Melissa Schlinger: Disruptive behavior is on the rise in our children. They need empathy and healing

As students readjust to in-person learning, and as both adults and kids cope with the ongoing stresses and trauma that the pandemic has brought, educators need support and resources.

This past fall, my 14-year-old son, Will, came home from school and told me that some of his fellow students had participated in a TikTok challenge that encouraged them to vandalize school bathrooms. Students destroyed soap dispensers and spilled drinks all over stalls. Like many teenagers, Will initially found it funny. “But,” he said, “the more I thought about it, I felt really bad for the custodian who would have to clean it up.”

What happened at my son’s school is not unique. I’ve talked with district leaders, educators, administrators and parents across the country who are overwhelmed by an increase in disruptive behavior — ranging from vandalism, delinquency and classroom outbursts to far more severe concerns around harming themselves or others. In a recent survey published by the Rand Corp., nearly 60% of district leaders reported that discipline had become a moderate to major concern.

Also, my son’s capacity for empathy is not unique. We know from research that empathy can be taught, practiced and promoted through intentional opportunities to build awareness of others and reflect on their perspectives. This is what social and emotional learning, or SEL, fosters in students. SEL isn’t a quick fix or a one-size-fits-all approach, but it should be an important part of how we respond to the layered challenges that underlie the many stories of disruptive behaviors in schools.

As students readjust to in-person learning, and as both adults and kids cope with the ongoing stresses and trauma that the pandemic has brought, educators need support and resources.

Punitive responses will do little on their own to address the root causes of many disruptive behaviors. In fact, punishments like suspensions or expulsion will likely cause more damage and exacerbate long-term behavior concerns.


So what can we do? To start, education leaders need to take a close look at what’s behind the behaviors. As a community, we’ve experienced collective trauma, and we are seeing the impact of this across all aspects of society, not just education. Resignations at all levels, mental health issues, drug use and crime are all up across the board. We need to recognize and pay careful attention to signs of trauma in our schools.

The good news is that we already know a lot about how to reverse the impact of trauma and promote healing, especially in children whose developing brains have high levels of neuroplasticity. We need to provide consistent supportive relationships, nurturing environments and opportunities to develop social and emotional skills.

These environments and skills are exactly what SEL promotes and why it is essential for addressing school safety concerns. At CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, we provide resources and techniques for schools and classrooms so that they can create an environment that infuses SEL into every part of students’ educational experience and promotes equitable outcomes for all.

At an individual level, we also need to pay attention to the different ways each student has been affected and who is feeling most disengaged from school. Actions that look like delinquency are often signs that children are looking for attention, belonging and relief from stress. Again, SEL is critical for building the relationships and skills that help us address these needs.

When every student feels valued and accepted and has at least one caring adult at school, we are more likely to spot these needs early on before they escalate into safety issues. When we help students develop empathy, relationship skills and responsible decision-making, they’re better able to understand the impact of their actions and navigate challenging emotions productively.

This moment is challenging for all of us. Rather than see the safety concerns and disruptive behaviors as a call for harsher punishments, we need to come together to understand what’s going on. As educators, we need to proactively check in with parents to see how their children are feeling, rather than waiting to call parents when it’s time to report bad behaviors. As parents, we need to talk to our children about how they’re feeling, what they’re seeing and how they’re processing the world around them.

When kids are able to pause and put themselves in the shoes of others such as a school custodian, their consideration of the broader impact of their actions is enhanced, they appreciate our common humanity and responsibility to each other and they are better prepared to work and live in a global society. And isn’t that what education should be all about?

Melissa Schlinger is the vice president of practice and programs at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL.


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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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