Many teachers feel like they’re dealing with more behavior challenges than ever this year. Crying, angry outbursts, fighting, disrespect, disruptions, arguments, defiance, refusal to do work. It’s exhausting. But Jason Drake, LCSW-S, says it makes sense given the lack of stability in the past year. Stability, routines, and consistency are crucial for most kids to feel safe. While this is particularly true for children with conditions impacting self-regulation and impulse control, such as ODD and ADHD, a sense of safety and security is important for all students to learn and function most efficiently.
Drake says the pandemic has created trauma and chaos in all of our lives, including children. Kids are worried about caregivers getting sick or dying. Their parents may have lost income or are worried about the possibility of unemployment. A grandparent or other loved one may have passed away. Routines and life as we all knew it is now completely different. Everything is constantly changing with school. “This feels like a lack of safety for many children, which increases their stress and anxiety. This can seriously impact behavior and the ability to learn at school,” Drake explains.
He gives the following tips for helping students feel safer. This should lead to calmer students with fewer behavior issues and emotional meltdowns.
1. Consistent structure
As any teacher can attest, students do better when there is structure in the classroom. Drake suggests displaying rules and corresponding consequences on the wall for all to see. Then going over them frequently as a group. Being consistent with enforcing rules and consequences with all students is crucial. Drake explains, “This structure can help reduce the stress and anxiety and may help to reduce acting out behavior. This will help keep the student engaged in learning behavior instead of defiant behavior.”
2. Positive praise
“Students who are acting out often have poor self-esteem. It’s a vicious cycle as the defiant behavior causes low self-esteem and the low self-esteem causes more defiant behavior. If you can positively impact the student’s self-esteem, behavior challenges will frequently decrease,” Drake says. He suggests noticing all the times the student is on task and exhibiting appropriate behavior and acknowledging it positively. “Go out of your way to find ways to provide positive praise to the student for those behaviors. A good rule is for every one corrective action, provide eight positive praises for preferred behavior.” As the student’s self-esteem increases, behavior challenges will decrease and learning will improve.
3. Provide a safe environment
Have a calming corner or safe space area in the classroom. Remind all students it’s available frequently and role-play how to utilize it during class meetings. Create a peaceful classroom environment and strong connections with all students, including those with challenging behavior. Teach students mindfulness and meditation as self-calming tools to use.
4. Have a safety plan in case behavior escalates
If a student has a history of becoming aggressive or violent, ask administration to help you create a safety plan. Knowing there’s a plan in place reduces anxiety for all involved, including for the child who is struggling to regulate their emotions.
5. Slow things down
Drake says sometimes behavior challenges build momentum until they are like a huge boulder rolling downhill that is nearly impossible to redirect. He advises taking breaks to calm or redirect before it reaches that point. “The idea is to slow the roll and prevent the student from picking up momentum in their unwanted behavior.”
6. Know the signs
“The longer you work with a student, the better you will be able to recognize their ‘tells’. If you can spot the tell that usually results in the behavior shift, you can intervene before the behavior starts. Intervening early can help prevent the behavior,” Drake explains. For example, the child may get fidgety, seem tired, or complain about being hungry before the behavior begins. Some movement, a drink of water, redirecting to a new task, or a reminder that lunch is coming might be enough to head if off.
7. Manage expectations
Most adults are having a difficult time dealing with the pandemic. Many of us are stressed, snappier, more emotional, impatient, and less effective at work. Drake advises adults to be realistic of how much we expect from children in this difficult time, especially those with added challenges like ADHD, ODD, etc.
“Kids do well when they can.”
Drake recommends teachers and parents of children who exhibit challenging behavior read The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children (Amazon affiliate link) by Ross. W. Greene, Ph.D. Dr. Greene believes in “skill not will.” He says every child wants to do well, be successful, and make their parents and teachers proud of them. They also want to be proud of themselves. However, though they have the will, they don’t yet have the skill. Dr. Greene believes kids do well when they can, but they don’t always have the ability. Keeping this in mind helps the behavior feel less personal and makes it easier to handle with a cool head.