Teachers report a spike in acting out as students adjust to in-person class

Teachers say they are struggling to help students adjust back to classroom norms after spending so much time in remote learning. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Teachers say they are struggling to help students adjust back to classroom norms after spending so much time in remote learning. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Teachers report a spike in acting out as students adjust to in-person class

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It was well into this school year when a first grader accidentally bumped into another student in a classroom in suburban Elgin. In a typical year, the student would know how to brush it off by now, the teacher said. But this year, the classmate wouldn’t let it go and the situation quickly escalated, catching the attention of the entire class and bringing instruction to a halt.

The teacher said this is how it’s gone all fall, with simple accidents turning into tantrums and kids fighting over little things like taking turns. She says teachers were expecting some regression, but the degree of how long it’s taking to get back to basics has been a shock.

“The emotional-social readiness that our kids have right now … is, quite honestly, about two years behind what we typically see,” said the teacher, who didn’t want to use her name for fear of retaliation from her district, Elgin U-46.

“We have all these things that we have to do to make up for that learning loss, and all of these new things put on teachers. None of it is addressing that really big issue, which is they’re so behind socially and emotionally, I can’t even begin to address the academics.”

Across the Chicago area this fall, parents and teachers say they’re seeing more kids acting out at school. In younger classrooms, kids are more physical with their classmates. Older students sometimes pulled pranks they found on the internet before the pandemic, but more students seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. In Glenview, one of those social media challenges had a middle school boy throwing a chair out of a window. That chair hit a girl in the head, seriously injuring her.

Teachers say some parents are expecting teachers to right the ship, but the school is not providing enough support. This comes even as schools are supposed to be armed with federal COVID-19 relief dollars, and school leaders knew how much emotional support students were likely to need when they returned from remote learning.

“How do we behave?”

Parent Angie Gazdziak says her kids were excited to be back in-person full time. But early on in the fall, she got notice from her children’s elementary school that kids were pulling pranks they saw on social media. The bathroom had been vandalized, and kids stole things from the teacher and other students, including her daughter.

“There’s overwhelming joy to just sort of be back to something that feels normal-ish,” she said. “But then there’s a lot of just energy, and everyone got used to sort of seeing everyone from the box. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, how do we behave?’”

Gazdziak says the administration at her children’s Chicago public school is trying hard to address the behavior, but it’s mostly reactive. The school notified students and parents after the incidents, but it didn’t seem to prevent other pranks.

Meanwhile, parents with children who are having trouble regulating their behavior are looking for some patience from other families.

Patrick McGowan fears his son is one of those disruptors in his second grade class. His son, who was diagnosed with ADHD, had a hard time during remote learning. He got used to acting out in the comfort of his own home.

“I think he brought some of that opposition back with him,” McGowan said. “It’s going to take some time to get him back to understanding that this is what your responsibilities are at school. You can’t climb under your desk whenever you want.”

McGowan says he and his wife have been working on their son’s self-regulation and impulse control and hope there’s understanding from other families.

But in many schools, teachers say they simply don’t have resources to support their students.

An elementary teacher on Chicago’s North Side said teachers are feeling overwhelmed dealing with what feels like daily chaos. The teacher wants to remain anonymous because she fears she may be disciplined by Chicago Public Schools for speaking out.

Students vandalized the bathrooms at her school, too. The administration came up with an idea for kids to personalize the bathroom with art to prevent further destruction. The teacher liked that idea, but she still thinks there are underlying issues.

“COVID really did not cause these things,” she said. “They just illuminated the things that were already in existence.”

She said social and emotional learning, social workers and counselors were all in short supply before the pandemic.

“So now, they need it even more and the resources are still not there,” she said. “We have not seen any of the $2 billion [of federal COVID relief] that CPS is getting.”

The school district said it can’t spend that money on new personnel because those funds will dry up in a few years. But the district is using the money to expand mental health services through community partnerships and train staff on dealing with trauma.

“No playbook”

There are a number of factors affecting students and families that aren’t being fully addressed, says Amanda Moreno, an associate professor at Erikson Institute, an early childhood education graduate program. She says people experienced the pandemic with different levels of stress and trauma. There’s also a tendency to treat this school year as post pandemic rather than something that is on-going.

“My suspicion is that a lot of what we’re seeing in children is indirect effects from the stress of the adults that they’re with,” Moreno said. “So both their teachers and their parents are feeling really stressed and really burdened.”

She also says much has been made of addressing learning loss but not enough attention paid to social emotional learning.

“Even kindergarten teachers are getting this pressure to bring kids back up to speed,” Moreno said. “I think that’s really hurting our ability to adjust in a healthy way.”

This is where federal COVID-19 relief dollars could be put to good use, said Andria Goss, associate vice president for clinical and community services at the Erikson Institute. She says there could be instances where mental health support could be offered to the whole family.

“The schools and mental health providers can partner and support kids and young kids and families,” she said, specifically citing the value of individual and parent child therapy and services.

At Crete-Monee High School in the south suburbs, the district is using some of its federal funds to hire more counselors. The district has seen a rise in behavioral issues compared to pre-pandemic times.

Sarah Gruber is a student advocate counselor who came on before the pandemic. She says students are having a hard time sitting in class. Sometimes they walk out. She says more kids are coming to visit her.

“We’re seeing students that really don’t know how to be around other people, and a lot of anxiety of being around other people,” she said.

The school is pushing restorative justice, and trying to reduce suspensions. They’ve also enlisted therapy dogs, which has been a big hit for students.

“There’s no playbook,” she said. “Nobody gave us any rules for how this is going to happen, or when it’s going to end.”

Gruber says parents may be quick to compare a kid’s behavior to what they experienced when they were young, but that isn’t always the right approach.

“I want parents to understand that they’ve been through something,” she said. But I also think that parents need to know that if they get a call from the school…and we see something going on, please consider what we’re telling you.”

She says there’s no one single solution. It’s a matter of schools and parents banding together to help recover what was lost during the pandemic.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.