School & District Management

Administrators Say Schools Are Equipped to Address Bad Behavior in Early Grades. Teachers Beg to Differ

By Denisa R. Superville — February 15, 2019 5 min read
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Teachers, principals, and district leaders all agree that behavioral disruptions have increased in grades K through 5 in recent years.

But there are some striking differences between how teachers view the problem of classroom disruptions and how school and district-level administrators see it.

In a new report called “Breaking Bad Behavior: The Rise of Classroom Disruptions in Early Grades and How Districts Are Responding, a survey of nearly 2,000 teachers, principals, school staff, and district-level administrators reveals telling differences. The types of disruptive behaviors identified in the survey include tantrums, oppositional defiance, bullying, verbal abuse, and physical violence directed at both students and staff. The survey and report were done by EAB, a Washington-based research firm.

One of the more telling findings in the survey is the disconnect between administrators and those closest to students.

All the district administrators who responded to the survey, for example, reported having PBIS policies in their districts, while just a little more than half of the teachers said they were using those practices frequently or very frequently in their classrooms. And 93 percent of districts said they had an SEL curriculum, while only a quarter of teachers said they were using SEL in their classes.

And training in those practices varied. While 63 percent of teachers said they were trained in PBIS, only 27 percent said they were trained in trauma-informed care, and 33 percent in restorative practices. A little more than half said they were trained in de-escalation techniques.

Ninety-eight percent of district administrators in the survey said their districts had explicit districtwide protocols for managing disruptive behavior. But less than half of the principals thought their district did so, and 34 percent of principals said that their districts did not. That disconnect between administrator and practitioner continued on down to the school building level.

“One of the most glaring findings from the study was that at the district level people would say ‘We are doing PBIS; we are doing SEL’... " said Pete Talbot, the managing director of K-12 research at EAB. “The question is, ‘What is the consistency with which it’s being implemented from school to school within a district, and within the school? What’s the degree of fidelity down to the classroom level?’.... I think that’s one of the biggest areas for improvement for districts. It’s not enough to simply do a one-time training or allow schools to go their own way.”

While it’s possible that a fraction of teachers may object to some of the strategies,Talbot said he thinks the disparity is more likely because districts and schools are trying to get teachers to do so many different things and they may not be getting the support they need.

“They are trying to get teachers to do so many different things, and the teachers often feel like it is restorative justice one week, then it’s PBIS the next week, then it’s SEL, then trauma-informed care,” he said. “That’s a lot to throw at teachers. Some of the districts that we’ve heard had more success have been a lot more single-minded and focused on some of those areas.”

Educators Say Disruptions Are More Frequent

Among educators surveyed, 36 percent of district administrators said classroom disruptions were significantly more now than they were three years ago, while 38 percent of teachers said the same.

But classroom-based educators and administrators were on different ends of the spectrum when it came to the percentage of students who they said were exhibiting those behaviors.

District and school administrators said they thought that six and eight percent of students, respectively, were exhibiting severe behavioral disruptions. General education and special education teachers put that percentage as high as 23 and 26 percent of students.

One explanation for that gap could be the pressure school districts have been under to reduce suspensions and expulsions. As a result, teachers are left to deal with more of those discipline issues in their classrooms and fewer of those incidents are rising to the district level, Talbot said.

“I don’t think that district administrators are not aware of the problem,” he said. In fact, it was district-level leaders who requested that the survey focus on the issue after hearing anecdotally that disruptions were increasing in the lower grades. The request was also partly driven by pressures district officials were feeling to end suspension and expulsion policies for younger students and other punitive approaches to discipline.

The survey data suggested that the problem was “more widespread than they realized, and it may be that teachers are suffering a little bit in silence because of some of the efforts to stem discipline referrals and suspensions...,” he said.

According to the survey, a quarter of teachers said that incidents of tantrums and oppositional defiance occurred several times a day. However, incidents of physical violence toward classmates as well as verbal and physical violence toward teachers and other adults were less likely to occur.

And while educators agreed that a host of factors were responsible for the increase in disruptions, teachers were less likely than administrators to see a “history of trauma in the family” and untreated mental health conditions as the major reasons for students’ behavior.

Lost Instructional Time

The uptick in disruptions have led to a significant loss of instructional time—144 minutes a week or 14.5 days annually, according to EAB.

When teachers are concerned about other things—including test preparation—that are already chipping away at teaching time, “that’s a pretty significant chunk of time,” Talbot said.

The survey was conducted among close to 2,000 teachers, school support staff, principals, and district administrators from districts that are part of EAB’s District Leadership Forum.

While the group polled a large number of school staff, the data are not nationally representative, Talbot said.

The survey results were accompanied by a fuller document for EAB members that contained strategies to combat the disruptive behaviors and examples of how some districts are addressing the issue.

The longer paper contained a menu of options for districts to address behavioral issues in the early grades.

They include early-intervention efforts, such as universal behavioral screenings and teacher-home visits, along with expanding play time for students, districtwide PBIS, and additional support for students with greater needs. It also explores reasons why some districts have been hesitant to use some of those programs—for example, there is worry from some administrators that universal screening might “label” too many students.

Image source: Breaking Bad Behavior: The Rise of Classroom Disruptions in Early Grades and How Districts Are Responding

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.