latter believed more in a traditional model of punishment.

Adding to the problem is our collective inclination to discipline kids the way we were disciplined. Accordingly, our fixed mindsets of what used to work often keep us from evolving our practices in positive ways.

Thus, one of the biggest challenges for administrators is to align staff perspectives so the strategies that are implemented are done so with consistent philosophical beliefs.

The Behavioral Zone of Proximal Development
Administrators often adopt new programs to address behavior concerns. Though this strategy is well-intentioned, timing is important. If practices are implemented before staff buy-in is established, efforts often fail. When it comes to introducing initiatives, the key is to find a balance by working within the staff’s behavioral zone of proximal development. This helps staff members move beyond their current thinking to adopt new behavioral practices as they are ready to accept and implement them with fidelity

Working Through the Process of Change
I’m often called into schools with the same request of providing staff more behavioral “tools for the toolbox.” Though I understand the intent, I believe this phrase is problematic. Behavior is complicated and when we try to simplify it by focusing on just strategies, we inadvertently increase frustration. Bringing about healthy behavioral change is a process that requires a focus on both perspective and practice.

Given our current reality, we must start by better understanding how times have changed over the past few decades and how these changes are impacting student behaviors. For the more we understand why behaviors are occurring, the more likely we will be to approach student concerns with greater empathy and less judgment. Once this shift in perspective occurs, schools will be in a better position to adopt and implement consistent practices that are aligned with shared beliefs. It is at this point that we stand the best chance of meeting our ultimate goal of creating long-term positive behavior change in the students we serve.

Dan St. Romain is a national independent educational consultant who provides staff development and consultative services to educators and parents working with children at all developmental levels. Dan is passionate about helping individuals shift their perspective on discipline and understanding the best ways to provide support given the challenges posed in today’s society.

TEPSA Leader, Winter 2023, Vol 36, No 1

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The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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