Behavioral Problems: New Challenges Post-COVID

Kelly Brouse
Kelly Brouse
Elementary school principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction
A child sits with a woman who is showing her a clipboard and a drawing of a frowning face.

Any developing child will have moments of behavioral dysregulation as they cope with unfamiliar, unsettling, or unpredictable situations. It is fair to say that the global pandemic of 2020 can be described as all three whether you are young or old, so it is no surprise that students would demonstrate behavioral challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you look closely at the societal approach to pandemic response, it is easy to identify the lagging skills of children causing behavioral problems. The good news is that lagging skills can be taught, so approaching behavioral challenges in this way will reap greater rewards for our students.

What Behavioral Problems in Children were Present Pre-COVID?

Leading up to 2020, one of the growing crises among elementary schools was dysregulated youth at the primary levels (grades K-2.) Superintendents across the country would discuss the increase in behavioral problems when they met at conventions. Schools were looking to Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) to assess student behavior trends for route causes and implement intervention plans that provided proactive support and responsive reinforcement.

Behaviors ran the gamut, from work refusal and social conflicts to property destruction and physicality towards peers and adults at school. Students were communicating to us in nonpreferred ways that their world was overwhelming. As adults, we all recognize that the world was an egregiously busy place pre-COVID, and young brains were trying to keep up and find a sense of security and control.

Behavior plans and functional behavior assessments were on the rise as schools and federal agencies aimed to reduce students’ grossly increasing suspension and expulsion rates. And then, things slowed to a snail’s pace, and schools didn’t even have the opportunity to monitor student behavior for a while, which may have been even worse for some students.

How Did our Pandemic Response Affect Student Behavior?

For understandable reasons, when the pandemic hit the U.S. in March of 2020, as a society, we invested in our children’s safety, shutting walls to our neighbors and limiting access to social interaction. Working parents were stretched beyond imagination, trying to meet expectations of a new virtual world in the workplace while also providing around-the-clock childcare and education.

Naturally, screen time saw an unprecedented increase, as reported by CNN. Any social interaction for children was designed for success. Parents and caregivers felt guilty for their children’s experience and ached for them to enjoy the moments of connection that could be created when possible. Therefore, peer conflict was practically nonexistent, and conflict in the home was on the rise.

Natural experiences of entering and negotiating play, following the expectations of an adult without negotiation, and paper and pencil tasks were all significantly limited for understandable reasons. We actively chose to reduce children’s exposure to challenges that help them grow because of the guilt or concern about them enduring a pandemic at such a young age.

As a result, students did not acquire age-appropriate skills related to social interaction, responsibility, and motor and occupational therapy (OT) skills in the ways they would have more naturally acquired them in a typical school setting. While learning gaps were notable and terms like “learning loss” or “unfinished learning” emerged from the fall of 2020 to December of 2021, schools did not see the intensity of behaviors in the frequency as previously described.

Schools were intensely structured, expectations were limited, and mitigation strategies like masks and distance naturally reduced social triggers. As schools emerged and started to embrace the “endemic” nature of COVID-19 in early 2022, students had to relearn again how to function with facial expressions as masks came off and higher academic expectations when standardized testing returned.

These stimuli and demands created new unfamiliar, unsettling, and unpredictable environments for students, and the dysregulation seen pre-pandemic made a significant return.

How Does Behavior and Behavior Management Impact Student Learning?

As educators are forced to attend to increased behavioral challenges, the impacts on student learning are many. If a child is refusing work, they are losing time engaging in active learning and stalling their growth while also demanding time from the teacher to redirect, modify, or negotiate student engagement.

For the more physically demanding behavioral challenges (students hurting others in the class, running from the room, or being destructive with furniture and materials) more significant classroom management responses are required. This can include clearing the room, where all the other students in the room are required to leave and wait in another area until the student is safe and calm.

Dysregulated student behaviors require increased numbers of meetings for teachers to attend, meeting with specialists, collecting and recording data on these challenges, and communicating with families to support the child’s next steps. These demands on a teacher take away from instructional time and learning for students.

That being said, there is certainly another way to look at it. Perhaps, if we look at behavior as the content we are responsible for teaching our students, due to the lost experiences and lagging social-emotional skills, not only will our students demonstrate fewer behavioral challenges, but we will recognize growth and development in all learners.

Social-emotional learning has always been a core skill required at the elementary level. Still, now more than ever, it should be one of the largest pillars of our work as we support the developmental delays that have occurred in our youngest learners during the pandemic.

Strategies for Behavior Problems in the Classroom

Have you ever been having a big emotion and are maybe acting a little atypical of your usual self? How does it feel when someone tells you to “calm down” or “it’s no big deal, you shouldn’t be upset”? Hearing phrases like that feels ten times worse for kids.

The first and most important step in supporting behavioral challenges for students is verbalizing two things:

  1. It is okay to have big feelings.
  2. You will help them through it.

Remembering that behavior is a communication tool for students to tell us they are unsettled or overwhelmed can direct us to have more productive communication in response that is grounded in what they need.

Beyond those initial responses to establish connection and control, each child is unique, so having a big bag of tricks is essential for responding to behavioral challenges. For some students, knowing there are clear consequences will diminish behavior. For others, having more proactive behavior intervention like breaks, self-monitoring emotion scales, and reinforcement systems support students in finding success over time so that they don’t find themselves overwhelmed by an unfamiliar, unsettling, or unpredictable situation.

Reach out to school specialists like counselors, psychologists, and administration for advice and hold behavioral intervention meetings with the structures in place at your school to document your efforts. Every new intervention you try is a new tool you acquire for another student down the road, so when the school clinician recommends something you’ve never done before, try it out and ask questions along the way.

Understanding the rules of this new endemic world is not easy for adults and even harder for children. Having patience, taking perspective, and validating the emotions a child is having are foundational requirements in success with students who are exhibiting behavioral challenges. When the heart is steadied, the head will focus, and learning is sure to come.

Interested in student behavior on a deeper level? Check out our special education and school counseling graduate programs and take your next step today!

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