It's been more than a year since schools returned to in-class instruction, and unsurprisingly, teachers are still reporting disruptive behavior and emotional dysregulation. According to a recent EdWeek Research Center survey, 70 percent of educators say student misbehavior has continued to increase compared to the fall of 2019.

Uncovering underlying issues can shine a light on entrenched, dysregulated behaviors. The pandemic caught everyone by surprise. Students were suddenly forced to stay home and continue their learning online, often by teachers with little to no online instructional training. Loss of routine and structure, loss of social interactions, confusion, and family financial and emotional trauma all contributed to an unstable environment for children, teens, and educators.

One in four children across the country experienced prolonged and toxic distress. Brain development suffered, causing gaps in emotional maturation and decision-making centers. Educators commonly note that students are behind in emotional and social development by 18 to 24 months. When schools reopened, emotional problems cropped up or worsened, spilling into the classrooms.

Upon returning to class, teachers reported a significant increase in disruptive behavior in students. Outbursts, bullying, lack of social skills, and lack of interest in learning slow down the learning process and increases teacher stress. Teachers continue to report that they are emotionally exhausted by the escalation in misbehavior and peer conflict. Chronic absenteeism for both students and teachers has also been on the rise. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 39 percent of US school districts reported an increase in student absenteeism between the 2020–2021 and 2021–2022 school years and 72 percent reported an increase in teacher absenteeism.

Behavioral shifts since the pandemic heightened the importance of support systems in schools. Teachers need professional development to help them understand at-risk students and allow themselves time to develop effective tools and best practices to mitigate these problems.

Dysregulated behavior is not easily subdued. Built-up frustrations caused by pandemic disruptions are deeply embedded and take time to resolve. Common symptoms include:

  • Experiencing extraordinary emotional reactions to ordinary events
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling overwhelmed by emotions
  • Having intense emotions that are difficult to control
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm
  • Excessive substance abuse

Children struggling with learning and developmental problems are especially vulnerable, as well as students with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Autism Spectrum Disorders, mood disorders, Bipolar Disorders, and PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.)

Nationwide, students are struggling and need resources to shift back to self-awareness, self-management, and healthy relationship skills. Children spend much of their time in school, and teachers are in a position to restore well-being and improve outcomes for all students. However, teachers need tools and strategies to give them the confidence to address an unprecedented level of student dysregulation. Effective, proven teacher professional development can help restore a sense of consistency and predictability in classrooms so sorely needed by today's trauma-impacted children. Here are a few ideas to help teachers expand or deepen their skills:

Understand Student Mental Health Issues

Teachers need support to recognize and understand students' mental health issues. Learning how students think, feel, and behave after exposure to trauma promotes understanding. Teachers feel prepared to implement strategies to help children regulate their emotions and reduce problematic behaviors.

Positive Behavioral Supports

When troubled behavior erupts, applying the most effective tools and strategies is critical in maintaining a supportive learning environment. Understanding your students' needs helps to avoid disciplinary tactics that may cause long-term negative impacts that affect a student's success in the classroom. Developing students' resilience and coping skills is critical.

Social Media's Influence on Student Mental Health

Social media is everywhere, and students spend an average of eight hours daily on their devices. Knowing how smartphones and social media affect a student's well-being is important. Using tools and strategies to help them manage screen time and social media use increases students' well-being and prepares them for learning.

Paraprofessional Support

Students with unique needs and English Language Learners often spend significant time with paraprofessionals tasked with improving their skills. To promote student independence and participation in the classroom, paraprofessionals need to understand the students' challenges and provide needed support for empowering student learning.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Each student should be able to thrive in the school environment, free of bias and discrimination. It's important to build a common language around DEI, explore background knowledge, and develop the tools to create or enhance a culture of acceptance in an inclusive classroom community.

Teachers appreciate robust resources to help them deal with trauma-informed behavioral problems and dysregulation. Understanding students' mental health issues and developing effective tools and strategies increases teacher confidence in supporting their students' mental health concerns. Behavioral issues will not disappear overnight, but the quest for a positive learning environment and a commitment to creating joyful experiences creates a school climate that empowers all.

About the author

Chris Leonard is a clinical social worker and educator coach providing mental health support to students and educators in the New Jersey area. Thrive Alliance Group works with districts to provide mental health services such as clinical support, coaching, certification, and professional development to teachers and staff.