Schools grapple with escalating behavioral challenges
Some educators and parents disagree on social-emotional learning programs’ benefits
Not even three months into the academic calendar, Warrington Preparatory Academy in Pensacola, Fla., has been hit by a wave of student misbehavior, including fights and vandalism. School officials put all seventh grade students on a modified schedule last month—pausing all elective classes and requiring students to eat lunch in their classes—after several students intentionally flooded a bathroom, causing the destruction of seven classrooms.
Instances of disruptive behavior at schools across the country have been on the rise, leaving educators and parents grappling with a complex challenge. According to a recent survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, student behavior problems have seen a consistent increase over the past three to four years. The survey, which involved 1,058 teachers, principals, and district leaders, revealed that 70 percent of these educators have observed a hike in student misbehavior compared to pre-pandemic numbers in the fall of 2019.
As schools returned to in-person learning after pandemic-related school closures, many educators and advocates reported that increased stress and anxiety and the disruption of routines brought on by COVID-19 concerns had worsened student behavior. Some schools added more counselors to meet increased mental health needs among students.
But some educators say the pandemic isn’t the only cause. Ted Lamb has taught in Virginia schools and internationally for 27 years and said he observed a gradual rise in behavioral problems for several years even before the COVID-19 outbreak. He attributed this trend to “a general decline in society norms and standards.”
Lamb said that relaxed grade expectations can influence student behavior. In California, several major districts are eliminating “D” and “F” grades from their grading systems. Under this approach, high school students who struggle with a test or homework assignment can have an opportunity for a do-over or additional time to complete their work. If a student doesn’t complete assignments or fails the final exam, they receive an “incomplete” grade.
“What does that have to do with behavior? Well, it has a lot to do with behavior. Because now you’re just reinforcing that it’s okay to be rewarded with something, even though you do nothing,” said Lamb.
To address the rising behavioral issues in schools, several states have introduced programs such as social-emotional learning (SEL), which aims to teach students skills for managing their emotions and fostering interpersonal relationships.
Luciano Cid, the Interim Director of Elementary Education at Biola University, said that SEL programming is designed “to train children that are competent and whole, and can interact with others, and can have a loving community.”
SEL programs do not have a religious or spiritual orientation, and proponents typically market them as suitable for diverse student populations, regardless of their faith or belief systems. As public education has become secularized, Cid said that schools need aspects of SEL in order to instill morality.
“In public schools, you can’t talk about spirituality,” he said. “So, the closest thing you can get is social-emotional learning, and I’m all for that.”
Missouri education officials proposed implementing SEL standards in schools earlier this year. But during a public comment period, the state’s original proposal received over 1,800 responses from concerned parents, educators, and community members. Many commenters expressed apprehension about SEL’s perceived connections to political issues, concerns about potential curriculum impacts, and the role of teachers. Due to the backlash, officials made the SEL standards optional.
Daniel Buck is a former teacher and an editorial and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He said that while the initial, narrow definition of SEL aims to provide children with basic social skills such as cooperation and emotional management, it often includes ideology.
“It becomes tied into action civics, it’s tied into individualized learning and student direction, it’s tied into sitting in a circle and having group therapy sessions during class,” Buck said. He added that the model has become “watered-down, neutered character education” instead of focused on teaching students about virtues.
“In classical education, we focus on forming the student’s ethics. Teaching them to live right according to virtues, like honesty or temperance,” said Buck. “But those words imply an objective morality, and public education nowadays kind of rejects anything that whiffs of objective truth and objective morality.”
While teaching middle school in Wisconsin, Buck found the best way to maintain good behavior in the classroom was to impose consequences. He said he created a document with over 250 parent contacts, calling at least one a day. “I had to create my own consequences where my administration didn’t hold kids accountable,” he said.
Back in Virginia, Lamb said he has encountered many behavior issues during his extensive teaching career, ranging from threats and minor fights to situations that required hospitalization. “I would love to just have a very real conversation about what we have done to public education,” he said. “If we could even just do that then we could be bold enough to actually go and put in place the changes that would need to be done.”
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