Secondary School Behavioral Problems: New Challenges Post-COVID

Khristina Russell
Khristina Russell
High school instructional coach; Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership from Thomas University, GA
An upset teenage girl sits on the classroom floor, holding her head.

Educational staff, mental health professionals, and even parents are navigating uncharted territory as we learn to identify and assess the behavioral problems children display while traveling through the novel COVID-19 pandemic.

The most significant task and skill is awareness. Prior standard solutions may apply to current situations. Still, there should also be a constant awareness that the skills needed to support children in our current state may not even have been identified or labeled.

What Secondary School Behavioral Problems were Present Pre-COVID?

Before March of 2020, most students’ behaviors were managed through routines and strong classroom management expectations. Teachers may have hosted quick individual conferences outside of classroom doors to assuage “unruly” behaviors, but most teachers generally dealt with similar issues.

There are a handful of behavioral problems in teens that high school teachers deal with:

  • Truancy
  • Cell phones
  • Social media
  • Poor communication
  • Casual defiance/disrespect

There were also concerns about turning in work promptly or students not telling parents the truth about classroom expectations or events. I’m sure some teachers even dealt with students cheating on assignments or assessments and “sharing” work with their friends.

There was the occasional school fight, kids smoking in the bathroom, or inappropriate touching issues that weren’t entirely out of the ordinary, although less common. For a vast majority of students, ISS/OSS, detention, conferences, and parent contact helped to remedy these issues.

What New Challenges have Emerged for Teens Since COVID Started?

The 2021-2022 school year began attempting to create the (next) new normal. Students emerged from isolation filled with so much.

Many were:

  • Anxious about being in crowds again
  • Overjoyed at finally being able to see their friends regularly
  • Angry for a variety of reasons
  • Managing the heartbreak of death that touched so many
  • Unable to mature in isolation and showed up defiant and disrespectful

Righteousness and Challenge

There were also a handful of incredibly righteous students. Driven by social media, students became activists for Black Lives Matter, climate change, the LGBTQIA+ community, women’s rights, and more. No longer satisfied with blindly consuming media, students were ready to take a stand, challenging teachers and classmates alike.

Apathy and Impulse

In particular ninth and tenth graders struggled. They were still displaying many typical middle school behaviors and had the most difficult time navigating high school life. Across the country, high numbers of behavior issues seem to be based upon the impulsive nature of ninth grade students. There is also what seems to be an overwhelming sense of apathy.

Very few students were retained at the end of the 2020 school year. It was impossible to penalize students for the wide range of issues that varied from technology to time when everyone was sent home. The following school year was a year of trial, error, and grace.

Again, students were promoted with some doing much less than what would be typically accepted. Moving into the 2021-2022 school year, students approached with the same attitude that they would be promoted, others had become unschooled, and many were just so far behind, they were unsure of where to pick up.

How Does Behavior and Behavior Management Impact Student Learning for Teens?

Behavior management is one of those terms that has become a pivotal focus. It acknowledges that individual behaviors must be monitored to get an entire class to maintain. For example, All students can sit quietly for 30 minutes at a time. The few students who can’t are presented with an alternative that allows them to feel less restricted but still completely able to participate.

Behavior management is concerned with the whole child and understands that what happens to a child before, during, and after school may significantly impact a student’s ability to learn. Students can’t learn if they are hungry, too cold or hot, or if they are emotionally distressed. Behavior management allows educators to employ social-emotional learning (SEL) skills to enable students and staff to seek sustainable solutions.

Strategies for Behavioral Problems in the Secondary School Classroom

Many counties have hired mental health specialists to aid students and staff in identifying and address their feelings and practice methods to overcome the trauma so many have endured over the past couple of years. Educators are attending workshops about trauma-informed teaching, social-emotional wellness, and ways to better care for themselves.

Here are some strategies for behavior problems in the classroom that could help any novice to veteran teacher better manage students’ behavior in their school buildings:

Host Morning Meetings

Although a more common practice in elementary schools, encouraging dialogue with students regularly that is not purely academic could provide access to issues that would otherwise stay hidden.

Assume Positive Intent

Over the past two years, I have not had a single conversation with a student who did not want to do well. What commonly presents as apathy is the new visage of overwhelm and hopelessness. Students want to be successful, but many feel so far behind they are clueless about the appropriate next steps to get back on track.

Ask For Help

Secondary teachers are known for existing in silos. Today, teachers cannot afford not to take the time and energy to speak to the other teachers a student encounters. Teachers also cannot afford to ask parents about what they see at home instead of just calling home with complaints. We must build a community and demonstrate asking for help.

Be Willing to Unlearn and Relearn

While we existed in the pandemic, the country was also managing social unrest like it hadn’t seen in years. This has affected so many students’ identity and influenced how they see the world. To engage more effectively, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to have hard conversations or admit that they don’t know or understand something.

Be a Good Human

Make time for rest as there is absolutely no way to fill empty cups from an empty receptacle. Remind students that you are a person and not a robot and treat students like they are people too.

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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