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More than a year after the nation’s return to in-person learning saw a surge of disruptive behavior in schools, educators say students are still struggling to adjust to life back in the classroom.
Disruptions after the long stretches of virtual learning ranged from smaller infractions to verbal and physical fights. Educators say those issues are still present this school year, but note many students are struggling in quieter ways, such as finding it hard to interact with their peers or engage in class.
“Last year, I was talking a lot about kids just walking out — it was a constant,” said Alex Magaña, executive director of Beacon Network Schools in Denver, Colorado. “But now, you see a higher percentage of kids that just sit there, not engaging.”
Behavioral challenges are not new to schools, but with the pandemic introducing additional trauma and stressors, educators fear they’ve become more prevalent. Even as some schools have strengthened support systems, teachers say it hasn’t always been enough to meet student needs — and experts warn the long-lasting effects on students are not yet fully understood.
In Chicago, schools saw a roughly 48% drop in serious or criminal misconduct at schools this year, but at the same time, more minor disruptive behaviors were on the rise. And while similar numbers are not available nationwide, nearly 70% of educators surveyed last fall said behavioral disruptions had increased since the 2019-20 school year, according to a report by EAB, an education consulting firm. (The survey drew from more than 1,000 educators across 42 states, but was not a nationally representative sample.)
Since 2018, the share of educators reporting frequent opposition and emotional disconnection among students saw significant jumps, according to the EAB survey. Those findings follow a May 2022 National Center for Education Statistics survey that found more than 80% of public schools had noticed slower behavioral and socio-emotional development in students amid the pandemic — and as educators on the EAB survey reported smaller but still notable increases in observed bullying and violence.
“Schooling was really inconsistent for a lot of students across the pandemic,” said Olivia Rios, an associate director at EAB. “They just haven’t had the chance, or the time, or the opportunities, to develop those skills that you need to sit in a chair and productively learn throughout the day.”
Of course, educators struggled with behavioral challenges well before the pandemic, she added. Indicators of student mental health, too, had been declining for years.
Rios said educators have told her this year has been less chaotic than the last, with students also exhibiting less severe disruptive behavior. But concerns remain over the long-term impact of the pandemic on students’ self-regulation skills, she added.
“The temperature has come down a little bit,” she said. “But even if the outbursts aren’t quite as big as they were last year, they’re still there, and we’re still having trouble resetting kids and getting them back into the mindset of being ready to learn.”
It’s an issue that some educators and students have seen locally, though experiences vary widely even within a school.
For 14-year-old Kiara Rodriguez, a ninth grader at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, New York, this school year hasn’t felt different from the last. Many students still aren’t listening in class, and with friction between teachers and students, it can be difficult to focus, she said.
“I kind of want to go back to online school,” Rodriguez said. “It’s too much.”
Omar Ramirez, also a ninth grader at Grover Cleveland, has had a different experience. He said some students have been distracted, but the year has gone smoothly — adding he hasn’t seen any especially disruptive behavior around school.
“The students have been in control,” he said. “Nothing really crazy has been going on.”
Dan Walsh, principal of Kepner Beacon Middle School in Denver, said what teachers at his school are reporting “is more of a shift in the ratio.”
“Not that the behaviors that are happening are more intense, it’s just that the number of kids that are experiencing those challenges has increased,” he said.
Jennifer Spencer, a lead interventionist at the Distinctive Schools network in Michigan, said she’s seen widespread frustration from students as they attempt to navigate their classes after losing academic ground during the pandemic.
“They’ve lost that control and understanding that when they come to the classroom, they have to be ready to learn,” she said. “They’re just all over the place.”
And the impact hasn’t just been felt inside of the classroom. Danyelle Kimp, a teacher at Alcorn Middle School in Columbia, South Carolina, said students at his school have struggled to socialize with one another, even more than a year after returning to an in-person learning environment.
“Online communication was the norm for a year and a half,” he said. “So it just seems like some of the kids are awkward and don’t know how to interact with each other, let alone teachers or other adults.”
Alex Driver, a teacher at Pace High School in New York City, said he’s noticed an uptick in how many students struggle with social anxiety.
“There’s always been kids who are reticent to speak in front of the class,” he said. “But it’s probably five times as many these days.”
Though his students haven’t struggled with outbursts, he noted they’ve been more distracted, with cell phone use being particularly disruptive in class.
“There’s never been a period that goes by that I don’t have to say, ‘Put away your phone,’ like 15 or 16 times,” he said.
The EAB survey also highlighted a disconnect between teachers and school administrators when it came to addressing behavior issues in the classroom. It indicated that school administrators overestimated how much training staff and teachers had received — with more than 70% of administrators stating their staff had been trained in various behavioral management techniques, while 53% or fewer teachers reported that was the case.
Ben Court, a senior director at EAB, said ensuring teachers and administrators are on the same page is “the most important first piece of this puzzle.”
“One of the things that we know is incredibly important for students is consistent response from teachers between classrooms,” he said. “The more variation we have, the more chaotic it can be, the harder for them it can be to know how to respond.”
To Driver, the behavioral shifts in recent years have heightened the importance of support systems in schools.
“More kids than ever need the counselors at our school,” he said. “A lot of kids have trauma … but I have tons of kids who will ask to go see the counselor, and not because they’re in crisis. The counselor will say, ‘She just wants to talk every day.’”
Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering national issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.