Student behavior makes teaching harder than ever

Hilderbrand Pelzer III once taught in a juvenile detention center. Now, as a principal, he says that student behavior in Philadelphia schools makes teaching harder than ever.

Pelzer quotes the principal of the Bensalem Youth Development Center School where he once worked: “It only takes one student to destroy and demoralize the learning environment.” In Philadelphia, officials estimate that more than half of all students have experienced a major traumatic event, according to the Philadelphia Citizen. With that many student needs, building and sustaining a thriving school climate can be a herculean effort.

Pelzer cites the Child Mind Institute, which says that about 10% of the school population nationally struggles with mental health problems. But only about one in three teachers think they have the skills to handle mental health issues.

Last year a group of teachers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, shared stories of getting beaten up by students as young as six. Forty-five teachers resigned between July and October, 2017.

Pelzer writes: “A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education found that teachers overwhelmingly think that suspensions helped them manage their classrooms.” In some schools, truancy has risen with the abolition of suspensions for minor infractions, and academic success among students not previously suspended has declined.

UCLA sociologist Jeffrey Guhin has observed similar patterns in urban public schools around the United States, though teachers are doing their best to connect with students and address the underlying issues.  He writes in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture book The Content of Their Character that “there were often heroic commitments by teachers to show compassion to their students and to model such a compassionate life as a meaningful way to live.” Indeed, Pelzer and many others continue to make those heroic commitments, setting an example for their students.

In Pelzer’s school, “distressed students struggle to follow basic instructions, and have difficulty focusing their attention on organizing, planning and completing tasks.” The burden falls on teachers, he says. “At my school, I’ve had parents tell me with relief as they drop off their children that it’s up to us to manage them for the day.”

Pelzer concludes: “It is increasingly clear that if we want more progressive disciplinary methods, we need one or both of two things: More in-school professional help, which can be costly, or better training.”

The International Institute for Restorative Practices addresses the training need through its degree, continuing education, and professional development offerings. There are no quick fixes, which makes the heroic perseverance of Pelzer and his colleagues all the more impressive.

Study: Link between bullying and mental health issues

A new study confirms the link between children who are bullied and mental health issues later in life, and many of the proposed remedies focus more on the effects rather than the cause of the problem.

The research confirms what many in the mental health community already know, and what character education aims to address in schools.

University College London outlined the recent UK based study:

The study involved 11,108 participants from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), which is based at King’s College London. By surveying twins, researchers were able to look at the associations between bullying and mental health outcomes, and then account for the confounding effects of their genes and shared environmental influences because they studied both monozygotic (“identical”) twins who have matching genes and home environments and dizygotic (“non-identical”) twins, who don’t share all of their genes, but have matching home environments. Both children and their parents filled out the questionnaire: at age 11 and 14 they were asked about peer victimization, and at 11 and 16 they were asked about mental health difficulties.

The UCL-led research team found that, with all factors considered, bullying contributed to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems, and the anxiety persisted for years afterward. Five years after the bullying, “there was no longer an effect on any of those outcomes,” according to the university website.

“While our findings show that being bullied leads to detrimental mental health outcomes, they also offer a message of hope by highlighting the potential for resilience. Bullying certainly causes suffering, but the impact on mental health decreases over time, so children are able to recover in the medium term,” said Jean-Baptiste Pingault, UCL Psychology & Language Sciences professor and lead author of the study.

“The detrimental effects of bullying show that more needs to be done to help children who are bullied. In addition to interventions aimed at stopping bullying from happening, we should also support children who have been bullied by supporting resilience processes on their path to recovery. Our findings highlight the importance of continuous support to mental health care for children and adolescents.”

The study, funded by MQ: Transforming Mental Health and the Economic and Social Research Council, was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

MQ: Transforming Mental Health Director of Research Sophie Dix echoed Pingaults’ call for supporting students once they’ve been victimized by bullies.

“This important research is further strong evidence of the need to take the mental health impacts of bullying seriously,” she said. “We hope this study provides fresh impetus to make sure young people at risk—and those currently being bullied—get effective help as soon as possible.”

Often overlooked but vital is the role character education can play in preventing bullying.

Character education advocates argue that rather than attempting to correct the effects of bullying, evil treatment of other students should be addressed holistically through a focus on kindness and other virtues so students understand why all people are worth being treated with respect.

James Davison Hunter points out in his book, The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, that the holistic approach only works when adults are on the same page, focused on character formation so that it’s integrated into all teaching, and embedded in a school’s culture.

And not only the school, but parents must be attentive to those who are vulnerable, along with all who “are part of [the] larger network of social groups and institutions” that include sports, youth organizations, faith communities, YMCAs, and others, Hunter writes.