Veteran middle school teacher Giffin Bowen has learned ways to defuse classroom tension. When kids get their phones out, for example, he tries not to make it a big issue but just makes them put the phone away. If they refuse instructions in situations like that, he’ll give them another chance, asking, “Are you refusing to do what I asked you to do?”
That used to work, but this past school year, he said, there was more defiance.
“I had one out and out say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing,'” he said.
Local school staff and administrators alike describe a tough 2021-22 school year with worse student behavior after children returned from remote learning. Although they say things are improving, it could be a while before school gets back to normal.
“I think most teachers would tell you that behaviors this year were a lot more challenging,” said Bowen, who teaches engineering and technology at Seaford Middle School.
If the pandemic was a social earthquake, education might have been its epicenter. Many of the huge disputes over the response to COVID centered on schooling. Routines, schedules and methods were upended in a way that people had never seen before.
That challenge didn’t stop when kids got back to in-person classes, educators say.
Why the behavior issues?
Educators pointed to disruptions in routine and structure as part of the reason for the discipline issues, with remote learning being a real challenge.
Many students were out of school for a year and a half, Dustin Weller, student services supervisor at Lake Forest School District, pointed out.
“You’re getting students who left in first grade who are then returning as third-graders. And so getting used to, just the developmental norms, the classroom norms, getting used to the routines and structures of a regular traditional school day, I think it was like retraining for a marathon for our students and for our teachers.”
Social skills took a hit.
“Each year a child is in school, they learn a little bit more about how to behave in a school situation,” Bowen said. “And they’ve had a year and a half that they didn’t learn that. So the sixth graders we had this last year were acting like fourth graders, because they hadn’t had a fifth grade.”
“Remote learning was a nightmare,” said Evelyne Adams, a paraprofessional at Woodbridge Early Childhood Education Center, the district’s elementary school.
“I can’t imagine being a parent and going through that, and either having to find child care, or having to work a full time job, as well as keep up with your child’s remote education," she said. "And I know that at (WECEC) the teachers did their best, but … I don’t know that it was successful for the children in regards to education.”
“I don’t know, if you go to a remote learning model, that there’s any way you’re going to develop those interpersonal skills,” Bowen said. “... I don’t know that there’s a way you can fix that social, emotional learning without having personal interaction with people.”
Latisha “Tish” Taylor of Seaford, whose son attends Seaford Middle, said he was happy to be back and has adjusted fine. But some other kids, she said, were wild and did not want to be there.
“Some kids weren’t ready to come back,” she said.
“They really needed that, to get back in here and be amongst each other,” Taylor said. “... I think we all need structure.”
It was sad to see the kids when everyone first came back to school, Adams said, in an environment with masking and social distancing. “They don’t know any better, and they’re trying to give their teachers hugs, and they’re trying to give their peers hugs, and things like that, and they’re being told that they can’t do that. And that was so hard to watch.”
There’s also the emotional toll. Adams said it’s hard for young children to deal with the emotions and fear of a situation like this, and it’s been an exhausting year for adults at the school too.
Concerns about violence
There are classroom hijinks, and then there is actual violence or potentially criminal threats. While educators say misbehavior was a problem this year, they don’t report a big rise in the more serious incidents.
Spend time on social media community groups, and you’ll likely see passionate discussion of serious student misbehavior like fighting, assaults and terroristic threats. We published a story last year about concerns over fighting in the Laurel School District, for example, and a parent in the Seaford School District shared Facebook threads with me featuring parents upset about fighting and bullying (other parents in these conversations expressed satisfaction with their children’s experience).
Bowen, who has taught for 23 years and also spent 13 years as a school administrator, said he didn’t think serious incidents like threats and violence were up dramatically.
Woodbridge School District Superintendent Heath Chasanov had a similar take. In his three decades in education, he said, he has seen behavior issues increase from year to year even before the pandemic.
He’s concerned about the serious incidents, but doesn’t think it’s what people perceive. He said although incidents like threats are “up a little bit” this year at Woodbridge, the community’s impression of a spike in such incidents might come from social media and from schools being more transparent about them as a result of heightened sensitivity. “Maybe 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have made a phone call to parents; now we will.”
“I do think we are being much more – have to be – much more transparent on those things than in the past,” Chasanov said. “So I think some people are probably looking at that as well, going, ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on,’” where maybe a decade ago, the reaction would have been that a kid said something stupid, the school looked into it and realized there’s nothing there and a phone call wouldn’t have been made.
Weller said in a June interview that at Lake Forest this year, “we’ve only had a couple of terroristic threatening situations come up.”
Delaware State Police did not give exact numbers for terroristic threats and assaults that have been reported to them this year, but Cpl. Leonard DeMalto said in an email that about 10-20 such incidents are reported to state police in the Lake Forest District each year, and about one to five in Woodbridge. Local police departments also handle some incidents.
State school discipline statistics aren’t much help shedding light on this. They show a decline in suspensions in recent years in both Lake and Woodbridge, but the numbers collapse to almost nothing in the 2020-21 school year. This appears to be another example of the system being thrown off by the pandemic: Administrators say the low numbers are likely a result of kids being out of the building for remote learning. Data is not yet out for this latest school year.
“I think, number one, society is more sensitive to threats now than they were 30 years ago … I don’t know that there’s been a tremendous increase over that period of time,” Bowen said. What he does see, he said, is an increasing lack of respect for one another and self.
Over the years, he said, he has seen behavior in society as a whole deteriorate, and that behavior trickles down to kids as they observe their parents.
“Adults today can’t have a discussion unless both parties agree to the same ideas,” he said. “If you disagree with someone, it usually quickly denigrates into a name-calling situation.”
How schools have dealt with behavior issues
When it comes to the spike in the more ordinary kind of classroom disruptions and student disagreements, schools have offered more resources to students.
Woodbridge, Chasanov said, added an extra counselor and an extra school nurse, and had people working on outreach with families.
At the elementary school, Adams said, “there have been a lot of interventions put in place, such as support groups … (and) a lot of outreach for those kids that are in need. There’s behavioral and family intervention specialists, trying to help these kids that have gone through trauma is what I would call it.”
Lake took similar steps. Weller said they added extra counselors at elementary, middle and high school levels to deal with mental health and help kids transition back.
“These kids need structure and consistency, but also an enormous amount of love and compassion and empathy,” Adams said.
The road ahead
Like the ripple effect on the economy, the consequences of COVID’s disruption will likely be felt in schools for some time.
“I don’t have any great concerns about next year being any more challenging than this one,” Bowen said. “I hold the hope that we will see some improvements. I think it’ll be several years, though, before we get back to where the kids coming to us don’t have that maturity loss of a year and a half.”
“One of my concerns is the long term effects on mental health, with having to go through that at such a young age and not really understanding,” Adams said.
“I think it’s gonna take a little bit of time for things to get back to normal,” she said.
But virtually everyone I talked to said they’d seen behavior improve over the past year.
“I’ve noticed that students have settled in, everybody has gotten back into routine,” Weller said. “... I think the second half of the year definitely went a lot smoother than the first half.”
“I do think that behavior was getting better … it takes a village, everyone was doing their absolute best to support these interventions as much as possible,” Adams said.
The return toward normalcy could be felt at a recent meeting of parents at Seaford Middle School with Principal James Cave and Assistant Principal Jessica Baugh. It’s part of an effort to involve parents regularly, and while last year talk might have centered on COVID, masks, vaccines and social distancing, this year it was mostly about what’s going on at the school. COVID didn’t even come up until a passing reference more than half an hour into the meeting.
“I’m always an optimist,” Weller said. “But I’m hopeful that as we return to next year, that we are back into normal, we have a lot of our normal transitional processes and structures back into place.”