We Have a Bad Behavior Problem. How Can We Fix It?

These days it is hard to walk down the hallways and not hear a bad word. 

According to the East Rock Record Spring 2023 survey, 91 percent of students who responded said they heard swear words in school “on a regular basis.” Even worse: 93 percent said they had seen students disrespect a teacher. 

“I feel like some students started to care less about how they act because when a teacher says, ‘I’m going to write you up,’ they don’t care,” said Cady Ali, in fourth grade.  Third grader Sam Pellegrino has noticed it, too. “I just think in general a lot of kids are just mean to teachers. What I’ve seen is just kids that are really rude to them,” he said.

East Rock Record reporters hard at work in the East Rock Library.

What’s going on? Why are we seeing rude behavior and swearing in hallways? 

Many people and experts blame the Covid-19 pandemic for affecting student behavior now that school is back in person.

“When everyone was at home, we missed out on one or two years of normalcy,” said Jessica Hoffmann, a research scientist at the Yale Child Study Center and Director of Adolescent Initiative at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

For students at East Rock Community & Cultural Magnet School, this included not just learning, but also socializing and “normal” school activities. Students often turned off their cameras and weren’t engaged with classes. They also weren’t making the friends they would have been making if they were in person. 

According to Sabrina Breland, principal at East Rock School, when school resumed in-person, students “weren’t as accepting and motivated as they used to be.” Part of this, Ms. Breland said, was due to many of new students who came to East Rock School. But it was also, she said, because some students had not been while online. “Students were hearing things they weren’t normally listening to and weren’t monitored as closely as they used to be monitored,” she said.

Returning students also weren’t used to being with a whole school building of students, teachers, and staff all day long. All this togetherness, some experts say, has become a common source of stress for students. According to Dr. Hoffman, anxiety is the number one disorder that people, including students, are reporting since the pandemic. 

“Much of this anxiety,” she said, “stems from uncertainty of the future and fear of things that are happening in the present.”

Yet Dr. Hoffman said those increases may also be the result of people paying more attention to mental health. “During Covid there was a large amount of money dedicated to mental health, mental health staff, social-emotional learning at schools. More educators and parents have realized mental health isn’t separate from how we do in school.” 

Whatever the causes, levels of bad behavior in the classroom are unprecedented. “The disrespect students feel now we didn’t see before in East Rock,” said Marissa Saucier, a special education teacher for grades seven and eight. “A lot of kids have a lot of bad behaviors because they’re so used to being at home.” Without the monitoring of adults, students became used to disrespectful behaviors. 

Bad behavior has been a problem across New Haven Public Schools, said Justin Harmon, director of marketing and communications for the district. “Students experienced a lot of stress re-entering the classroom, getting into habits that are effective in the school environment, getting used to the constraints of being in a classroom.” Coming back, he said, has been a real struggle for all students, not just those at East Rock School. 

At the same time, East Rock has tightened security rules. Many students are divided over these new security protocols. The East Rock Record Spring 2023 survey found that 61 percent of students answered “no” to a question asking if the school needed more security. But fifth-grader Dariel Carbonell-Perez thinks “security is not strict enough,” he said. “Students are still behaving however they want. They don’t care about the rules anymore.” 

Schools are trying to fight these problems. “Administrators across New Haven are working hard to make the culture in our schools a better place for students and teachers,” Mr. Harmon said. 

Across the district, he said, schools are focusing on social-emotional learning and restorative justice to help students make improvements in behavior instead of facing punishment for their actions. He said the goal is to re-establish students’ social and emotional well-being and improve the school environment. 

“What students learn about how to be happy, productive, kind human beings,” he said, “is equally important to what they learn about academic subjects.” 

Mr. Harmon said that this could make schools a nicer, calmer and safer space for everyone. Divera Simon, a third-grade student in East Rock School, would like that to happen. “I just want school to be kinder with how people use their words and actions,” she said.

Edited by Graham Litz