It’s December, and every teacher knows that means storms are coming. Sometimes they’re outside, with high winds and snow, and sometimes they’re inside the classroom. This is the time of year when behavior issues and conflicts tend to escalate. What gives? You’ve done your community building and set out the expectations, and now it all seems to be falling apart. Have you failed? No, it’s just storming season.
There are many reasons for behavior problems and student (and adult) conflicts this time of year.
December brings with it all the holiday fervor of the season. Special events are happening all the time and as a result, the schedule is disrupted. According to Dr. Bruce Perry, in his most recent book, in order to build resilience and to recover from trauma, stress must be predictable, moderate and controllable. Let’s face it, our kids, especially our youngest ones, have very little control over their own schedules, so keeping the daily schedule predictable is a way to keep stress under control. When the schedule becomes unpredictable, stress becomes too much for our students to handle, and they act out.
More time indoors
December also brings colder weather, which means less outdoor recess time. We know that time outside has huge health benefits, including improving sleep. When our students get less time outdoors, they don’t sleep as well, and we all know what tired kids are like. And it’s not just the students. Time outside affects the mental well being of the adults in school too. Tired, cranky kids plus tired, stressed, depressed adults is a recipe for a stormy environment for sure.
Every group of people goes through stages of development, just like individuals do. At every stage, the group will behave in predictable ways. And at every stage, the leader of the group has a different role. These stages happen over and over again, in different orders, depending on the tasks the group has been given, the interactions within the group and the role of leadership.
(image credit: Cotrim, João Miguel (2016). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301549649)
In the classroom, we can track these stages throughout the school year. In the beginning of the school year, the class, and the school as a whole, are in the forming stage. Teachers are coming together, perhaps in new roles, and students are coming together in new classrooms. We spend a lot of time laying out expectations and setting guidelines and procedures for how things will go throughout the year. We may even move to a norming stage. Students seem to understand the expectations and have practiced the roles and procedures. They seem to be getting it!
And then comes December.
This is when the storming stage begins. Students, in part because of the reasons stated above, and in part because this is the stage their group is in, begin to act out. They may be testing the boundaries, or they may be showing that they never bought in to the expectations, guidelines and classroom culture in the first place. It’s really important at this stage that we take the time to use our facilitation skills to have individual and classroom discussions about what’s happening.
Go Slow to Go Fast
The building of classroom culture is an engineering process. And just like in engineering, we must look closely at what we’ve built to see if it’s working. If it’s not working, it’s important to find out why and make adjustments. In the same way, when the class seems to have forgotten how to walk through the hallways calmly or manage their work time effectively, it’s time to look back at the guidelines and question how they’re working. Why are the guidelines important? What’s going well? What’s not going well? What adjustments need to be made? What is the plan for making the adjustments? How can you help each other make the classroom a place everyone wants to be?
There may be guidelines and rules in place for safety reasons, both for your students and for you. There may be rules that are non-negotiable. It’s important for students to know that and to take ownership of safety in the classroom. You, as the teacher, can put your foot down on those rules. You may also be surprised that your students will identify these rules before you need to put your foot down. Give them a chance! There is much more buy-in if students can identify for themselves why rules are important.
Sequence with intention
Use the interactive learning structures you already know to facilitate the discussion of guidelines and rules: individual reflection, small group discussions, gallery walks, nominal grouping and large group discussion can all play a part. Just like with academic content, scaffolding is important. Diving right into a large group discussion may not get to the deep issues of the classroom. It may be too confrontational and hinder genuine progress.
You’ve noticed there are issues. When are they happening? Where are they happening? Is it the same students every time? Is there a social dynamic at work (racial, socio-economic class, gender, status)? In each case, the solution to the issue may be different. If it’s a small group of students, maybe a whole class discussion isn’t necessary. If it’s a social dynamic, maybe a whole class discussion is necessary and you’ll need to be prepared to handle some sticky situations, or you need more support while you have the discussion.
Your students will know if you’re leading a “discussion” that isn’t really a discussion. If it ’s really you laying down the law, you are likely to lose any buy-in you’re trying to gain. They will sense whether you really want their input, or whether you’re looking for a “right” answer. If you’re asking for their input on how to make the classroom a better place, actually respond to their input without indicating which you like and which you don’t. “Thank you” is all the response you need to give when they share, and using their language to write down their answers shows respect for them – respect they are likely to return. If you need to summarize, ask if they’re ok with the summary: “It sounds like you’re saying that taking turns is important. Is that right?”
Keeping safety guidelines in mind, be open to solutions your students come up with. It may sound like a terrible idea to you, but if they buy in, you may be surprised at how well it will work! And if it doesn’t work, it will be obvious and you can come back to change it later. It’s all part of the engineering process.
Don’t fear the storms of December! Use all the tools you have to steer your ship and calm the rough waters. Storming is a normal and necessary part of the development of our classrooms. If we handle the storm well, there can be big payoffs for the rest of the year. It takes facilitation skills, but you got this!