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SOS: Our Schools are in Crisis and We Need to Act Now

What's causing things to spiral out of control and what can we do to fix it?

Dr. J. Stuart Ablon

As challenging as the last year and a half of school was in the pandemic, things are much worse now, and we should all be worried. Not a day passes where I don't hear of escalating behavior, classrooms out of control, exhausted educators, and school leaders at their wits’ end. Parents are concerned for the safety of their children as students with no history of behavioral difficulties are arrested for violent fights at school. As one colleague who leads an urban middle and high school said to me, it has been "one hell of a horrible start to the school year. Dysregulation is everywhere. Basic expectations are not being met. A total mess." That about sums it up. Teachers on the front lines echo a similar sentiment. Here are some snippets of their perspective from social media:

"My students don't know how to do school. It's a huge shift in behaviors and it's non-stop. You basically teach snippets in between non-academic issues all day long." "Everyone is so tired and many people are acting out. Adults and kids. Not sure what the solution is, but it feels like a mass fatigue."

"I've been at my current school for more than 20 years, and we've never had this many fights."

"Kid behaviors off the chain. The sheer number of kids who are disruptive, disrespectful etc. is 40% higher than normal yr."

"Kids are being real jerks to each other."

"My students haven't been to school since pre-k. They don't know how to "do" school or interact with children that aren't their family members. They no longer have the stamina for 8 hours of school. it's teaching in-between de-escalating behaviors all day. We don't have the time."

"Lots of students struggling with the traditional school setting after being away so long. Teachers burned out/have a shorter fuse/overwhelmed by behaviors. Many more kids below grade level & they feel inadequate while teachers feel pressured to still teach grade level content."

"Everyone is so tired."

"Kids have forgotten expectations and social norms. Basic, basic school skills (like not having food fights in the cafeteria, or even just not standing up and shouting out in class) are just... forgotten. It's like the Wild West, and it's just exhausting."

"The student who were always OK bounced back. The students without routine & high expectations at home went feral on us."

"Nobody is OK. We have collective trauma & fatigue from what we've lived through & continue to live through, but no one has time to process it. It looks like exhaustion, apathy, acting out ... from educators AND students."

"My kids have zero school social skills."

"Students are angrier than ever before more apt to violence quicker to lash out both physically and verbally. I have been assaulted by a student that has never happened before. Vandalism. I may retire."

So, what can we do to fix these problems? The answer lies in first understanding what is causing all this chaos. Challenging behavior happens in the gap between demands placed upon someone and their skills to handle those demands. The pandemic has tipped the scale such that demands seriously outweigh skills–for both students and educators. We need to acknowledge that students did not progress academically or socially as they would normally have in the last year and a half of remote and hybrid schools and social isolation. Most students' skills are developmentally behind, making it impossible to meet typical grade-level expectations. I am not just talking about academic skills here. I am referring to social skills, skills at regulating emotions and controlling impulses, flexible thinking skills, and the list goes on. The pandemic has caused an epidemic of developmentally appropriate expectations being no longer developmentally appropriate due to lagging thinking skills.

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The same is true for the expectations we have for our teachers. As one teacher described: "Expectations for educators seem to have gone back to 'normal' - even though the pandemic and the ripple effect in education that comes with it has yet to end."

To make matters worse, as you heard loud and clear from the teachers above, both students' and educators' social batteries are getting depleted so much more quickly after being out of the practice of school and socializing. This lack of endurance is leading to all-out exhaustion from everyone, making it even harder to meet these previously typical demands of the day.

Additionally, let's not forget that many students and educators alike have experienced real trauma during the pandemic, including losing their parents, partners, colleagues, and friends.

What can we do? We only have two levers to pull: reduce expectations and build skills.

The latter obviously takes time. As a result, in the short term, the focus needs to be on reducing expectations to be better aligned with where kids are developmentally and what both students and teachers have the energy to handle. In an ideal world, we might consider simply having everyone repeat a grade—a do-over of sorts. As helpful as that might be, it is unlikely to happen and would cause other downstream problems. So, we need to focus on immediate, concrete, and realistic ways to dial back the demands. These include shorter days, more break time, more opportunities to focus on enjoyable activities, regulating physical outlets, and reducing academic expectations, including revising the speed at which the curriculum is taught. These things taken together would help combat fatigue and enable educators and students alike to feel more successful again while slowly building back endurance. A marathon runner who hasn't run more than a few miles in two years doesn't expect themselves to go out and run 26 miles right out of the gates!

Reducing expectations to be more realistic is easier said than done. Schools are not known for being particularly nimble systems, especially given all the mandated testing benchmarks. But let's be clear that our schools successfully pivoted in much more sizable ways when needed in the height of the pandemic. If we recognize the need and urgency to do it again now, we can. I hear loud and clear that our schools are in crisis, so now the time is to act.

A word of caution, though, when it comes to re-setting expectations: expectations not only need to be clear and realistic, they need to be taught – or, in this case, re-taught. Students can't meet expectations that they are unaware of or that have felt like a moving target during the pandemic. The best way to re-teach expectations to students is to involve them in that process of re-setting expectations. When students are co-authors of expectations, they tend to be much more invested in meeting them. Crucial to recovery from this tailspin in which our schools find themselves is a collaborative process of re-setting expectations.

Finally, let's not forget that the other level we can pull is to build back skills. While this process is not a quick fix, it is critical to emerging successfully from this chaos in the long term and getting students back on the wave of healthy development. Even prior to the pandemic, Social Emotional Learning approaches had been gaining traction in our schools. They are needed more than ever now. Grounding the curriculum in the social and emotional needs of the students and educators is mission-critical. Approaches that build flexibility, emotional regulation, social thinking, and problem skills, in general, must be front and center. As part of that effort, traditional school disciplinary approaches (which are primarily punitive) not only won't help us see our way out of this mess, they will make matters much worse. We must practice relational approaches to discipline at this time, or we will lose some of our most at-risk students.

My advice may be fairly simple, but it is certainly not easy. Our schools are allergic to the idea of reducing expectations for good reasons. But these are not ordinary times, and they require bold actions from our school leaders and support from our communities if we are to right this ship.

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