(The Hill) — Student behavioral problems that spiked with the return of in-person learning after the coronavirus pandemic are getting even worse, educators say.
Seventy percent of teachers, principals and district leaders said in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey that students are misbehaving more now than in 2019, up from 66 percent in December 2021. One-third in the new poll said students are misbehaving “a lot more.”
Experts say the culture shock and whiplash from the extended period of remote classes are only one of the psychological and academic factors behind the problem.
More than 200,000 students have lost a parent to COVID-19, and several states reported an increase in youth suicide during the pandemic. Scholastically, the Nation’s Report Card 2022 found students had lost decades of learning.
“I think one of the things that we really talk to school leaders about is, you know, really understanding that you cannot push your way through. If a student is not emotionally available to learn, you’re never going to make the academic gains that you want,” said Tali Raviv, associate director of the Center for Childhood Resilience at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
But educators who are being proactive are reporting some success.
Crystal Thorpe, the principal of Fishers Junior High School in Fishers, Ind., said her faculty had to come together last year to come up with a game plan to tackle student misbehavior.
Thorpe said it was the worst year for student behavior that she had seen in her school, with more fights and aggressive behavior than ever.
In response, Fishers Junior High implemented measures such as making teachers more present in the hallways, having an app that allowed students to anonymously report concerning behavior and talking to students as soon as a problem arose and not waiting for violence to break out.
Thorpe said this academic year has been better.
“I think it’s because we just — we paid more attention to it because I think as a staff, we were all exhausted last year, and we were talking about ‘OK, what’s going on? How do we better address this? How do we handle this?’ and I think for this year, we’ve actually got a much better handle on it because we knew that it was a problem last year,” she said.
Experts say it is also important to acknowledge that teachers’ perceptions of student behavior could be skewed by their own mental burnout.
“There are surveys of kids, and what we’ve found around the world is that teacher perceptions do not always map onto student behaviors or things that happen to students,” said Ron Avi Astor, professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA.
During the pandemic, teacher stress soared as educators struggled to switch instruction to online learning and manage all the changes thrown at them.
“Adults are kind of at their worst, so to speak. We as adults also experienced a lot of exhaustion, fatigue and trauma,” Raviv said.
“We know that their rates of teacher burnout and teacher stress are at an all-time high and think about you when you’re stressed and you’re anxious and your patience for behavioral challenges, whether they’re in the classroom or whether they’re with co-workers,” she added. “You’re really not responding always kind of with patience and in a way that de-escalates but, in fact, might be responding in a way that escalates that.”
A Gallup poll in 2022 found 52 percent of teachers felt burned out while they were in the classrooms.
In EdWeek’s survey, 68 percent of educators said student morale is lower than during the pandemic.
In a December EdWeek poll, however, 86 percent of students said they were motivated, and 82 percent were feeling hopeful about the future, up from 69 percent in 2020.
While student misbehavior did accelerate over the pandemic, it corresponds with the youth mental health crisis over which experts have been sounding the alarm for the past decade.
“I think the problems have always been there with students struggling. I think there’s been a combination of a lot of things, the increase in the use of social media among our young people and I think the pandemic also brought about some issues,” Thorpe said.
Thorpe said her school had a part-time social worker on staff last academic year, and this year they were able to hire a social worker full-time.
Research shows in the 2021 to 2022 school year, 28 percent of districts made changes to their calendars to help students and faculty address mental health concerns.
Schools have continuously pushed for more resources to ensure all students have what they need to work on their academic and mental health.
“Young people are demanding things like mental health days in schools, and, you know, supports and they’re talking about mental health in a much more open way,” Raviv said. “And I think that that gives me hope that this might be a peak that we can kind of recover from, but if we do nothing and just think things are gonna go back to normal by themselves, I think we’re fooling ourselves. I don’t think this is something that’s just going to get better with time if we don’t really allocate resources.”
Astor, meanwhile, is optimistic that the wave of behavior problems could prove to be “a smaller blip in the larger 20-year period.”
“It’s important, and it’s significant as it was the first time we really had a big uptake,” he said but added “we all anticipated” it would happen when students came back.