Parents, caretakers, and educators are surprised that students are not adjusting well to returning to in-person learning. School-aged children are exhibiting behavior that sorely rivals the prerequisite learning environment for students to thrive academically.
Teachers are reporting that students are irritable, resistant, introverted, checked-out, and, most troubling, disruptive. School districts are reporting incidences of verbal and physical altercations. Suspension rates are rising, and as a result, children are being sent home after having spent over a year sheltering-in-place. Across the nation, students are concealing knives and guns in their backpacks. Society is asking the question, what is wrong with these kids?
However, very rarely will asking a person “What is wrong with them” yield great insight, especially when talking to children. If you want to understand the causes of behavior, a more effective question to ask is, “What has happened to you?” That question is more concrete and manageable for children who have yet to develop abstract thinking skills.
For a child to answer a question as personal as “What has happened to you?” they must trust the person asking the question. The child must be able to trust the answer will be received respectfully and appropriately. I have facilitated many courageous conversations between parents and their children that end badly because the parent is unable to process the child's disclosure. As a result, the child now feels more vulnerable and also exposed.
When school-aged children returned to the classroom, school administrators should have assumed that a new vibe would change the atmosphere. Returning students are not only one year older or in a higher grade; they would be different in many other ways. Teachers and other school staff were not just a year more senior as their lives had changed also. As a result, there would be a total atmospheric shift at the school.
What I have learned in my counseling practice is that students are anxious, depressed, angry, sad, and scared. These emotions are hidden, but they accompany the students to school. These emotions are not uncommon for school-aged kids; however, since children have been out of the school milieu, they may not have the social connections and relationships to allow the student to talk about their feelings.
Remember, school-age kids have been at home, behind a computer screen, for several months. School administrators and teachers worked very hard to incorporate the new policy and architecture mandates for in-person learning. Most parents even made sure that their children had the school supplies needed to return to school. However, while the adults were doing this vital planning, they forgot to ask students how they felt and what support they would need to return to school.
Asking a child how they feel in the moment will often prevent the need to ask what has happened in the past. The pandemic was traumatic for our children and required trauma-informee responses. Trauma-informed responses always begin with shifting from “What is wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?”
It is not too late for schools to organize student-driven pandemic restoration committees to begin a meaningful dialogue about how the pandemic has impacted their lives. Remember that kids do the best they can at any given moment with the resources they have. Feeling like a valued member of a school community is a great resource.
• Lisa Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She also worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and wrote a book based on that experience. She and her husband live in Tracy and have four children. Contact her at email@example.com.