Home Blog School After Lockdown: Handling Classroom Chaos

School After Lockdown: Handling Classroom Chaos

April 06, 2023
Female teacher sits in classroom, concerned about her students.

Our schools are facing challenges unlike any they have seen before. Prior to COVID, fewer than half our students could read or do math at grade level. Now, after years of pandemic-related disruptions, trauma and upheaval, we risk losing a generation of students to learning loss, widening achievement gaps and fractured institutions.”1 This introductory statement from the About Us web page of The 74—"a nonprofit news organization covering America’s education system from early childhood through college and career”1—encapsulates some of the many immense challenges that educators face today.

The Institute of Education Sciences is the independent, non-partisan statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It administers the School Pulse Panel: “a study collecting information on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic from a national sample of elementary, middle, high, and combined-grade public schools.”2 According to its data released in January 2023 and reported by Kevin Mahnken for The 74, “U.S. school leaders feel increasingly hampered in their ability to curb student misbehavior.”3 The study found that “more than eight in 10 public schools have seen stunted behavioral and socioemotional development in their students because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”4

With its most recent numbers reflecting the 2021-22 academic year, the School Pulse Panel, which surveyed officials from more than 1,000 public schools, found these changes in student behavior, among others, compared to a typical school year before the start of the pandemic:4

Increased: Influenced by COVID
Physical attacks or fights between students33%
Classroom disruptions from student misconduct56%
Student verbal abuse of teachers or staff members36%
Student acts of disrespect other than verbal abuse48%

How are educators to handle such upheaval? This article considers multiple experts’ approaches to addressing school chaos in a post-lockdown world.

Multicolored row of lockers in school hallway

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Articulate, Reason, Commit

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) is an international organization widely recognized for helping educators define, support and engage in the development of highly effective learning systems. It’s dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching and leading, and “focused on empowering educators to advance and elevate learning to meet the needs of all students—equitably and wholly.”5

Dr. Teresa Sullivan is a veteran high school principal who has mentored many educators through administrative licensure and degree programs. The author of "The Educationalization of Student Emotional and Behavioral Health: Alternative Truth" (Palgrave, 2018), she holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.

On the ASCD website, Dr. Sullivan’s February 2022 article—Pandemic Behavior Management: It’s All in the ARC—opens by saying, “Teachers and administrators are feeling exhausted and exasperated by the overwhelming number of students struggling to positively integrate and function within our school and classroom communities. What’s different? The state of students’ emotional well-being, stamina and behavior.”6

As the School Pulse Panel number’s revealed, Sullivan's article also noted the increase in combative, disruptive student behavior, acknowledging that many students are disinterested, off-task, and unmotivated. “Schools cannot expect to employ a pre-pandemic approach to classroom management,” she said. “Educators must consider where students currently are in terms of socialization, problem-solving and coping skills—and respond accordingly.6

In that vein, Sullivan developed a behavior management model that has proven successful in classroom and administrative contexts. Rather than responding to poor student behavior, this proactive strategy—which she calls ARC: Articulate, Reason, Commit—centers on preserving lesson integrity and building trust by making expectations completely clear.

Articulate Everything

Fear, anger, anxiety and insecurity can spark difficult behavior. Sullivan suggests preempting challenging emotional responses through “clear, concise, consistent communication. Articulate everything! … Articulate your expectations, your vision, your values, the assignment—step-by-step, and all of the nuances that you could possibly foresee.”6 She explains that, rather than being bliss, ignorance fosters discomfort, ambiguity and uncertainty, which often lead people to act out. Greater understanding of what’s expected can help students feel comfortable.

Share Your Reasoning

Sullivan cites the article "How Trusting Relationships Advance School Culture and Influence Student Achievement" by Dr. LaMarr Moses: “Student trust in schools is heightened when they feel the adults in the building want what is best for them. They engage more freely in the learning process when they feel that teachers are invested in their educational outcomes and success. Students who do not trust their teachers may disengage from the learning process and create barriers which make developing healthy relationships with the adults in the building challenging.”7

Sullivan’s approach urges educators to share the thinking behind their pedagogical moves. In establishing a clear purpose, they can alleviate student uncertainty, express their commitment to each lesson, and communicate their belief that the lesson is important for students to understand. She believes that communicating with reason helps build the relational trust that’s essential to all aspects of a strong, healthy school culture in which students feel respected, known and valued.

Further, by sharing their reasoning, educators help ensure that students will feel invested in a given subject, assignment, and the rationale behind why a particular lesson or experience is valuable and why the parameters and expectations associated with it are in place. This is especially important with adolescent learners, she says, because “lessons that aren’t immediately relevant will fall flat and lead to the inevitable, ‘Why do we have to do this?’”6

Commit to Your Plan

‘Does it have to be three pages?’
‘Can I work by myself?’
‘Can I switch groups?’
‘Can we skip part two?’
‘Can I just send this one text first?’
‘Do we really need to cite three sources?’
‘Can we read a different text?’
‘Can we read fewer chapters?’

Sullivan strongly cautions educators to avoid patterns of reaction and response to questions such as these. Calling it “classroom management by negotiation,”6 she notes that she has seen this common mistake derail even outstanding lessons. Distinct from the valuable lesson-planning practices of giving students choice/voice and personalizing instruction, it can get students more interested in the negotiation than in the intended learning—and once started, it’s exceedingly difficult to stop.

Why shouldn’t educators negotiate in this way? “Teachers need to exhibit certainty and confidence as the leaders of learning in their classrooms. If they allow classes to devolve into negotiating tables, they lower their standards because students will no longer trust in the academic and behavioral expectations that their teacher has articulated and reasoned.”6

Dr. Jonathan Eckert, a former Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education, wrote in 2014, “Most classroom management issues are eliminated when students are actively engaged in their learning.”8 Sullivan fully agrees. “Engaging students in their learning requires a behavioral management approach that respects where students are both cognitively and emotionally. Educators must employ both cognitive and behavioral methodologies to positively impact student learning.”6

Reengage Students

Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools from 2016-2021, has also written of the crucial importance of engaging and reengaging students. In 2022, he wrote of various powerful challenges that arose during the pandemic—circumstances that “worsened mental health outcomes and ultimately disengaged students from their lessons:”9

  • Students missed hands-on learning opportunities and time to bond with peers
  • Teachers struggled to connect with at-risk students, many of whom had difficulty focusing on their studies in unstable homes
  • Some students had unreliable access to Wi-Fi
  • Others lost loved ones to COVID-19
  • Many older teens picked up jobs to support their households

In his article, Mr. Hamlet noted that “student engagement is at the core of successful outcomes in schools, whether that be measured in test scores, social-emotional development or graduation rates,”9 and recommended these methods for reengaging students:

Encourage Collaboration

Use the energy borne of being in class together to the students’ advantage. Group projects and paired learning experiences can encourage teamwork and help reestablish familiar, but perhaps somewhat forgotten, social norms. The so-called “think-pair-share” approach, a five-to-10-minute activity, calls on students to reflect on what they learned, discuss it with a classmate, and then share their conclusions with the class as a whole.

Prompt Students to Take Ownership

Mr. Hamlet encourages educators to empower young people with greater autonomy over their learning processes—and the responsibility to reflect and improve upon their choices. Rather than sticking to the familiar format of lectures and assigned readings, he suggests, as an example, “If students need to demonstrate their grasp of how ecosystems function, offer supplies for an array of final projects: a presentation, a written report on a local ecosystem or a self-built terrarium.”9 In offering options, educators express respect for students’ opinions while requiring the self-assessment that can lead students to make productive decisions.

Build Real-World Impact into Lessons

By connecting in-class studies to students’ everyday lives, educators can help students see why both—their lessons and their lives—matter. For instance:

  • Cultural appreciation days in social studies classes incorporate students’ discussions of their family histories, traditions, and cuisines
  • By writing letters to their representatives or creating stories to share with residents in local retirement communities, students in literature and/or writing classes can see how the written word and their particular writing skills can make a difference to other people
  • School gardens create year-round learning opportunities involving the local climate and economy, and various agricultural skills; further, students gain tangible evidence of their hard work and a new way to engage with the world around them

Offer Sustained Virtual Opportunities

Granted, online education was required for a long, exhausting time, but it delivered some benefits that educators can continue to use. Online communication can help students and their adults stay engaged.

  • Incorporating programs such as Quizlet and Kahoot! into lessons can help students understand that learning continues at home, not just at school
  • Collaborative homework methods can turn required tasks into fun extensions of lessons
  • Administrators can keep parents and guardians involved through frequent newsletters and announcements; informed adults can further encourage engagement in students

Conduct Engagement Check-Ins

Ultimately, the most effective way to find out how engaged students are is to ask them. A weekly anonymous poll can reveal what’s working and what’s not, and it provides a safe way for students to voice opinions that they might otherwise keep to themselves. It’s another chance for educators to express respect for students’ views, an opportunity to model how to give, receive, and adapt to constructive criticism, and a means whereby these adults-to-be can gain a greater sense of control.

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