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Responding to Behavioral Challenges in the Classroom

Working to maintain safe and productive schools.

Key points

  • A recent survey shows behavioral issues in schools are on the rise.
  • Increased class size, pandemic-related stressors, and mental health issues are common causes for behavioral issues.
  • The inclusion of special needs students in general classrooms is creating new challenges for teachers.
  • Taking immediate action and focusing on de-escalation are key ways to manage disruptions in the classroom.

Teachers and educators across the country are having to deal with more behavioral challenges in the classroom than ever before, all of which cause a variety of obstacles toward creating and maintaining safe and productive learning environments.

In a recent survey by the Education Advisory Board (EAB), 81% of school administrators indicated the frequency of disruptive behaviors in their schools is either “more” or “significantly more” than during the previous three years. Seventy-one percent of teachers responded the same, also estimating they lose an average of 144 minutes of instructional time per week (14.5 school days per year) due to behavioral disruptions in the classroom.

Reasons for behavioral challenges

There are many factors that can lead to behavioral challenges in the classroom, including increased class size and staffing issues, the inclusion of special needs students in general classrooms, pandemic-related stressors, and an increase in mental health issues driven by conditions in the home such as food and housing insecurities, parent-related problems, and financial difficulties.

No two behavioral challenges are the same in their cause or manifestation. One may be a result of a learning disability or autism and another of lack of sleep or a divorce. One child may express their frustration by acting out and another by remaining unresponsive. All of this leaves school districts, and teachers, with countless behavioral challenges to navigate while at the same time trying to state-mandated teaching curricula and keep students safe.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Teachers are dealing with more behavioral challenges than ever before.
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

A common factor among many students exhibiting behavioral challenges is an inability to communicate effectively. This frustration can escalate quickly and cause significant disruption to a classroom. Reasons for a student’s difficulty in expressing themselves can range from autism or neurological disorders to issues in the home or fear of being mocked by peers. Related to this is a student feeling misunderstood, which can very easily turn into a volcano-waiting-to-erupt situation. Communication and self-expression are fundamental human needs; not being able to meet those needs, or feeling uncomfortable doing so, can create an enormous pressure and preclude a student from being able to learn and cooperate–particularly in a classroom setting where communication is generally controlled and moderated by an instructor.

Understanding and assessing factors

Probably the biggest mistake made in schools when it comes to mitigating behavioral challenges is educators waiting for a situation to escalate before acting. Today’s small problem is tomorrow’s major issue. It is essential for educators to identify specific indicators of impending behavior problems before they escalate into full-scale outbursts that can bring classroom activity to a screeching halt. Offering support, teaching alternative behaviors, and allowing more time or a break from the activity when the student is engaged in disruptive behaviors—like tapping a pen—are likely to prevent situations from escalating.

While there are many different types of behavioral challenges that can arise in the classroom, there are a few that are commonplace and indicative of a child struggling with either a physical, mental, or emotional issue. Complete withdrawal is something most teachers must contend with at one point or another. The student may put their head down on the desk, close their eyes, pull their hood over their head and just shut off. The student may also ignore the teacher’s requests to pay attention and refuse to engage in conversation. Occasionally, the student may just get up and walk out of the classroom.

Another common behavioral challenge is making some sort of distracting noise, such as pen-tapping, knocking on the desk, talking out, or making noises with their mouth. When outbursts occur, common physical behavioral challenges include hitting, punching, kicking, biting, pushing, throwing objects and even self-injurious actions such as cutting, or self-hitting.

Tips for managing behavioral challenges

School districts must provide teachers with the necessary tools and training to handle behavioral challenges in the classroom. Oftentimes this does not happen due to budget cuts, limited staff, and time constraints. There are some basic strategies and approaches teachers can easily implement. Here are a few practical tips and insights for teachers and educators to better understand and manage behavioral challenges in the classroom:

  • Remember your first goal is to de-escalate the situation. Pick your battles. If a student is disrupting the classroom in a major way, it’s not necessarily the right moment to reprimand the student. Do what you need to do to calm the situation and handle the other issues privately and when tensions are not high.
  • Acknowledge good behavior. Look for opportunities to praise students who have presented behavioral challenges when they are following expectations and participating appropriately. It’s important they hear from you not only when they do something wrong but when they do something right. We may forget to focus on the students’ appropriate behavior. Every student does something right every day. Capture those moments, too.
  • Give the student an alternative to their challenging behavior. Don’t just tell the student to “stop,” but rather suggest an acceptable alternative. If the student is banging on the desk with a pen, suggest they take out a piece of paper and draw to keep their hands busy.
  • Reset the situation. Rather than engage in an unproductive back-and-forth with a student, ask the student if they would like to step outside for five minutes and take a breath of fresh air. A pause can be an extremely effective tactic in getting back on track.
  • Ask for help. Don’t be reluctant to use all the resources available at your school. Connect with other teachers, counselors, and administrators even if only to brainstorm ideas. Perhaps ask a colleague to observe your classroom and give a second opinion.
  • Understand school is only one part of a child’s life. Many behavioral challenges in the classroom are driven by issues that have nothing to do with school. As appropriate, work with school counselors and administrators to assist the student with his or her life challenges.
  • Pay attention to your behavior. Remember your behavior (tone and volume of your voice, facial expression, body posture, proximity, etc.), have a significant impact on a situation. It is easy to forget how triggering a disapproving look or raised voice can exacerbate an already contentious interaction. Make sure you are not unintentionally making a bad situation worse.
  • Make sure your response is commensurate with what is happening that moment. It is easy to overreact to a specific situation based on previous history. Make sure there are no straws that break the camel’s back.
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