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Classroom Behavior Challenges: A Threat to Quality Education

As an educational consultant who specializes in program development, curriculum design, and grant writing, I like to be actively engaged in every facet of the educational process. To keep a pulse on the instructional side, interact with kids, and remain informed of the daily engagements and trends of youth today, I occasionally substitute teach. Recently, I worked in a blended class that paired extremely behaviorally challenged students with non-challenged students. Spoiler alert, this story ends with me leaving, two hours into a seven hour commitment, feeling anxious, helpless, and hurt for the students who have been forced to adjust to violent, abusive behavior, jeopardizing both their safety and education.

Within minutes of entering the classroom, I was met with an angry child. He stomped throughout the classroom, knocking things off of the shelves, and throwing large objects around in response to being asked to have a seat. I requested the support of a behavioral specialist and was quickly informed that I would be in for an adventurous day.

“They didn’t warn you?” The specialist looked at me with a knowing smirk.

“Inform me of what?” I returned…

“We’ve got a few troubled kids in this class....” he said as he began to run down the list of students and their behaviors, which included standing on tables shouting, hitting other students, throwing chairs, and self-harming. “However,” he specified, “this is not a special needs class…”

My first thought was that the school should have left notes to notify a potential substitute of the environment s/he would be entering prior to accepting the position. My second thought was how can children and educators thrive in such a hostile environment? My third thought was where is the accountability in creating a safe space and actively redirecting rambunctious behavior? And not redirecting it in the sense of taking a child out of class for a few minutes, but also by not assisting in the cultivation of children who resort to violence and are not faced with consequences?

Who will these students be in ten years? Violent offenders? Sociopaths who inflict harm on others without understanding or caring about the impact they are causing others? That may not be "right" to say, but let's face it, this behavior starts somewhere, and after the fact, we wonder, who didn't see the signs?

What bothered me most was the lack of urgency in managing these threatening tantrums. Behavior specialists came into the classroom, pulled one or two of the students out of the classroom for a moment, and brought them back within resolution, no consequences, no accountability. Within thirty minutes of my being in the classroom, the four reportedly violent children began their daily routine of aggressively throwing chairs, pencils, books, and anything that a temporarily enraged child could get his or her hands on...hitting other children, screaming, and more.

I watched helplessly (as I was not willing to physically restrain a child or put myself in danger of being attacked) in disbelief as mayhem seemed to spread within the classroom. I wondered if the parents knew what was in a day’s experience for their children, whether they would allow their child to remain in that school/class.

I was equally disturbed when I addressed this situation with the administration team, and the response was, “they’re just kindergarteners!” To that, I responded that that was in no way justifiable behavior. I’ve never been in a classroom where six students are fighting, kicking, violently throwing chairs from angry outbursts, and it’s normalized. Something is grossly wrong if one attempts to dismiss the severity of impact that this barbaric behavior has on the children and the adults involved. Where is the dedication to what’s right rather than what’s easiest to avoid?

One may equate this classroom dynamic to the teacher being unable to manage the class; however, there’s a problem with the question that a teacher should even be required to manage a class of twenty five, with a group of significantly disruptive children. There’s a much bigger problem to normalizing this abusive behavior. It creates a maniacal environment for both the educator and the students, jeopardizes an educator’s sanity, career (if one is to react defensively and inadvertently cause greater harm to the youth), and ability to effectively teach. It also puts other students at a major disadvantage as the majority of the educator’s attention may be spent calming the behaviorally challenged students down rather than supporting the educational experience of all students.

In this politically correct day in age, by including everyone, we sometimes marginalize the ones who have to adapt, robbing both parties of the quality of intentional instruction. By removing sound discipline from schools, we enable sociopathic, antisocial behavior and create a domain that causes psychological distress and trauma for otherwise normal functioning students.

I imagine the lack of definitive response and accountability to hold both the students and parents accountable stems from being overwhelmed with a myriad of student concerns, not wanting to incur too many suspensions or seem insensitive by creating a separate space for dedicated learning systems for behaviorally challenged students. Maybe this stresses an already stretched budget or jeopardizes the standing of the school; however, at what cost are we willing to enable this behavior? When will we stand firm and fight for what’s right rather than what’s popular?! How can we hold the parents accountable for teaching their children to be mindful and to react in healthy, non-violent ways? How can we be of support to the parents and to aggressively reacting students to prevent their lack of control in how they respond? Are we saying this is okay? Are we setting them up to become court involved if we take such a hands-off approach to such behavior?

Recommend counseling, put students on a behavior plan, make it a village effort. Principals, I know you are overworked and overwhelmed, but please, find a way to ensure the safety and psychological wellbeing of all involved by making it a community effort. Teachers are fed up and are simply walking away from teaching, citing a lack of support from administration and a lack of respect from students.

Yes, we must practice sensitivity but passively addressing these issues creates an environment in which we punish well-behaving children by not having capacity to teach, to support, nor to give our attention to their needs. We, by stopping everything to continuously address poor behavior, say that those responses are more important than their learning experiences. No one deserves to be abused in this way. Can we bring the human back into education?

Possible Resolutions:

Take a systems approach to discipline- Work within the systems of the behaviorally challenged child. Engage the family, the school’s behavior team, the principal, the teachers, and develop a plan to address behavior issues as a unified front. These strategies may be supplemented by the advice of a counselor to ensure effectiveness.

Get Everyone on Board- Again, make it a systems approach, a team effort. Everyone should know the plan and enforce it equally.

Be consistent in disciplinary practice- If you set a boundary with a child, enforce it! Do not say you will present a consequence for a particular behavior and then refuse to do so once the child has challenged you. Children will challenge you. The best way to set your boundaries with the type of behavior you will or will not accept is to hold others accountable when they act in a way that threatens your comfort or security.

Hold students accountable - I cannot reiterate this enough... Do not offer consequences yet be afraid to enforce them… enforce them. Show them that you are serious about your expectations of their behavior. If you do not, you are possibly doing more harm to their long term growth than good. In the real world, police officers will not be sensitive to the explanation that someone has behavioral issues if s/he randomly assaults an employee because he didn’t get what he wanted! Don’t set these children up for failure…

Hold parents accountable - If the children are consistently putting other students in harm’s way or causing disruption to the learning process, then maybe the parents need to come deal with the issue. If they are constantly disturbed at work, they may be more invested in getting their children the help they need to modify their behavior. If they lack resources to get professional help, direct them to the school’s counselor who may be able to find a social worker for them.

Have clearly defined behavior standards and adhere to them- Inform students of how they are expected to behave and let them know the consequences of their behavior. Often times, we may say, “well, he is behaviorally challenged. That’s just what he does…” we label students and inadvertently, by avoiding to address these issues head on, we aid in the development of behaviors that will inevitably inhibit their potential for success in life. This is exactly why, during my senior year of earning a bachelor's degree in psychology, I decided that I would go on to study education for my masters.

I wanted to use my background in psychology to enhance the educational process by understanding why learning gaps occur so often and how not taking the time to deal with behavior issues directly, often caused youth to be mislabeled as special needs and eventually, led to the prison pipeline. This is how it starts...

Don’t be afraid to be the “bad guy”- Too often, we allow bad behavior to continue because we don’t want to seem insensitive, but who does it serve to turn a blind eye to what’s unjust? Think about the long term effects of passively dealing with these issues? Will the children become violent offenders if they are not redirected, assertively, now? Will well-behaving children think the way to get attention is to become violent or aggressive (which I witnessed in that two hour class!)? Will well-behaving children begin to fall behind in school because their learning experience is in competition with intemperate eruptions?

Principals, I challenge you to avoid subjecting your students to this behavior. Instead of taking the popular stance, or the path of least resistance, take the right stance. Find a way to support the behaviorally challenged without jeopardizing the safety of others… if you need support in the design of alternative options, including workshops and trainings for taking a systematic approach to dealing with behavior challenges in your school, I am here and would love the opportunity to help, with love!!!
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