By Martin Silverman

This is the fourth article in a series. Read the other articles in the series.

The school year has begun and is in somewhat of a full swing. The honeymoon is definitely over, my friends and colleagues! New shoes are starting to look scuffed, and the first set of pencils are starting to wear down to nubs. While we all worked to build an engaging and motivating opening of school, we are now getting to the part where some of the shine is beginning to wear off and we likely see some issues with students and behavior.

To be fair, some of us have been dealing with interesting behaviors since day one. We are still not out of the shadow of the pandemic, and there are some real issues with students who lacked typical social development experiences over the past couple of years and who are not quite there when it comes to behavior expectations at school. To counter a popularly stated observation, students did not suffer “learning loss” regarding behavior. They simply did not have the typical experiences that led to the typically expected behaviors we were used to seeing in schools. You have to walk before you can run, and our students did not get much of an opportunity to walk during the past few years at home, in hybrid situations, six feet apart, etc.

Of all the many facets of our role that require us to use both the mind and heart, student behavior is one of the most impactful. I remember many years ago we had a teacher appraisal system (TTAS) that contained 9 domains. One domain focused on the delivery of instruction, and one focused on student behavior. There was a constant debate about which was more impactful. Some said that if student behavior was improved, the delivery of instruction would improve (heart). Others said that if the delivery of instruction was improved, the student behavior would improve (mind).

Leading with the mind when we consider school student behavior requires us to look at the “scientific” influences on the students we serve. For example:

  • Looking at the social, economic and cultural trends of our communities. What are the struggles people face in their daily lives, and how do the struggles show up in student behavior? I caution all of us to remember that while poverty is a huge influence on student stress and behavior, we also need to consider the stresses on our middle to upper-economic class students. What are the norms? What are the triggers?
  • What behavior is taught (explicitly or by example) as effective? If behavior is a function meant to meet personal needs, what behaviors are getting those needs met? When considering the mind in behavior we separate moral implications from the actions. The questions become, “What need is being met?” and “Is this need being met through this behavior?”
  • Are basic needs being met? Think Maslow here and it’s first two levels (food, water, warmth, rest, security, and safety).
  • How does the physical environment of the school impact behavior? Think about harsh lighting, uncomfortable furniture, visual stimulation in classrooms, etc. Students who are overly stimulated (too many anchor charts!) sometimes show an increase in anxiety-fueled behaviors.

Understanding the triggers of student behavior is usually a work of the mind. But when you’re in a situation where a student is upset, raging, withdrawn, stubborn, hostile, passive-aggressive, or defiant it’s often difficult to not take things personally. You know you are working to create an inclusive, equitable culture where students are the focus. You think about the function of student behavior and seek to provide opportunities for students to both learn and practice positive behaviors. And yet, someone threw a rock at someone, another student bit a kid who wouldn’t share blocks, someone looked at someone wrong in the cafeteria, etc.…and here you are. This is where the science of behavior moves into the realm of the heart.

Some things to consider when you look at student behavior through the lens of the heart:

  • Learned helplessness is a huge issue when it comes to student behaviors. We almost always mean well, but we often create situations where we have taught our kids that they are not capable of handling situations by doing everything for them. We provide few opportunities to make choices and feel consequences. We walk them everywhere, referee all their recess disagreements, monitor what they eat and drink, provide for every need with no expectation of effort on their part, etc. School should be a laboratory where students are free to risk and try with a great safety net. However, we teach them from a very young age that they are incapable of making almost every decision. This has a huge impact on student behavioral development. Connecting to the Maslow example above, this prevents students from moving to the higher levels (esteem needs and self-actualization). Think also of moving from a deficit to a growth mindset!
  • Relationships are key! It is difficult to hurt someone you love and who loves you. When we put the focus of student behavior into the concept of the relationship, we can very often have much deeper learning about what is expected and what should be expected. This is one of the bases of restorative practices that seek to help students understand the impact of their behavior and “fix” situations in the context of their relationships.
  • A subset of relationship building that connects to student behavior is communication. In this instance I am referring to how we communicate with students in all areas, but especially when we are addressing student behaviors. For example, it has been common practice in many schools to call students out for misbehavior in a public way. Example: Shouting across a cafeteria to tell a student to quit playing with his food. When we take the step of deciding that we will address inappropriate behavior in private, we use our hearts to allow students to maintain their dignity while also being corrected and taught.
  • Sometimes we just have to learn to love the seemingly unlovable. I had a student this past year who was rude to kids and most adults to the point that he was almost unbearable to be around. It was pretty extreme. I decided I was going to be relentless in giving him positive input even when I had to discipline him. My quote was always, “You are one of my favorite people and I’m determined that you’re going to have a few positive experiences here before you go off to middle school.” Ultimately, while he did not become a great-behaved friend to all (that would have been too Hallmark movie-like), we did have some glimmers of positivity that may have rooted and will help him see the good in school at some point. Find something to love about all of them even when (especially when) it’s most difficult.

Student discipline is never an easy part of our roles as school administrators. But when we challenge ourselves to lead from both the mind and the heart, we create opportunities for our students and ourselves to build the school cultures we expect!

Judson ISD principal, Martin Silverman is committed to providing the best educational experience for students and families at Salinas Elementary. His interests are in creating and nurturing school culture, providing enriching experiences for students and families, and developing future teachers and administrators. He hosts a podcast called “The Second Question,” which highlights educators and provides them a forum to discuss ideas and to honor the teachers who have influenced their lives. A longtime TEPSA member, Silverman is also part of a trio of Texas educators who host the podcast “The Texan Connection.”

TEPSA News, September/October 2022, Vol 79, No 5

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