“I’ve been teaching for ____ years, and I’ve never had a class this difficult.”

I literally couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that this year while working as a behavior specialist at an elementary school this year.

At first, I thought maybe it was because we’re at an inner-city public school (though a small-scale version) and teachers were comparing our students to those of socioeconomically different schools.

But then I stopped being an idiot and realized that teachers weren’t comparing our students to other schools. They’re comparing our students of this year to our students of previous years. They’re comparing students who are all from the same economic backgrounds, the same ethnic backgrounds, the same types of home, and the same (usually) religious background to themselves.

Yet, for some reason, a ton of the teachers in my school have made this statement this year. Is there really something different?

I think there is.

Here’s why:

Our number of office referrals have risen. Our reports of violence have gone up. The relationships we have with local police officers have become closer. The number of (often very young) students who’ve gone to psychiatric facilities during their time at our school has risen.

The fact that my position was created at all in the public school system, as a behavior specialist, says a lot.

A few years ago, my position didn’t exist at all. There were few enough behaviors in the school that the principal and assistant principal could handle them while still maintaining their workloads.

Now, there are enough uncontrollable behaviors throughout the school in a day that there’s an entire staff member (at one time there were two staff members) whose sole job it is to intervene in those situations.

Not only do I work reactively to those stressful situations, but I also work proactively. I try to set up programs that help students learn to manage their own behavior before things get bad. I work with teachers to help them figure out how they can help their behavior students be successful.

My parents have mentioned several times that they’re shocked a behavior specialist is even necessary at the elementary level. When they were in school, kids either “got spankings or suspension” and they stopped their behavior.

I think there are better ways to motivate kids than just doling out spankings and suspensions–because they motivate kids with fear and don’t really get to the root of the issue–but I do believe there’s a disparity between the amount of responsibility children have for their actions now and the amount they used to have.

I’ve noticed that, more often than not, kids now are culturally more aware than they were twenty years ago (Positives!!), but they’re also more sensitive (can be negative). They’re given more instant rewards and are required to work for a lot less. Everything is at their fingertips.

While there can be some incredible perks to this, like scientific advancements and more in-depth educations, there can also be some major drawbacks. I think we’re going through some of those drawbacks now.

But I don’t think the lack of responsibility on kids is necessarily their own fault. There seems to have been a gradual decrease in what administrators are allowed to expect from kids at school, which has given kids more freedom to misbehave. There have been laws created to keep children safe in the past decade, which is AMAZING.

But they’ve also sort of tied teachers’ and principals’ hands as far as consequences are concerned. Not always, but often, these laws inadvertently protect a child’s right to act however they wish. In reality, kids really do have the freedom to act however they wish, so long as it doesn’t harm another individual, but it’s hard as they adults to figure out where we stand in all of that.

It’s hard to consequence students when it means we’ll be yelled at by someone no matter how we go about it. And when parents are yelling at us, too, it becomes even more difficult to hold a student responsible for their actions at school.

It feels like things are to the point that a child can only be removed from a classroom if they’re physically harming someone else.

They get to stay if they’re being disruptive. They get to stay if they’ve refused to work for two straight weeks. They get to stay if they’re disrespectful. The only time they have to leave is if they put hands on someone else.

Even for me, as an adult who DOES NOT LIKE putting hands on a child EVER, it’s really difficult to figure out what we can do in those situations.

It’s hard to hold students accountable for the choices they make PRIOR to harming other people.

We can talk to them, withhold privileges, offer incentives, and use behavior modification all we want, but really the student doesn’t have to choose to obey.

Twenty years ago or more, children didn’t have much of a choice about whether or not they followed instructions, but now it’s a bit of a crap shoot.

There’s a level of freedom we’ve given our students that is beautiful and necessary, but somewhere along the way, we forgot to also provide them with the tools they need to navigate that freedom. We’re still trying to teach and respond in ways that focus on punishment as motivation, when we really need to be focusing on teaching our students entirely new skill sets.

I don’t know. I don’t have a magic answer. The only think I know is that there’s something missing.

There’s a rise in behaviors and a lack of response, but none of us really know what to do about it.

What do you guys think? Where have you noticed changes in childhood behavior throughout the past five to ten years?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!