Concerns around behavior issues within the school environment are not new. The increase in behavior problems, however, has been linked to more severe school issues, like violence and crime. These concerns are top of mind for teachers, staff, school administrators, and in particular, principals.
Traditional approaches to addressing behavior issues are ineffective and can even be counterproductive. New approaches to dealing with a variety of problems give administrators the ability to provide better life-long outcomes for students and increase the perceived and actual safety of the school.
These new approaches treat the whole student and create an opportunity for educators to meet the needs of the individual. Techniques like social-emotional learning focus on positive behaviors and life skills, in addition to academics.
Teachers and administrators do not need to go it alone in implementing and following proactive tactics for student behavior improvement. Technology solutions alleviate the mundane but critical tasks associated with identifying students who need help and initiating those services. These tools track multiple factors that are early indicators of need, but also reduce the drain on valuable teaching time and offer useful reporting options that help principals and other administrators make improvements.
The media and public are laser-focused on the significant violence in schools that make national news. Hardening a school against these incidents is only a fraction of the solution.
Some feel that these horrific attacks have come out of nowhere. But teachers and administrators have noted an increase in behavior issues at a much lower level – not at the guns and violence and crime level, but an increase in incivility.
Educators note that the number of incidents of bullying, verbal intimidation, sexual harassment, threats, pushing and shoving, rumors, and so forth have increased, and these everyday student behavior anomalies lead to students feeling unsafe in halls and classrooms. The impact is widespread, from affecting the current and future prospects of students who are acting out, to distracting other students from the critical task of learning.
Schools are in a tough position. Behavior problems in the classroom are increasing, but it’s becoming more apparent that traditional methods of dealing with negative student behavior are counterproductive.
In years past, behavior problems were seen as an issue with the student, a willful act of disregard for the school’s rules and classroom etiquette. Punishments were established for those acting out. As violence in school became more severe and visible, many schools moved from a “three-strikes” discipline strategy to zero-tolerance.
Research has shown that negative reinforcement of behavior expectations are not effective, and worse, that zero-tolerance policies cause more harm than good. A new model is required to address student behavior and improve school safety.
Effective behavior management requires a new response approach. This approach must include the ability to respond quickly to an evolving problem, display consistency for the individual and the school population, and include appropriate training for staff and teachers. With early intervention, options for addressing disruptions increase.
You may not immediately associate absenteeism as a student behavior concern, but when talking about proactively managing issues within the school environment, it is a problem that must be addressed. A serious number of absences can have severe consequences on a student’s academic experience, their success, and their life after school. Absenteeism can also be a signal of more significant behavior problems within the school.
Absences are a fact of life. Students who occasionally miss a class or a school day don’t typically experience detrimental effects beyond needing to retake a test or having missed an important lesson. There is evidence, however, that students who miss as little as 10% of the school year can see setbacks in their education. When a student misses this many school days or more, they are considered chronically absent.
It’s a growing problem in the United States. Federal data indicates as many as 1 in 7 children are chronically absent. There are regional and demographic differences in these rates, but twelve states reported more than one-fifth of their students as missing more than 10% of the year.
There are several causes that lead to chronic absenteeism. These can come from a student or family illness that needs to be cared for, or from socioeconomic problems that hinder a child’s ability to even get to school.
More concerning, of course, are issues rooted in violence at home, in the community, or at school. Some students may be dealing with difficult home life. Some may have safety challenges on their way to and from school. Some may be dealing with verbal or physical bullying in school that has previously gone unreported and undetected.
These problems are ones where a school can offer additional support, but only if they know a problem exists. If absences are initially sporadic, it’s problematic to identify a developing issue. To provide options and supportive interventions, administrators and teachers must be able to work off of a complete view of a student’s record.
Students who fall into the category of chronic absenteeism face serious, lifelong consequences. Academic challenges are only the beginning of the problems these students will encounter. As the educational gap grows between them and their peers, these students can become frustrated and begin to act out. Absenteeism is a problem that can both be caused by poor student behavior, in the case of bullying, and result in it, too.
Unaddressed or under-addressed student behavior issues can result in problems for the student and the school. Students displaying aggressive or inappropriate behavior, or those frequently missing classes see a drop in grades and lower graduation rates than other students. This makes behavior issues a self-feeding cycle – acting out results in a disrupted educational experience, which leads to academic challenges, which can cause acting out, and so on.
Similarly, when students are chronically absent, they fall behind their peers academically. That can create a self-perpetuating cycle if not addressed. The sooner you address chronic absence, the easier it is for a student to catch up with peers and perform well against grade level expectations.
These behaviors impact more than just the individual student, however. When aggressive and inappropriate behavior exists in the school environment, other students have their learning experiences interrupted. If not handled appropriately, it can leave the impression of an unsafe environment. When children don’t feel secure, their attention and grades can suffer, affecting the performance of the school as a whole.
Any of these situations can impact how a school is viewed by the community and parents. Complaints to school officials are just the start. Parents may choose to move their students to other schools, or in extreme circumstances, move. That hurts the reputation of the school and adversely affect funding. With reduced funding, schools have a harder time coming up with the resources required to correct issues or implement security measures to address parent and community concerns.
Addressing student behavior issues prevents a school from entering a downward spiral that negatively impacts students, parents, the community, and budgets. The good news is that there are many upsides to helping students navigate behavior problems and absenteeism, as well.
Punishments and zero-tolerance policies do more harm than good for the majority of students who exhibit aggressive and inappropriate behaviors in the classroom. The problems may stem from a student’s need for more academic or emotional support. Identification of the root cause of behavior issues allows a school to design and implement a plan to reinstate students as productive members of the classroom community.
The stakes for appropriate and productive behavior become higher the further along students get in their schooling. Children who are coached on skills that help them cope with stress and proper responses will carry those lessons into adulthood. Those that are able to act appropriately in the classroom have a higher chance of performing well professionally, regardless of other factors such as attention or socioeconomic status in their youth.
Even without the implications of a successful career, students who can behave in the classroom and school setting and who can perform along with their peers on grade-appropriate subjects, reduce the likelihood of turning to delinquent behaviors in high school and later in life. Limiting behavior issues in class also limits the likelihood of a student cutting classes, committing crimes, and turning to drug and alcohol abuse.
Academic improvement is just one of the student benefits in addressing absenteeism. When students are in class, they can get lessons at the same time as their peers, ask timely questions, and ensure they understand the material. Good attendance can even overcome socioeconomic disadvantages.
Chronic absenteeism stems from any number of issues. Getting to the bottom of the source of absenteeism allows schools to offer additional support to children and families in need. For students missing school because of their academics, tutoring and extra learning time can get them on the right track. If the academic issue is more severe, alternative learning scenarios and additional classroom support can be offered.
Some students may be missing school because of issues at home. These children may find help in counseling services and referrals to additional resources outside of the school.
Identifying and working with chronically absent students may also uncover issues within the school. Children may be avoiding classes or school altogether if they are the target of verbal or physical bullying.
Schools may notice visible signs of bullying if physical attacks are involved, but not always. When emotional and psychological attacks are made, such as mocking a student that can’t afford lunch or making fun of a child for grades or because they are different in some way, schools may miss these attacks until they have begun to take a toll on the student’s well-being. Uncovering bullying in any form can help students get back on track academically and improve the overall safety of the school.
Administrators must balance the needs of the individual students with the needs of the institution. Proactively addressing student behavior is a win-win situation where principals and staff get to do both at the same time.
Managing behavior in the classroom has three purposes in the student population:
Taking on behavior issues as they happen builds trust with the student body. Students know that the rules aren’t arbitrary and that they can expect to be treated fairly and receive help instead of punishment should they ever be in the same situation.
Proactive assistance for student behavior problems also reduces the number of disruptions in the classroom. Teachers can concentrate on education and students can focus on uninterrupted lessons.
Children also learn better when they feel safe and supported. Knowing that any disruptions will be handled quickly but fairly gives students a sense of security. They know what to expect, they know that issues will be taken care of by those in charge, and they know that they don’t need to fear the actions of others in the school.
These benefits extend beyond the school itself, as well. When there is an overall perception of calm and safety in the school, parents and the community are more confident in the district and the administration. Communities are more supportive, and parents are less likely to remove students from local schools or choose to move. With more students in the classroom and better graduation rates, schools can get the funding they need to continue to serve the community well.
All of the above benefits can be realized only if the school is able to identify problems early and proactively apply supportive and proven strategies to help students function within the classroom. Schools that adopt a system of social-emotional learning can set children back on the right path while also setting them up for success throughout their lives.
Any administrator can tell you that schools teach students far more than reading and writing. As a child progresses through developmental stages, they learn and practice a variety of community and self-regulatory skills to carry with them through life. These skills allow children to manage their interactions individually and as part of a group. They also understand how to manage stress and their reactions while working toward goals.
Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL, is an evidence-based framework intended to guide schools in ensuring that students learn and practice these essential skills. SEL identifies five core competencies that children must learn:
SEL is as vital to children and schools as academic success. As children practice elements from each of the five core areas of SEL, they improve the school, the classroom, and their futures.
In school, students working within an SEL framework learn skills that promote self-management and awareness to cope with the challenges of schoolwork, and the relationship skills to work with and respect other children and educators. They are taught appropriate actions, and how to make good decisions about their actions, their time, and their interactions with others.
Children will carry these skills outside of the classroom and into the halls of the school and at home as well. Relationships are strengthened and children learn their place in the world and their responsibility for what they do and how they act.
These lessons serve them well later in life and into the workforce, too. The ability to set goals, recognize and manage feelings, and deal with them in socially acceptable ways are abilities that are crucial for positive outcomes as adults. SEL ensures children have experience with the situations that come up in adult life and the personal tools to meet the challenges and overcome them.
Students learn best in an environment that is safe and well managed. SEL offers guidelines on setting up a system that sets the right expectations while providing the flexibility to meet the individual needs of students. These expectations can be set at the district, school, and classroom level. With standards in place, student behavior can be easily evaluated and supports provided where needed.
Part of this is because SEL works well with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). An alternative to punishment based systems, PBIS comes from the belief that students do better in well-managed environments, just like SEL. Further, it works on the premise that children in need of additional support and those with developmental disorders do better when the entire community supports positive behaviors. The combination sets up the expectation and rewards for positive behaviors and teaches the skills to enact those behaviors daily.
All of this combines to improve student behaviors through expectation setting, teaching appropriate skills, and awarding positive behaviors. Students don’t live in fear of consequences to acting out, or of other students doing the same. Outcomes are known, and the right practices and actions are sought out and rewarded. The result is improved school safety, feelings of support, and increased academic and life-long success.
With SEL, students learn and understand the actions and decisions to make in the classroom and the school. While many students will react positively in an SEL environment, some children may continue to struggle with aggressive behaviors, both verbal and physical, acting out, or experience excessive absences. Students who consistently act outside of those appropriate boundaries and do not use the tools provided through SEL teachings may need additional support.
To proactively address the needs of these students, teachers and administrators must be able to identify the problem behaviors, track them to understand the severity, and develop data-driven programs to help students improve behavior and increase the chances of academic success.
Tracking and identifying these behaviors can be a challenge. If a student’s behavior has changed over their academic career, viewing their performance and actions only in the context of the current school year or in a single classroom may not give an early enough signal for intervention.
Similarly, teachers are and should be concerned with the business of education and in managing an entire classroom. Without the proper tools, staff may record or report incidents inconsistently, delaying engagement by school support staff.
When it comes to chronic absenteeism, sporadic absences and inconsistent attendance can impede early identification. Students may have come close to being classified as chronically absent in previous years, but never fully crossed the threshold of identification and administrative action.
In all of these cases, a holistic view across years and consistency in recording and reporting empowers administrators and staff to assist students sooner than later. With the right toolset, schools can help these students and improve actual and perceived safety all at the same time.
Interventions for student behavior problems are dependent on understanding if the issue is a single incident or a long-term set of actions. Has this been occurring over a few years? Is the number of incidents increasing in frequency? Is the type of incident getting worse?
Asking educators to track these incidents and evaluate them, subjectively, is unfair to teachers, students, and the classroom. Further, without the entire picture of the student’s academic career, support may be initiated late, creating a long and difficult road back for the student and a challenging and potentially resource-intensive situation for the school.
Using technology to record and track incidents reduces incomplete, subjective, or inconsistent reporting of student behavior. When combined with clear classroom expectations, subjective reporting can be eliminated. These tools offer teachers a simple way to record when a notable incident has occurred without risking inconsistency or taking away from valuable teaching time.
The distractions of classroom activities may delay a teacher – even one aware of a student’s need – from alerting administration of the need for additional support. Technology solutions can automate these triggers, removing pressure from the teacher and ensuring that staff is informed early to a potential concern.
By centralizing the information around student behavior reporting, administrators can create transparent reporting to show potential trends, whether those trends span a few weeks or multiple years. A data-driven intervention plan can be put in place based on the information, increasing the chances of getting the student the right support.
Using a system that supports and tracks positive behaviors gives staff and principals the knowledge to evaluate and improve interventions and alternative education options for the individual student. As a student experiences and responds to a behavior program, staff can assess the effectiveness of the program and iteratively adjust the plan to ensure the best outcome.
Taking attendance is a drain on a teacher’s lesson time, but a critical task to ensure students are in school. For schools that have students scan an ID card when entering a classroom, attendance is automated and removes another distraction from the day’s lessons.
Scanning allows administrators to quickly see which students are in school, and which are missing class. Excused absences can be validated, and missing students checked on. More importantly, staff can be alerted and view reports on students who may be struggling with attendance, even before they reach the indicator that they are chronically absent.
Spotting a trend early empowers educators with the data to step in and evaluate a student’s reasons for significant absences. For those with issues at home, help can be provided quickly and referrals offered to improve the situation. Students missing school because of academic struggles can receive the additional support needed to get back on track. And for those experiencing previously unidentified bullying, the school can step before situations escalate further.
The sooner schools can help students return to regular attendance the less damage to their academics the child will experience. By getting a student back in the classroom, they will catch up and keep up with their peers and have a better overall academic career.