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Dysregulation in the Classroom: Understanding the Situation
Dysregulation in the Classroom: Understanding the Situation
By Joel Quevillon, D49 Communications
Turning on the Light
I am fairly new to working in the K-12 educational field. I knew I had a lot to learn about the norms of an educational organization as I began working in the District 49 communications office. It just so happens I started at D49 just as the pandemic hit Colorado Springs.
When people began talking about how teachers were stressed during and more importantly after the COVID pandemic, I asked why? Were we not all stressed? The situation was frustrating on so many levels, and we all went through it. So what’s the big deal with the teachers?
Instead of just thinking those thoughts, I started asking principals about what I was hearing. The answers I received were consistent. They were not rehearsed, but they were the same stories coming from different sources, different schools.
The string to the lightbulb in my mental attic got pulled on by Springs Ranch Elementary School Principal Jim Kyner. He said, “Back when you were in school, when I was in school, there was always that one kid in class.”
Yep, there was that one kid in class that was causing trouble. Not always a mean kid, but one that just couldn’t sit still, or demanded more of the teacher’s attention. It was ADHD before we knew what that was. I totally knew what he was talking about, then he brought me up to speed.
“Now there are five of those kids in every classroom.”
Some might think he is exaggerating. During my discussions with others, some say there are even more.
“Our teachers are stressed, they taught one or two like that,” said Dr. Darryl Bonds, Falcon High School Principal. “Last year, I would have said there were maybe 10, now there are five or six in every class.”
And that’s just the tip of this No. 2 pencil. I knew after hearing this, I had to share this story.
On Thursday evening, May 4, Dr. Nancy Lemmond, Executive Director of Individualized Education, and Jason White, Coordinator of Community Care will present the topic of High-Impact Behaviors Strategic Objective to the Board of Education (item 5.7) to address training for staff.
The Change in Behavior
The reality is that the students in our classrooms today are a product of our current society. The school house is not a utopian society of perfect little humans. All these kids, from 12th graders all the way down to kindergartners, resemble what is happening in our homes and our culture, and they bring that into the school.
But the biggest change is the trauma to which our children are exposed. And they bring those wounds into the classroom.
The COVID pandemic didn’t cause all this, but it did shine a big spotlight on the situation. And yes, the social isolation did bring about its own trauma directly and indirectly to many students, and many adults, as well.
Before you scoff at the word trauma, let’s look at it a bit. Trauma is anything, any situation or event that hinders or degrades development or negatively impacts one physically, socially, emotionally or mentally.
Ask any teacher or principal and they will tell you, most of our students are behind on a social level due to lack of social interaction during the shut down. Many students are behind emotionally and mentally, as well as academically. The COVID situation exacerbated many of the other traumas kids, and adults, had previously struggled with.
Teachers and principals knew returning from the COVID lockdown would bring issues, mostly on the academic side. Students would be behind. They planned for that. They were ready for that. They weren’t ready for the number of dysregulated kids.
“We recognized it almost immediately after returning to the classroom, but there was a lot of grace as we knew this was a challenging transition,” said Cassi MacArthur, Remington Elementary School principal. The younger classes, kindergarten through second grade, were obvious. “Classes were presenting with a higher number of students displaying behavioral needs or emotional needs, or dysregulation in the classroom. They didn’t have interactions in preschool or with adults. There is a lack of an ability to listen and follow directions, to share space and materials. We were used to teaching sharing in kindergarten, but there are more students with higher needs than we’ve experienced historically.”
“All the things we took for granted, we had to explicitly teach them again,” said Sheehan Freeman-Todd, Meridian Ranch Elementary School principal. “They had to learn how to do an assembly again, how to sit, keep our hands to ourselves, clap when appropriate. It was like learning how to be in class again, how to be a learner.”
At Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, behavior issues usually consisted of dress code violations. But this year RMCA has struggled with students and are looking at expulsions, which is out of the ordinary as the school has only expelled three students in the last six years, said Principal Cullen McDowell. Students are acting out with violence, kicking, screaming and biting. And there was no build up, no real precursor to the bad behavior. “Over the last 18 months, the dysregulation of students has spiked to an all-time high. My real concern is how this is creeping into lower and lower grades,” McDowell said.
At one school, a kindergartner slapped a teacher. Another kindergarten was being disciplined for a situation with a pair of scissors.
It wasn’t just the younger students that had issues.
Brian Smith, Falcon Zone leader, was the principal at Falcon Middle School during the pandemic. He also saw the instant behavior occurring that McDowell saw. “I could see when kids started to return to school, when a situation would happen, as minor as someone bumping into someone in the hallway … in the past it would be ‘ok, excuse me.’ Now, it was an instant lash out. There were fights, there was screaming, pointing fingers. Those were red flags to me that something was wrong. Where did we lose how to interact?”
Bonds, FHS, said, “It wasn’t the kids you would have expected. The behavior was just unbelievable. People used to talk about the five to 10 percent of students that have behavior issues. It is 30 to 40 percent that you have to worry about now that could be doing something on any given day.”
“We anticipated more deficiencies in credits,” said Steve Gard, Patriot High School principal. “I didn’t realize the scope of that isolation and what it would cause socially. It was like, what world are we in? Did they forget how to socialize, forget how to do school? We weren’t prepared for that level of what one year of isolation and a lack of structure would do.”
D49’s risk assessments have increased. Trips to the office for bad behaviors were at an all-time high. Alcohol and substance abuse increased. During the four previous years before the lockdown, D49 had an average of 23 expulsion hearings per year, with a high of 30. For 2021-22, we had 38 expulsion hearings. We can’t say for sure COVID was the cause, but you have to wonder. But it seems that this year the number will drop.
District 49 is not alone. This is happening in school districts across the Pikes Peak region and the country.
“You couldn’t talk to a colleague, anywhere, that wasn’t having the same behaviors happening in their schools,” said Bonds, FHS. “There was no school that wasn’t seeing this behavior.”
Isolation During the Lockdown
So what happened to our students over COVID?
Families responded differently to the situation. Some families were very cautious and stayed away from everyone. They wore masks all the time. Other families were less concerned about infection and tried to live a normal life, if they could. While some families had serious concerns about loved ones that had health issues that made them extremely vulnerable to COVID. And as parents made choices, the media shared conflicting views and information, which caused more confusion. The decision to get vaccinated or not was debated. The ever-changing information and the lack of quality information just added to the stress. Our kids were impacted by all of this.
We’ve realized that the isolation was a traumatic experience for students everywhere.
“They were shut down in their houses for months,” Kim Moore, Ridgeview Elementary School principal said. “They didn’t go to the park or grocery store, or visit friends and family. Their parents were stressed beyond belief. Parents were worried if they were going to have a job. The stress level was high in our households. Our children pick up on that.”
Bonds, FHS, said, “They came back from COVID with a lot of problems. Being out of school and that lack of socialization was hard on kids. They lived a life that none of us have ever had to live. The world never stopped during my life and said you can’t go out, you can’t go anywhere, until this happened. They didn’t know and understand what this was. They forgot how to do school, a thing that was such a stabilizing force in their lives.”
“That disruption happened at significant key times for some students,” said Gard, PHS. Many students missed school during the transition from elementary school to middle school, or from middle school to high school. “It’s hard enough to be a freshman, but with the year at home it made it even harder for some.”
“With the lack of preschool and kindergarten, students are coming in with significantly less exposure to social interaction opportunities with other kids,” Freehan-Todd, MRES, said. “Children were having less structured interaction with adults, including authority figures. The way children respond to adults is not happening in the same way as we previously experienced.”
McDowell believes the student behaviors we are seeing were bound to happen. “It was leading in this direction. We now have a timeline, a line in the sand, there is an event that happened, the event also exacerbated it. If COVID hadn’t happened, this would be happening five or six years from now. We were heading in this direction of dysregulated individuals, not just kids.”
Jason White, D49’s coordinator of Community Care, has been working with district leaders, principals, teachers and students since we returned to school. He believes the isolation directly affected our students in a negative way.
“For some, the social isolation delayed the interpersonal growth that our students are always developing through the unintentional benefit of going to school, how to work through conflict, how to meet new people, how to engage in society,” he said. “These kids had to relearn how to engage with one another, how to speak to one another, how to even be in physical proximity to one another, and how to feel safe in doing that.”
For students that have a negative family situation, the lockdown was worse.
“The social isolation was detrimental in the fact that their home life is not a super great place for them to be,” White said. “Statistically, when alcohol sales rise in a local area, so does domestic violence and other things like that. Historically speaking, there was probably a lot of bad stuff happening.”
But for the rest of the students, they went through an ordeal as well.
“It may not have been physical trauma, it may not have been emotional trauma or abuse,” said Moore, RVES. “We all walked away from COVID as different people in some way. It was a life-altering experience. Some people had the skills to overcome that, some people didn’t.”
“I disagreed for a long time that what happened over COVID was trauma,” she said. “I didn’t want to embrace that. But when I look at these students, I can see the trauma that has happened to these kids. We need to educate them in a different way than we have in the past.”
I’m going to pause here for a moment, to mention ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences which are impacting the mental and emotional health of our students. ACEs include: physical, emotional or sexual abuse and physical and emotional neglect. ACEs also includes households that had parents with mental illness, substance abuse or misuse, incarceration, parental separation or divorce, as well as spousal abuse.
We can add the impact of the lockdown to this list.
That means nearly all of our students have experienced at least one of those ACEs. And a portion of our students have experienced four or more of these.
ACEs experts say, high doses of adversity in children changes the way their young brains develop, and impacts their hormones and immune system, due to the repeated natural stress response of the body. In children, this causes behavioral issues, like what we are seeing. For adults that had ACEs, there are direct correlations to physical health including heart disease and life expectancy.
Here are two good videos with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris if you’d like more information:
D49 doesn’t do ACEs tests with students, but has coordinated ACEs training for staff to create understanding of the concept in order to provide a broader sense of trauma-informed care in our schools.
“The goal through the training and awareness of adverse childhood experiences and what that does to the functioning of a child’s brain as they are growing, it empowers teachers to understand, ‘hey I may not know your ACEs score, or what your stories are,’ but they can have sympathy and empathy in the way they respond to the behaviors,” White said. “There is scientific data for these adverse experiences that are predetermining them for behavioral difficulties and even disease, but now we know how to respond to what is leading up to the behaviors.”
Missing the Positive School Environment
Some people might be quick to point fingers at parents for this dysregulation and the impacts of isolation.
“It’s not right to put blame on anybody,” said Smith, FZ. “Everybody was doing the best they could. There were a lot of resources people didn’t have access to.
But the real significance of the isolation was not being in the school building. “I’ve always believed that the cafeteria is a classroom, there is a lot of learning that happens in the cafeteria, social interactions, practicing patience,” White said. “It’s a microscopic classroom to the greater society in which these kids will function in.” There was no remote learning to compensate for missing these important social interactions.
“The school environment can’t be duplicated at home … social interactions with students, friends, teachers, adults, etc. Just being in school is part of that development,” said Smith, FZ. “Talking to someone on a computer, while great, is not the same as talking to someone face to face.”
“The school brings in eclectic individuals of the same age, and the neuro feedback they are getting from the other kids is what is really developing their growth,” White said. “Neuro feedback of acceptance and social norms, social standing, and sometimes even external motivation is driven by the kids just being in the school. We can’t mimic that in a home. Even subconsciously, kids are realizing where they fit in, or how others are responding to what they said or did. They move forward in life to the next social interaction. There is social growth as well as interpersonal, verbal and nonverbal, growth that is occurring on a daily basis in all sorts of ways.”
“I believe with all my heart, the kids our parents send to us are the best they can give us,” said Moore, RVES. “We have parents that are stretched beyond their capacity. They don’t have the time or capacity to teach the soft skills that kids used to come to school with, such as empathy, kindness, and endurance to sit in a seat for a class. They’re doing their best. We as a school system need to step up and help fill in those gaps.”
“Parents were very busy, maybe working at home, and a lot of kids were put on electronic devices,” said Freehan-Todd, MRES. “Everyone was doing the best they could. They were trying to figure out how to keep their kids busy.”
“Parents can’t replicate a school atmosphere,” White said. “That is not their fault.”
Parents Are Struggling Too
Another behavior schools are seeing is how some parents are responding to this new situation, how they are acting toward teachers and school leaders. There is a very small group of parents that are displaying negative behaviors.
Some parents are inappropriately responding to normal situations at school. One claimed their 5 year old was “assaulted” by another 5 year old.
“Five-year-olds don’t assault one another. They play and kids get hurt,” said Freeman-Todd, MRES.
McDowell, RMCA, said parents now want to see any evidence, including video, that their kid that fell on the playground wasn’t attacked, or that the environment was safe.
“The only way to make recess and playgrounds safe is not to have recess,” he said.
Kids are kids, and they get hurt sometimes. And sometimes, kids fight.
“I think people are stressed and have lost some coping skills and the ability to problem solve,” said Freeman-Todd, MRES. “Emotions are high.”
White agrees. “Our idea of what freedom means to some people was tested for the first time in our lives. That caused a lot of stress for adults. People are juggling multiple things, including some who are working two jobs.”
Now add in that natural tendency to protect our children. “As our students struggle academically or with behaviors, many parents feel like they are failing as parents and feel helpless in trying to take care of those we love the most,” White said. “As a result of that, we start to become dysregulated as adults.”
And in more recent times, people are polarized politically, which has led to a distrust of the government, which filters down to a distrust of the school district. That viewpoint leads to lots of questions about responsibility and accountability.
“As a result of that, it causes undue stress on teachers and administrators, and the jobs we are trying to do,” White said. “And that creates undue stress on the relationships we have with our students, because if the parents are accusatory against the school, that shows they don’t fully trust the school, if that’s the case I think the kids are picking up on that, and they may not fully trust the school and their teachers.”
Other behaviors are parents refusing to acknowledge their child did something wrong.
“Parents love their kids with all their heart, they don’t want to see their child upset or mad, frustrated. Parents don’t want to be the bad guy to their kids,” said Freeman-Todd, MRES.
“Ownership of behaviors is not taking place,” said McDowell, RMCA. “Parents are not owning their student’s behavior, saying it is the school’s fault. In the past, parents would handle it.”
One principal said, “I had a parent tell my dean that there will be no consequences at home for my kid’s behavior. You might suspend him, but you need to know that we’re going to him, he has done nothing wrong.”
Parents wanting to protect their kids is a natural part of life. The only thing this really does is prevent children from learning life lessons in responsibility.
“Parents used to be over protective. This last generation of parents, went from overprotective parents, to ‘it’s not my fault.’ It used to be, ‘I have to protect my kids so he can get into college,’ now it’s ‘I need to protect my kid so his feelings don’t get hurt by what has happened to him or what he did,’” said McDowell, RMCA.
White said, “Kids are hearing from their parents that they don’t have to act according to the expectations of the school, and there is no accountability at home. That response creates an uphill struggle for building a culture of working through conflict.”
According to White, this response from parents isn’t the norm. Most parents (and many of the students) are in agreement with school discipline. But for the few that aren’t, there could be many reasons why including, their own history of what happened to them in school or the distrust of school authority.
“We need to offer other options for resolving conflicts,” White said. “If our goal is to correct the behavior so it doesn’t happen again.” D49 actively uses restorative practices in many of these cases.
Again, this is not the norm. It’s a small faction. But it is happening enough that principals are learning skills to work within this new realm.
The excessive dysregulated and high impact behaviors as well as the unsupportive parents are just part of the reason our teachers are stressed. We have to remember they too went through the COVID pandemic.
They had many of the same stresses we all did, like not knowing the future. We didn’t know how the lockdown would impact our country. We knew businesses were shutting their doors. Their spouses were losing their jobs. Their family members were getting sick. And in a few cases, family members and friends were dying.
Our teachers’ kids were experiencing the results of isolation, and that affected them as parents. As I spoke to many of our school leaders on this topic, they shared personal stories of how COVID directly impacted them or their staff.
As all this was happening our teachers were tasked with immediately changing how they taught. From the classroom to video displays, they were thrust into unknown territory. Drastically changing anyone’s job is an immediate stress inducer. Then, they were brought back into the school building with new rules on how to operate. Masks were mandated, hugs were discouraged. Cohorts were created. And at any given time, COVID could strike, sending teachers and students home.
The health risks of COVID were unknown, and might still be. The effectiveness of masks was uncertain, though debated heavily. Our teachers were on the frontline of dealing with this stress daily. They didn’t know if they would catch it from a student, or if they would spread it to their family or a sick loved one. Some quit. Others didn’t have the financial means to lose a job. The economy suffered. And the small paychecks our teachers earned needed to be stretched further.
McDowell, RMCA, said. “We have teachers super stressed because they want to do well, but they have five kids in their class that are dysregulated and need help. And there is only so much you can give.”
“There was a lot of grace due to this situation, but then the fatigue set in,” said MacArthur, RES.
“The situation is dire. It’s also dire because of the teacher shortage,” said McDowell, RMCA. “We’re now in an economy where someone can say to one of our teachers, I can take your stress level from 90 down to 20, because you’re not going to have to deal with kids, come work here, and I’m going to pay you more than education pays you. And at 5 o’clock, the work day is over and you don’t have to grade papers on Saturday.”
There is also a shortage of substitute teachers.
The stress and anxiety our teachers are feeling has grown beyond what most would endure. If nothing else, this situation proved that teachers are special people that love what they do.
“Even how abnormal it was, these kids could have a sense of normalcy by logging in every day,” White said. “Teachers were committed to being there for the kids and being in it together. There are so many things that kids look forward to about their teachers that are outside the realm of just academic content.”
Teachers love their job and their students, despite the increased dysregulated and high-impact behaviors.
“There are so many problems facing these kids today, and we don’t have all the answers,” said McDowell, RMCA. “The problem does not originate from the school. It originates out there, somewhere. And everyone expects us to solve the problem. Schools are the only place every adolescent in the country coalesces together, so it has become our job to fix it.”
Smith, FZ, said, “The way we have always approached it can’t work. We have to make adjustments and have to look at things differently so we can accommodate and adapt to all these new social differences that we are navigating.”
“We can’t continue to teach kids in a factory model, because we don’t live in a factory world,” said MacArthur, RES. “It’s ever changing. If we can’t adapt as educators, we can’t prepare them to be successful in the world.”
“The world tried to go back to normal,” said Bonds, FHS. “What is normal? Things changed. We were trying to do what used to be normal. It doesn’t exist anymore. The loss of learning is real. If there is anyone that says it didn’t impact kids, they haven’t sat in a classroom and watched what’s going on.”
District 49 is addressing these academic deficiencies and these new high-impact behaviors of our dysregulated students. Read part two to find out how we are making progress in our D49 classrooms.
Part Two of this series is here, https://bit.ly/3HGuQt8