Understanding and Improving Difficult Student Behavior in JCPS

Tammy Berlin

Last spring JCTA’s elected leaders and staff met with Professional Representatives from different JCPS schools to talk about issues surrounding how student misbehavior is handled in our schools.  These Professional Representatives identified a number of issues that they thought were concerns that should be addressed with the District. They asked us to develop a survey to collect data from members about these issues in their schools, so that we would be able to share the information with the District and use it to inform our discussions about how to improve teaching and learning conditions in JCPS.  The data from that survey, which was collected during the months of May and June of 2019, is summarized here.  Read on for an overview of the data listed by topic.  

Most Teachers Feel Safe but Are Unsure What to Do When Assaulted

Although the vast majority of teachers (85%)  report feeling safe when they arrive at school in the mornings, assaults on teachers continue to be a problem.  Approximately one in three JCPS teachers report having been assaulted on the job at some time during their career.  Of those who have been assaulted, only 17% reported the assault. Of those who didn’t report their assault, nearly half indicated that they were unaware of the procedure for reporting the incident.  

Student Mental Health Is a Contributing Factor

Three-quarters of teachers who responded to the survey believe that there is a high degree of correlation between students’ mental health and their behavior at school.  80% of those who responded believe that JCPS does not provide sufficient mental health resources to address their students’ mental health needs.  

Teachers Would Like to See Administrators Take a Greater Role in Managing Student Behavior 

There appears to be a great deal of inconsistency across the district in how documented behavior referrals are handled from school to school and from administrator to administrator.  When asked to what degree they feel supported by their school administration when it comes to managing student misbehavior, teachers were pretty evenly split between those who felt supported and those who did not.   40% of those who responded to the survey report that they rarely or never receive documentation from their administrators in response to their referrals, while 43% report that they usually or always receive a documented response.  30% of respondents indicated that their administrators had suggested to them that they should write fewer behavior referrals and/or use less-severe wording on behavior referrals when their students misbehave; an additional 10% indicated that their administrators directed them to write fewer behavior referrals or use less-severe wording.  23% of respondents reported that they or another teacher in their building has been directed by administrators not to call the Student Response Team when students misbehave, and teachers cited a number of requirements that must be met before they are allowed to request the Student Response Team to intervene in a student misbehavior incident.  While these directives and changes to policy seem to have impacted the number of student suspensions reported by the District, 73% of the teachers who responded to our survey report that they have not experienced a reduction in the number of student misbehavior occurrences in their school that could or should lead to suspension.  

The teachers who responded to the survey seem to believe that school administrators and counselors can make a significant difference in student behavior.  70% report that principals being visible in the hallways has a positive impact on student behavior, and more than half believe that the amount of time that principals spend on meetings and paperwork responsibilities has a negative impact on overall student behavior in their building.  More than two-thirds believe that freeing up guidance counselors to spend more time counseling students would contribute to a significant improvement in student behavior.  

Staffing Issues Contribute to Student Misbehavior

The District is currently facing a substitute teacher shortage, causing there to be unfilled vacancies at schools, with some schools being difficult to staff on a regular or consistent basis.  62% of respondents to the survey believe that the substitute shortage correlates to increased student misbehavior.  

In instances involving an allegation of student abuse by a staff member, the District has a practice of removing and reassigning staff who has been implicated from their current assignment while the incident is being investigated.  These investigations sometimes take weeks or months to be completed, potentially leaving classes staffed by substitutes for an extended period of time. 42% of the people who responded to the survey reported that these reassignments have adversely affected employee morale and workload in their building.  

Restorative Practices

More than two-thirds of respondents who work at Restorative Practices schools believe that the program is not being implemented correctly and with fidelity by the District.  69% of those report receiving inadequate training in Restorative Practices.  

A Deeper Look at School Climate in Schools with Volatile  Student Behavior — Conversations with Teachers

Since we asked members to respond to JCTA’s Student Behavior Survey last spring, JCTA leadership has had a number of deep-dive conversations with members at several schools where student behavior has reached excessive levels of violence.  Our discussions with teachers at these schools have revealed a number of underlying problems that are allowing volatile student misbehavior to perpetuate throughout certain schools and creating a toxic learning and working environment. JCPS  will need to address these issues in order to improve teaching and learning climates in our schools and improve working conditions and morale.  

Schools lacking a functional behavior management plan

The teachers we’ve talked to at these buildings with a high incidence of student misbehavior overwhelmingly have a sense that there is not a functional behavior management plan at their school. Teachers often report that their staff has had cursory training on Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions (PBIS) and /or Restorative Practices, but that the depth of training they have received has been insufficient for them to fully understand and implement these behavior management systems on a consistent basis in their school.

Training for these systems often consists of one or two days in August with no follow-up training as the year goes on. In addition, teachers at these schools indicate that as the year goes on, the level of student misbehavior becomes unmanageable, and it becomes untenable to actively try to implement the system. When this happens, teachers say that behavior management in their schools reverts to a system of teachers writing referrals and administrators trying to impose consequences in accordance with the infamous dot matrix from the Student Support and Behavior Intervention Handbook. It doesn’t take long for the number and frequency of behavior referrals to reach a critical mass where administrators and teachers can no longer keep up, and at that point, teachers say they feel like their building is out of control.

Students don’t receive sufficient support to change their behaviors, they don’t receive consequences for their misbehavior, teachers feel like they aren’t being supported as they try to maintain some semblance of order in their classrooms and their hallways, and I can only imagine that administrators must surely feel frustrated at conditions and climate in their buildings. To complicate matters, state and federal statute has imposed new requirements for ensuring that ECE students receive all of their instructional minutes and that managing their behavior does not interfere with their learning.  It’s a perfect storm that ruins the school’s learning climate, destroys morale, and pits students, teachers, administrators, and even parents against each other.

Not enough mental health workers in schools

Teachers we’ve talked to indicate that while their schools do have some designated mental health professionals assigned to their building, the amount of support that is available to their schools isn’t enough to manage student needs on a day to day basis, let alone when student behavior becomes volatile. Across the board, teachers at these schools have told us that they need more mental health professionals in their buildings.

Data collection is getting in the way of managing student behavior

Every teacher knows that it’s not possible to teach until student behavior is under control and the classroom environment is calm and conducive to learning.  At our building visits this fall, many members have told us that data collection for the purpose of preparing students for high stakes standardized testing takes precedence over everything else in their school.  Administrators, counselors, and even department leads are urged to spend time doing walkthroughs on classrooms, filling out checklists to determine which teachers are posting their learning objectives daily, whether the classes are on track for their common assessments, and even where the teacher is standing in the room.  Teachers report that the agendas for their Professional Learning Community (PLC) time have been monopolized by their principals for the purpose of data collection and preparing common assessments. Some middle school teachers tell us that they no longer have common planning time with their teams, which prevents them from having opportunities to discuss students that they have in common.   

Student misbehavior correlates to a high student to teacher ratio and understaffing

Across the board, our teachers at schools with a high incidence of volatile student behavior cite class size as the most significant contributing factor to student misbehavior.  While most JCPS high schools have relatively small classes in their honors and advance program classes, general level classes tend to be larger, with many of these classes approaching the class cap of 31.  Unfilled vacancies, whether teacher openings or substitute openings, are another factor that causes increases to class size. Teachers report that when there are unfilled substitute vacancies, it is often necessary for them to accept extra students into their classes or for them to cover another teacher’s class.  Both of these scenarios cause teachers to be put in charge of students they don’t know and with whom they haven’t had an opportunity to build trust.  

Managing Volatile Student Behavior:  What Should We Do Now?  

Here are some thoughts on what I think JCPS should do to improve teaching and learning conditions at schools with the most challenging student behaviors.  

Get back to basics with Maslow’s hierarchy

Teachers can’t teach and students can’t learn until our classrooms and our common spaces are safe environments.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that more rigorous instruction or more frequent interventions will solve the problem of student misbehavior.  Until our schools are safe places for staff to work and for students to learn, concerns about school accountability and student test scores need to be secondary.  Administration from the top down needs to make student behavior and school safety it’s number one priority until every school and every classroom have a climate that is conducive to student success and learning.  This is a problem that will only be solved by intensive and strategic use of resources, and the District needs to act quickly and decisively to make these changes.   

We NEED smaller class sizes

Thirty-one students in any class are too many for a teacher to build a trusting relationship with each student and give them the one-on-one attention they need and deserve.  High schools with particularly challenging student behavior should have no more than 20 to 22 students in a class; elementary schools with widespread difficult behaviors should have no more than 18 to 20.  Smaller class sizes decrease the student to adult ratio in the school and deter volatile behavior between students. JCPS should leverage the next student assignment plan to decrease enrollment in schools with excessive student violence in order to create smaller class sizes where students can learn and thrive.  

In addition, the District must find ways to make sure that there are no unstaffed sub positions in these schools which regularly have unstaffed vacancies.  This may require offering a pay differential to qualified and experienced subs who are willing to accept jobs at these schools, hiring additional permanent subs in hard to staff buildings, or hiring floating teachers to fill in as needed in unstaffed positions.   

All hands on deck

Along with hiring the staff necessary to create smaller class sizes, JCPS needs to be more strategic about how they use their existing human resources.  The District should relieve school administrators of some of their data collection responsibilities and walk through quotas in order to free up principals and counselors to spend more time working directly with students.  

The District should create student behavior crisis teams to assist in buildings where student misbehavior has reached extreme or violent levels.  JCPS currently has established procedures for mobilizing crisis teams of mental health care staff to schools when school administrators request them in response to traumatic situations such as the death of a student or staff member. Students and staff who feel like they need to talk to a mental health professional can avail themselves of the crisis team on an as-needed and voluntary basis while the team is at their school.  JCPS should replicate and adapt its crisis team model to provide timely support to schools that are experiencing a high level of volatile student behavior incidents. These teams should include staff with expertise in student behavior management and de-escalation techniques, as well as mental healthcare providers. These behavior support teams should be available to be deployed to assist building administrators in managing volatile behavior in hallways and common areas, to assist with administrative and paperwork duties related to student behavior referrals, and to work with students one-on-one on an as-needed basis as directed by the principal.  

JCPS must increase mental health services at schools with high levels of student misbehavior incidents.  JCTA members at schools with some of the most difficult student behaviors have overwhelmingly told us that, while their schools do have some designated mental health professionals assigned to their building, the amount of support that is available to their schools isn’t enough to manage student needs on a day to day basis, let alone when student behavior becomes volatile.   The District needs to strategically target schools with high levels of student trauma for increased access to mental health services.  

Each building needs an individualized and collaboratively developed behavior management plan

Just like master teachers involve their students in establishing and teaching class rules at the beginning of the year, every JCPS school should be developing its own individualized student behavior management plan in collaboration with students, staff, and other stakeholders as part of its Comprehensive School Improvement Plan.  These plans may draw on but should not be limited to elements of the District-approved models, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Practices (RP). Whatever the school’s behavior management system may be, it is absolutely crucial that it be developed through a collaborative process between administration, staff, students, and families in order to ensure that it has the full support and buy-in of every member of the school community.  When everyone knows what the expectations are and how the plan is supposed to work, it is much easier to maintain order and a positive climate.

Collaboratively developing a school-wide plan is only half the battle, though.  Schools have to be prepared to implement the plan with fidelity. Each school’s behavior management plan should be adequately staffed with necessary security teams, behavior interventionists, home to school coordinators, and other resources as needed.  JCPS must assure that every school is able to access adequate, appropriate professional development for their staff to make sure that they have the skills they need to manage difficult student behaviors according to their plan, and there must be regular opportunities throughout the year for staff to collaborate specifically on student behavior.  

Closing thoughts

When extreme student behaviors like the ones we’ve seen recently make the news, it’s really easy to make broad generalizations or try to point fingers and place blame.  If you read the comment section on any article about students or teachers being assaulted at school or on the bus, you’ll see people blame parents, teachers, the school system, society in general, and they especially find fault with students.  I just want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that a career in public education is a calling. Those of us who work in public schools do it because we love students and are passionate about helping them grow and thrive. We’re trained to understand children, their developmental stages, their needs, and how they think.  We know what they need in order to learn, and we know what to do to manage their behavior when their behavior isn’t good. If we as a society are going to be serious about improving schools, we need to listen to the only people who know every student by name. As teachers, we know our children’s strengths, their weaknesses, their ambitions, and their passions.  We care for them. We know what to do, and we know how to make this better, but we need support. We need administrators to give us the time and the autonomy to do what we know how to do, to teach the way that we know is best for our students. We need the District to allow schools to develop behavior plans that work for their students and give them the resources they need to implement them.  We need policy makers to realize that students can’t learn if we don’t value them as people first, and stop looking at them as data points in the big scheme of the accountability system. Listen to us when we tell you what’s wrong, and do what we ask of you to fix it. We can’t continue approaching this as a problem of academic rigor. These are human beings we’re dealing with. We have to make this right for them. 

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