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The Behavior Dilemma

The story is familiar to many in education: student behavior disrupts learning…on repeat.


First, there are the all too familiar stories of a student, seemingly with little notice, acting out behaviorally in such extreme ways that they make the other students and the teacher feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Then, there are the stories of neurodiverse students who simply cannot pay attention or follow directions (repeated over and over again), who fidget in their seats in ways that create distractions for other students, who blurt out responses out of turn (sometimes inappropriate), who rip paper or break pencils. Some students fall further and further behind academically because they don’t finish (or sometimes start) the work. There are the seemingly disrespectful students who will not participate in the life of the class or who verbally accost the teacher. The scenarios could go on and on, but the truth is teachers find the challenge of educating the next generation almost impossible because of these scenarios–what I call the Behavior Dilemma


Many experts in the field are attempting to solve the dilemma. New curriculums, behavioral management plans, and systems are being implemented to address both scenarios. Staff are being taught how to safely restrain students, differentiate instruction, identify students for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or other services, teach Social Emotional Learning, and follow protocols for Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Schools are working on creating wraparound services for students–food and clothing pantries, mental health care, parenting classes–and yet, the dilemma persists. 


According to an October 2023 survey conducted by Emma White Research for the Michigan Education Association, 81% of educators reported that they have experienced highly disruptive student behavior in the form of verbal outbursts, 67% in the form of destruction of property, 59% in the form of verbal aggression or threats, and 49% have had to evacuate students from their classroom because of unsafe student behavior. On top of this, over a quarter reported having been physically injured by a student. 


Dare I say, “Something is wrong in the state of education.” 


Here’s the hard truth, though; there are no quick fixes. We cannot shift this approach or that program and expect drastically different outcomes. Anyone who sells their program, strategy, or idea as a panacea for student behavior is not telling the truth, and here’s why. The answer is as complex as the causes, and while I want to be clear that I do not have the answer to solve the dilemma, I do think that there are a few hard truths we need to wrestle with if we are going to be successful in solving the dilemma over the long term. 


First, this is not an urban versus suburban, poor versus wealthy, black versus white issue, so if while you were reading the descriptions of incidents, the images that came to mind were some version of Dangerous Minds; you have a faulty perception. As a society, we must recognize that these are familiar stories in every school district nationwide. According to the MEA survey, only 6% of educators reported never having experienced any of the behavioral disruptions listed. Statistically, this means that every school in the state has educators who have shared these disruptions. 


Second, the problem lies not in the children themselves. Children are not choosing to live through trauma, be born with neurodiverse brains (not that this is inherently a problem!), be raised in poverty (potentially a trauma), or be given inadequate early childhood education. The little and big bodies in our classrooms are not inherently the problem. Shifting our beliefs around this is incredibly important. Phrases like “Children these days…” or “Do you remember when students were more respectful” center the problem within the child and deplete our ability to respond compassionately. If there is one thing our students need more from us, it is compassionate (not permissive or even gentle) responses. We need to continuously build our compassion muscles for the child's lived experience. 


Third, we need to recognize the dilemma as a long game. I acknowledge that living through behavioral disruptions is exhausting and sometimes even dangerous. Educators want to fix the problem immediately because we long to feel safe and effective again. Parents desire their children to not sit in classrooms where behaviors disrupt learning. However, without the perspective shift as a society, we will continue to throw money at solutions with little effect, and we will continue to feel frustrated and defeated. 


So, what is the answer? Well, like I said, I don’t have all the answers. I know that there are many people smarter than me who are studying and working on the solutions. I will say, though, that I believe that it is going to require adaptive leadership. We will need leaders who recognize that the necessary educational shifts will require strategic and long-term vision, patience, and consistent reappraisal. We will need a society willing to be patient with the education system as it works towards a more flexible, dynamic, and whole child-centered model. We will need communities that work tirelessly to improve living conditions for all people, and we will require parents and guardians who do the hard work of becoming the stable, present role models their children need. Lastly, we will need educators who are healthy, whole, and resilient, which will require us to do much better as both an education system and society in our treatment and respect for the profession.


Educators do not deserve to be physically or verbally abused, and we do need to provide immediate and practical supports to students. School districts are striving to do the latter, and as an organization, we are working to support educators in the midst of the former. Let’s not give up on the ideal of education because we are not seeing the immediate results. Instead, let’s practice the long game as we find the solutions to the Behavior Dilemma together. 

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