This has been a difficult year for everyone. As we approach the end, we can anticipate that some behaviors with which we have been dealing will increase in frequency. We may also encounter new behaviors from students whom we would not necessarily expect to act out. Our challenge is to anticipate, head off, and prevent as many acts of misbehavior as we can so that the final weeks are productive for learning and a positive experience for students.
We need to remember that behaviors are purposeful. They send a message. They meet a need. The better our communication with students, the less they may feel the need to send us a message. The better we can anticipate and meet student needs, the more successful we both will be.
For some students the end of the year signals significant changes in their lives. The structure of school may be going away. The assurance of regular food and consistent adult contact may be about to end. Regular connections with friends may be at risk. These and other worries can lead to defiance, inattentiveness, unresponsiveness, and other forms of unacceptable behavior.
In this context we are wise to avoid overreacting and making unnecessary behavioral demands or immediately directing that a behavior must stop. When we respond too forcefully, we can unintentionally stimulate repetition of behavior. People do not like to be told what to do, especially when they are stressed. They may resist or find other ways to engage in behavior that we have taken from them. Even students who otherwise might be cooperative can react negatively and become passively or actively resistant.
Here are some other tips and ideas for avoiding the occurrence and escalation of unacceptable behavior in the final weeks of the year:
- Presume positive intentions and behavior. Lack of trust can be a fast track to misbehavior. Rather than calling overt attention to misbehavior such as side conversations or poking another student, our raised eyebrows and eye contact that conveys confused disapproval can be all that is needed. Unfortunately, calling out small infractions and publicly admonishing students for small incidents of misbehavior can quickly escalate the situation and waste precious class time at a key point in the year.
- Offer an observational statement. Rather than directing students to comply with a previously given direction make a statement such as, “Several of you have yet to put away your materials.” Then give students time to follow through. For students who still do not comply, the subtle reminder of pointing to what needs to be done as we walk past can be enough to stimulate action. Calling students out and risking embarrassment in front of classmates may be a stimulus for escalation if the student is in the mood to defy authority.
- Make a presumptive observation such as, “You know what to do.” When well-practiced routines are involved, resist telling students to do things they already know they should do. When students already know what to do, they don’t need to be retold. If students need a subtle reminder we might modify the statement to the question, “What should you do?” However, repeatedly restating the obvious can lead to inattention, resistance, and even mocking.
- Consider the larger context of student behavior. Watch students’ interactions with peers. Tensions, arguments, even boisterous teasing can be signs that relationships are fraying and misbehavior may be about to escalate. Waiting and hoping that the situation will resolve itself may not be a good bet. It may be that all that is needed is a conversation with key actors. Or it may be time to engage someone to investigate and de-escalate the situation. Interactions with peers can be early signs that problems are percolating.
- Be inquisitive not accusatory. We might say, “I have noticed that your behavior has shifted. Is there something I did or need to know to understand what is happening?” Ask questions, communicate curiosity, and seek to understand. Use “I” statements.
- Be clear and stay consistent in routines and expectations. Shifts in attention and follow through late in the year can be misread as routines and expectations no longer being important or needing to be followed. Students may believe that expectations we used to hold no longer apply and previously unacceptable behavior now is permitted.
- Give students who may be inclined to act out plenty of attention. Their acting out can be a strategy to gain attention. If we give attention to them before they choose to demand our attention, we may avoid the need to intervene and correct.
The final weeks of school offer the opportunity to finish the work we have done with students throughout the year. It can also be a time of uncertainty, anxiety, and disruption. We need to do all we can to help students to stay focused, supported, and successful as we navigate the final weeks.