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Disruption turned into destruction: Colorado kids are acting out in classrooms while struggling to cope

Prolonged school closures, adults clashing over political debates and families suffering job loss or the death of a loved one have all contributed to students misbehaving in school

An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early on Aug. 25, 2020. The school is part of the Denver Public Schools. (David Zalubowski, AP file photo)
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Veronica Bell’s classroom devolved into a place of destruction this school year, with kids snapping pencils out of frustration, tearing up decorations and bulletin boards, and ripping math books to shreds.

“Then they would say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a math book anymore,’” said Bell, who left her teaching post at KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary in Denver at the end of October.

The chaos escalated into violence at times, including the day a child grabbed two other students and dug his nails into their arms until they bled, leaving scratch marks on their wrists. The fight was over a stolen pencil. In a different incident, a student threatened to stab other kids and staff with scissors.

They’re in third grade.

As teachers returned to the classroom this year, determined to help catch kids up on academics, they were met with another challenge: students with more severe behavioral problems than many had seen before. Teachers interviewed by The Colorado Sun said there are more outbursts and more cussing in class. Kids are set off by schoolwork that feels overwhelming, and sometimes bolt from the classroom.

More than a year of pandemic uncertainty, and less structured time spent learning at home, have taken a toll on kids’ emotional wellbeing — and it shows in students’ lack of ability to interact with classmates, respect school staff and avoid succumbing to peers who are stirring up trouble. The state department of education tracks the number of suspensions and expulsions in districts but won’t collect that data for this school year until the end of the year. 

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The classroom chaos comes as the state tries to offer more kids better access to mental health support, with a $9 million effort to connect kids in distress with three free mental health sessions

All the volatility among young learners shouldn’t come as a shock, said Rebecca Holmes, president and CEO of the Colorado Education Initiative, which focuses on improving Colorado’s public education system and creating greater equity.

Prolonged school closures, adults clashing over political debates and families suffering job loss or the death of a loved one have all contributed to students misbehaving in school, said Holmes, whose nonprofit has worked with 35 districts this fall.

“Before we pathologize the behaviors of young people, let’s be honest about the state of the adults around them,” she said. “Modern humans aren’t great at managing the stress of prolonged uncertainty. In many cases, workplaces have changed policies and practices to accommodate our current realities. But we put young people back into schools, applied the old norms and schedules and ways of being, and are surprised that it appears to not be serving them.”

Rather than blame students, Holmes emphasizes the need for schools to reflect on the disciplinary systems they have in place and assess whether they’re effective for kids who have experienced 19 months of a pandemic.

Halls were empty as students worked on laptops in a nearby classroom in Newlon Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning from a school in Denver during the pandemic. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Teresa Haynes, clinical director of a nonprofit that provides mental health support to 15 schools in Eagle County, is hearing from teachers about “some of the most extreme acting-out behaviors that they’ve ever seen in their careers.” Kids have thrown things, hidden under tables and destroyed property, she said.

The mental health pressures are manifesting as destruction and outbursts in the younger grades, and as a quieter, more subtle uptick in depression and suicidal thoughts in the older grades, she said. 

Haynes, clinical director of Hope Center of Eagle River Valley, oversees a team of therapists who work inside schools as well as a mobile, 24/7 crisis unit that is regularly dispatched to school campuses. This school year, not quite half over, is on track to surpass last year’s record in terms of the number of students who received support and the number of interactions between students and Hope Center clinicians. 

Already this school year, the nonprofit has connected with 485 students and logged 4,551 interactions, she said. 

Many of those have been suicide-risk assessments for middle and high schoolers, but also for children as young as 6 and 7, Haynes said. 

National coronavirus conflict wearing on kids

Behavioral problems at school have been escalating for years, but the “prolonged period of stress on families” during the pandemic has made things worse, Haynes said. “I think it’s trickling down to younger kids,” she said. 

Children are struggling because families are in stress — financial hardship, difficulty in paying mortgages and rent, and in some cases, more fighting at home. On top of that, kids who spent less time in the classroom last year and more time in Zoom or Google Meet are behind on social skills, including making friends and dealing with other kids they might find difficult. 

“Some day, there will be some fascinating research,” Haynes said. 

“There is a lot of division in our country about vaccination status. Political division. It impacts families and it trickles down to kids. Sometimes, people don’t seem as nice to each other as they used to be. And I continue to hear, ‘I can’t take another thing’ and ‘Now there’s another variant.’ It seems never-ending.”

Don’t think those big-world conflicts aren’t affecting young people, said Sorin Thomas, founder of Queer Asterisk, a nonprofit that provides counseling for queer and transgender youth and adults in Denver, Boulder, Longmont and Fort Collins. 

Too often, people are arguing about the effects on kids from masks or the virtual school year but avoiding the bigger picture, Thomas said. Psychologists know how fighting and stress within a family affect a child’s mental health — now put that on the scale of the country, where national and local leaders are frightened and arguing about how best to stop a deadly virus. 

It’s the macrocosm of a dysfunctional family, said Thomas, who uses they/them pronouns. 

“It’s quite frightening,” they said. “The pandemic in and of itself is scary, and then the way that leaders and adults have handled it, that’s scary. These are things that are impacting young people.”

And while trying to grapple with their fear, kids have largely been robbed of the coping strategies they depend on to preserve their mental wellbeing — such as spending time with family members and friends, said Jenna Glover, a child clinical psychologist and the director of psychology training at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Many kids have also lost a sense of hope as they’ve been deprived of coming-of-age moments like school dances, graduations, continuation ceremonies and first-day-of-kindergarten pictures, Glover said.

“There’s a grief that comes with that,” Glover said, noting that people often thrive when they have something to look forward to.

“Kids’ lives are really marked in huge milestones year by year in a way that when you enter adulthood are not, and that is hugely disruptive for their wellbeing when they miss these traditions and huge rites of passage,” she said.

Children also need routine and predictability to excel, she added.

“Life is never fully predictable, but over the last two years life has been unpredictable in a way that has caused so much stress in kids’ lives that it’s causing mental health problems,” Glover said.

But those mental health problems aren’t always easily identifiable. When teenagers and tweens are angry or irritable or lash out, that’s typically indicative of depression, Glover said. Similarly, when children erupt in a temper tantrum, they’re trying to communicate their stress and find a way to cope. Kids may scream or tear something up because they feel so overwhelmed and they’re attempting to soothe themselves, she said, particularly as they lack the emotional maturity or vocabulary to fully express how they feel.

She recommends parents re-introduce routines into their kids’ lives, with a consistent bedtime, adequate meals and safe social interactions, like socially distanced playdates.

“It’s a really small thing but the foundation of physical and mental health,” Glover said.

Reteaching kids how to think about others

In Bell’s classroom at KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary, she picked up on behaviors from kids “trying to avoid work” and others seeking attention. She recalls one student who would lean far back in his chair, jump off swings or injure himself with a pencil to draw attention from the two teachers in the room. She also found students’ interactions became more aggressive, with a lot of roughhousing, and observed students missing some social cues.

“I think kids have been isolated for so long that they really haven’t had to think about other people in that way,” she said.

Bell realized the social emotional skills of her third grade students, who she also taught in first and second grade, had grown rusty and spent more time on those lessons.

“They’re still lagging because they haven’t had time to practice those skills,” she said.

Signs hung in the door windows as students worked on laptops in a nearby classroom in Newlon Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning from a school in Denver during the pandemic. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

About half the students in Bell’s class — 28 total — had a specialized learning plan or behavior plan and, even with a second teacher helping her, she struggled to give them all the support they needed.

Bell and her co-teacher did what they could to create a better classroom environment for students, rearranging their classroom schedule so that kids were tackling harder subjects, like math, when they were fresh in the day.

But by the end of October, she was still overwhelmed and feeling like she needed more support from her administrators. Suffering scalp pain and tension in her neck and back, she made the hard decision to leave teaching. The elevated behavioral issues, along with the lack of support from school leaders, contributed to her health issues, which ultimately propelled her decision to quit.

Gerardo Muñoz, a social studies teacher at the Denver Center for International Studies at Baker, pins part of students’ behavioral challenges this year on their struggle to adjust to classroom expectations. Many students have experienced more freedom in their learning environment amid the pandemic, working on assignments from their bed and getting up to grab a snack without asking.

“Now we’re asking them to come back as if the whole year and a half didn’t happen, as if they just know how to be in school,” said Muñoz, who is Colorado’s 2021 Teacher of the Year.

He urges schools to reflect on how much they’re listening to students amid the pandemic.

Madison Stockton, who teaches third grade literacy at Southmoor Elementary School in Denver, hasn’t experienced much chaos at school, but she recognizes that kids need a reminder of how to be respectful of adults and consider other people’s feelings. They’re not trying to be malicious, she said, but are “out of practice.”

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“Those are just skills that now need to be explicitly taught because we can’t really trust that they’re getting these skills elsewhere since we’re still in this kind of apocalyptic pandemic world,” Stockton said.

Students’ emotions have grown more intense amid the pandemic, she said, and while they’re able to better name their feelings this year, they’re having a harder time managing them.

She’s shifted her approach with students, starting the day with an exercise in which kids write down something kind someone did for them the day before and having kids rate themselves and the whole class on how they conducted themselves during recess. She also awards students for good behavior with raffle tickets they can use to enter a class lottery and win prizes, and she gives the entire class points that they can use to earn class spirit days or extra recess time.

Those strategies have all helped. But they can’t solve one problem still hanging over Stockton and her colleagues: a growing list of work responsibilities that cut into teachers’ time to thoroughly address behavior management.

“If we’re not given that time and given that space to really focus on classroom community,” she said, “then the kids are not going to feel safe and they’re going to act out.” 


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