There are still students who are struggling in response to behavior expectations, peer interactions, and school routines this fall. Students who experienced school last year primarily in remote learning settings lived by a different set of behavior expectations than are typical in face-to-face settings. Trips to the bathroom may not have required specific permission or a hall pass. There was no need to seek permission to sharpen a pencil or seek out a needed resource. For other students, the pandemic has presented exceptionally difficult life challenges. Loss of loved ones, family stresses, and even neglect and abuse have been a part of their life experiences. Emotional outbursts, difficulty concentrating, and over reaction to conflicts can be natural responses to the trauma they have experienced.
Many educators, too, are stressed by their transition back. Feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, and depression are common. Risks related to the pandemic and disappointment in the response to attacks on teaching practices and content combine to create confusion and uncertainty. As a result, patience can be in short supply. Seemingly minor behavioral issues can become significant confrontations.
The reality we are experiencing presents at least four implications for our attention. First, we can practice patience and offer grace in our interactions with students and each other. Taking time to listen and understand what others are experiencing can be a great start. We cannot necessarily solve the problems they are facing, but we can offer our presence and support. For students, we can also give opportunities for some down time and space where possible. Strict adherence and immediate compliance expectations can make the situation worse and stimulate emotional responses that escalate to physical confrontations.
Second, we can examine the expectations we have for students. Expectations that are based in tradition but have no compelling purpose might be considered for abandonment. They may not be worth the fight associated with enforcement and they can damage our relationships with students. Those expectations necessary to ensure safety, preserve order, and support learning need to be presented with a clear rationale and with as much flexibility as we can manage.
Third, we can still draw on how students were able to manage greater freedom and flexibility as they engaged in remote learning. Some of the routines and procedures allowed in remote learning settings can fit well in face-to-face settings or may be manageable with some modifications. The fact is that in some cases, students can handle more freedom and responsibility than we have given them in the past. They may need supports and reminders, but the benefits can be significant.
Fourth, we can offer flexibility in the implementation of those expectations that students may still be struggling to meet. Some students may just need time and support to adjust and have expected behaviors become routine and consistent again. Our challenge is to anticipate and respond with clarity, empathy, and support.
Behavior expectations are not academic learning, but they help to create the conditions under which learning can occur. Our flexibility and management of expectations can offer significant benefits to the learning environment. Conversely, resistance and disruption are predictable if students fail to see the need for the expectations presented to them and their emotional needs go unaddressed.