For months, students who have primarily been in remote learning settings have lived by a different set of behavior expectations than are typical in face-to-face settings. Trips to the bathroom may not require specific permission or a hall pass. There is no need to ask for permission to sharpen a pencil or seek out a needed classroom resource.
Yet, a different set of expectations may accompany students’ transition back to in-person learning environments. Obviously, some expectations are necessary to ensure safety, maintain focus, and avoid unnecessary disruptions. Accounting for the whereabouts of students is important within a school and ensuring an orderly learning environment may require some limits on student freedom and choice.
For some students the expectations will be unwelcome and feel excessively restrictive. Having to ask permission for activities that were self-regulated at home may seem like an attempt to over-control or signal a lack of trust. Having to sit quietly and resist talking with friends that they haven’t seen for months may be a difficult expectation to meet.
The bottom line is: We can expect some student confusion, uncertainty, and even resistance to the behavior constraints they experience as they transition back. For some, the expectation may not be much of an issue and they will make the transition smoothly. Other students may question and complain but will adjust and comply. Still others will predictably resist, pushback, and may even experience meltdowns as they are confronted with expectations that have not been part of their lives for as much as a year.
This reality presents at least three implications for action from us. First, we need to examine the expectations we have for students as they make the transition back. Expectations that are based in tradition but have no compelling purpose need to be abandoned. They are not worth the fight associated with enforcement and they can damage our relationships with students. The expectations that are 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. Where practical, we can invite students to discuss and have input on how the expectations will be implemented and managed.
Second, we need to reflect and consider 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 may work fine in face-to-face settings or may be manageable with some modifications. We learned many lessons about managing behavior and engaging students in remote settings. We would be wise to bring as many of those lessons to in-person learning environments as we can. 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.
Third, we need to offer flexibility in the implementation of the expectations that students may struggle to meet. We may need to teach some of the procedures associated with the expectations. It is predictable that some students, especially young learners, may not remember routines and procedures that were once familiar. 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 careful planning and management of expectations can offer significant benefits to the learning environment if done well, or result in resistance and disruption if students fail to see the need for or the benefits of the expectations presented to them.