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Educator Stories: Disrupted Learning Environments

How have behavioral challenges and dealing with unmet student needs changed the work our members do?

By OEA Members from Around the State

Ask any teacher, instructional assistant, counselor, bus driver or specialist, and they will tell you: disrupted learning is one of the biggest challenges facing our students. Educators from across the state have shared their stories with us.

Every day during February and early March, we hand-delivered a story from one of our members to Oregon legislators. OEA is working hard to make policy changes and raise the profile of this issue. We can't do it without your help! If you have a story to tell, click here to share it!

First year teacher

Kathryn Unger
Fifth Grade Teacher
Gresham, OR

I am a first-year educator with 37 students in my portable classroom. I need snacks to give students who are hungry, I need another adult to help students who are significantly below grade level, and I need a smaller class size. Students who experience financial, emotional, and physical stress at home do not come to school prepared to learn. They have basic needs that are not being met in their home environment and look for ways to have them met at school. This takes priority over any instruction of curriculum.

The biggest unmet need for my most disruptive student is mental health services. Her family makes enough money to have private insurance, but on that insurance they can afford either medication or counseling--not both. She cannot be unmedicated and have any hope of behaving in a socially appropriate way, but she also desperately needs counseling services to correctly identify mental illness and develop the skills necessary to cope with it. Large class sizes mean that there are too many students for me to give an adequate amount of time and attention to each child. It also means I cannot be in close enough proximity to all students at all times to guarantee their safety. When a student’s behavior becomes escalated, I do not have enough physical space that is far enough away from other children to ensure those students are not attacked by the escalated student.

This year my classroom has been the scene of four stabbings by pencil. The most recent event (end of January) involved a girl stabbing another student in the arm three times, hard enough to puncture the skin and draw blood. The victim had to return to the health room later in the day to change his bandages, as he had bled through the first ones. The girl refused to leave the classroom for about 15 minutes after the event, with both the counselor and I trying to coax her into exiting. She needs support that is beyond my capacity to give.

Other students voiced a fear over returning to school once she was allowed back in the classroom and the worry that they might be next. They were able to go on with their day after 20-25 minutes, during which time I encouraged them to write about what they saw and how it made them feel. The next day we had a classroom circle that provided space for students to process and vocalize their feelings. Students asked me how I was going to keep them safe, since I had been in the room when the stabbing happened. I honestly don’t know the answer to that question.

I need fewer students in this classroom, a bigger classroom to accommodate this many students, an educational assistant to decrease the 37:1 student/teacher ratio, or some combination of the three.

Not much space

Vicky Rafn
Instructional Assistant
Salem, OR 

In my role at my school, I meet with an intervention group of six first graders every morning at 11:00 a.m. We meet at a table in the lower hallway. One Monday, as we were doing our work, a kindergartner ran up to our area and got down on the floor despite the fact that his class was supposed to be going to lunch. A teacher was walking toward him to redirect him to the cafeteria, but he yelled, “NO!” and threw his lunch box, which hit one of the girls at my table in the head. 

"I feel that I can no longer recommend education as a profession because of the stress this causes and the real possibility of getting injured by a student."

All my students were startled, of course. I told the boy that this behavior was unacceptable in our school and he needed to tell the student he hit that he was sorry. He continued to say no and yell, “I don’t want to!” Fortunately, the little girl was okay. By then the other kindergarten teacher was there and also told him to apologize. He reluctantly said “sorry” but continued to resist going to lunch. This is just one small example of how unruly behavior and struggling students with unaddressed needs impact all students.

Large class sizes tend to cause children to be agitated because there is little space in which to move around. Also, it is very difficult to monitor, let alone teach, when you have 33 in a room with no support and four or five are causing problems like hiding in coat closets, throwing things, chasing and hitting kids or refusing to join the other students. If this had happened to one of the children or grandchildren in your family, what steps would you want taken? These things should not be happening at all. School ought to be a safe place where kids enjoy coming to learn.
I feel that I can no longer recommend education as a profession because of the stress this causes and the real possibility of getting injured by a student. Two of our staff have been bitten this year by kindergarten students! It is a sad situation. Please come spend a day in a classroom and see what it looks like.

We aren't just teachers

Annie Robertson
Third Grade Teacher
Grants Pass, OR

In our community, there are many hardships that impact our students at home including financial struggles, drug use, and emotional stresses. Some of our families are living in the local mission and some of them are living in camping trailers without proper facilities. Others go home and are either given a device to keep them entertained and quiet, or they are ignored by their parents who are busy with their own devices.

Too often when our students come to school, they are worried about things that are going on at home. They may not have enough food at home. They may not have a bed to sleep on. Parents are stressed and students are feeling that stress. When children are in a constant state of fear or have high levels of anxiety, they are not able to access learning. They are stuck in their emotional part of their brain (amygdala) and they are unable to access the learning part of their brain (pre-frontal cortex: executive function) Every day there are severe, violent, and disruptive behaviors in our classrooms.

The impact of these disruptive events can vary from a few minutes to 45 minutes. There are students who are here to learn and can’t get the attention they require because a handful of students are struggling so much they demand all of the teacher’s attention. We have had to stop math lessons, writing lessons, reading lessons, and even art projects. There are times when we call our office response team to get help with a difficult child and there is no adult available because they are all busy responding to other struggling children.
We need counselors available at each school. We need them available to each child, if necessary. Teachers need to have more training on how to support students with behavior needs. We need to learn more about Oppositional Defiance Disorder, ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, Sensory Processing Disorder, etc and what these mean for learning in a classroom. We also need more support in the classroom. When we have twenty-eight students and 10 of them are constantly exploding, we need help so that we may continue teaching while someone gets those students to deescalate. We need other tools that can help teach students strategies to calm their bodies and get theminto a learning space.

Teaching is a difficult profession. We are not just teachers, but counselors, behavior specialists, and stand-in parents. This is no longer a job that I would recommend to anyone going through college. We are feeling unsupported and are quickly burning out. Many conversations are being had about retirement or changing careers. We are all feeling defeated. There is a crisis happening that really must be addressed. Please help.

In survival mode

Cari Fike
Life Skills Teacher
La Pine, OR 

I work in Bend, and I’ve been an educator for 15 years.My students who have strained resources (whether it’s financial, emotional, etc) at home are are impacted academically, socially, and emotionally. They are not able to focus on school as they are dealing with a lot of trauma and are often in survival mode. Unfortunately, services and programs are not available to assist these children. Many of these students need counseling, a smaller student to teacher ratio, and adapted curriculums.

"They are not able to focus on school as they are dealing with a lot of trauma and are often in survival mode. Unfortunately, services and programs are not available to assist these children."

Programs that offer a continuum of services are not available, and these students are not receiving an appropriate placement.

In my school, we deal with disruptions multiple times a day. We have had many room clears in order to deal with behavior challenges and ensure safety of the other students. We constantly deal with disruptions in instructional time due to having to support behavioral challenges first. These issues impact all students. Other students can be fearful at times and get anxious or upset. They miss out on learning opportunities and have to adjust to changes in their routines. Often those circumstances set off other students, creating total chaos. All academic areas have been impacted.

The more students there are in a classroom the more inappropriate behaviors there are. When there are too many students with behavioral challenges, it is difficult to control and implement behavior plans, let alone get through our lesson plans!
We need in class support as well as appropriate programs that offer a continuum of services to meet the diverse needs of the students and address their experiences with trauma.

Diminishing number of resources available

Franky Stebbins
Language Specialist
East Portland, OR

Ive worked in three different schools, each quite different. In my current placement, there are more behavioral challenges disrupting school time. These challenges existed in my last location but we had more support staff to help address them. We also had time as a team to debrief at the end of the day and brainstorm as a group to prepare for the next day, a luxury that I don’t have currently. The team collaboration around a student is a powerful tool, as are support staff who can help mitigate what’s going on as it’s happening. This allows the rest of the kids to continue learning without losing instruction. Many of our students are coming from situations where separation of some sort is normal (parent incarceration, foster care, homelessness, unaccompanied youth, language barriers). There are also a diminishing amount of resources available to address these challenges with wrap-around services.

Our student body has free lunch and breakfast at school, and still most of my students are always hungry, even after they’ve eaten. Being hungry impacts students’ ability to concentrate, focus and behave appropriately in class. During the snow days last year, many students expressed concern about their housing situations. Many parents work jobs that couldn’t be performed in the bad weather, decreasing their incomes. Students reported being cold at home and worrying about their parents being able to pay the heating and grocery bills. Even without snow days this year, it is noticeable that many of our families struggle to make ends meet financially.

Physical safety is another concern for students. There were a number of domestic violence incidents in the past two years that impacted our students, their younger siblings, parents. Two elementary feeder schools for our middle school have been intimately impacted by neighborhood violence recently. Our middle school also receives students from the two family shelters in east Portland. School often becomes the stable routine, but it can also be challenging to get to when you’ve been unable to sleep due to the shelter setting; you’re worried about your parent/guardian; you’re being teased or bullied or you’re struggling with trauma and anxiety that hasn’t been addressed. Many of our students are homeless and struggling to be physically present at school. 

When we are operating in crisis mode, we cannot learn well. We cannot retain information or focus. We prioritize our most basic needs that are not being met. This affects how students are at school. It also affects how teachers must use their time and energy with students. So much social and emotional learning needs to take place before academics can begin. Managing student behaviors takes so much energy, strategy, and time. Staff commitment and care for students is evident and needed – but so challenging to give our students under the current circumstances.

These students can never get away from each other

Joyce Rosenau
ELD Specialist
East Portland, OR

I have been an educator for 22 years. Our school teaches about 70 children from our local homeless shelter, out of a student population of 500. These students never can get away from each other. They spend all the school day together and then spend the rest of the day and night in a shelter where each family just has a group of cots. In addition, we also have many students living in hotels. All of these students lack the basics in their home lives. They have nowhere to play or study, no chance to get a snack when hungry, no privacy, etc.

"With smaller class sizes, teachers could focus on supporting mental health needs as well as academics, to really get at the root of the problem."

Some of these students have suffered trauma and have not received counseling support for it. Some have mental health issues and again no support for that. Others are trying to cope with a hard situation without any coping skills. Our schools do not have the resources to pay enough support staff, but having them would make such a big difference.

In my school, we experience severe behavior daily. Room clears happen several times a week at my building. These events disrupt everyone’s learning. All students lose out while the room is cleared. After the room has been put back together and the students return, many cannot get back on track. I notice that the students are louder and less on task. Some speak about being fearful and not wanting to be at school. 

Students need smaller class sizes so each child can have what they need. A teacher can monitor and redirect students more effectively when there are fewer of them. When a teacher has to teach the rest of the students, (often twenty-five or more) then there is no time and no one else to intervene with the student who is about to explode. If the teacher stops teaching and tries to help the one, then 25 students are left on their own for 20 minutes or more. This is easier if the students can read or work independently but near impossible for the lower grades. We need focused staff who can work one on one with struggling students and we need a small class setting. With smaller class sizes, teachers could focus on supporting mental health needs as well as academics, to really get at the root of the problem.

Not able to complete lessons

Teresa Martin
Sixth Grade Teacher
Douglas County, OR

I have been an educator for more than 21 years. For my students, there are many needs not being met, but the most important need is mental health. We do not have one single person in our entire school district designated to help with mental health issues. This has been the case for over 4 years now.

We experience severe behavior issues on a weekly basis. These are kids that could really use talking to a mental health professional on a regular basis. They do not have the tools to adequately deal with situations, and as an educator I do not have the tools to adequately support them either.

There are several times so far this school year that I have had to stop the lesson plan and spend the rest of class gathering students together to have an open conversation about choice making. I have had to do that more than three times with one particular group. There were well over 8 kids who truly need to have mental health interventions. They need a safe place to talk and work through their feelings.

The class has not able to complete lessons and is behind other groups because of the time we’ve had to spend dealing with behaviors. I am talking about fights breaking out over putting away textbooks; I am talking about repetitive behavioral tactics to get other kids off task; and I am certainly talking about more than the usual stuff that middle school boys do. Larger class sizes add tremendously to this problem. It is like adding gasoline onto the fire when our class sizes are large and we have students with mental health issues.

These situations have impacted my other students. They went home upset talking to their parents about it. They were frustrated that they were missing out on the learning and behind the other groups, and they were disappointed that nobody was coming in to help support the class. I teach back-to-back periods with this group, so we didn’t get done with language arts and we never got around to doing social studies for at least 2 or 3 days this school year because of the extreme behaviors and unaddressed needs.

Putting out fires

Nettalien Eagar
Kindergarten Teacher
Salem, OR

My name is Nettalien Eagar, and I am a proud kindergarten teacher in Salem. Many of my students face serious issues at home, the effects of which they bring to school with them.

One of my students has been moved around to different foster homes for his entire life. He suffers from the psychological effects of severe neglect, anxiety, and wild mood swings. He often becomes extremely disruptive, sometimes even violent in the classroom. Another of my students is being fostered by his grandparents because both of his parents are homeless and unfit to care for him. He is at school from 7:30 a.m until 5:30 p.m every day because he is enrolled in before and after school programs. He suffers from anxiety and frequent mood swings which are always disruptive to our class. He cries about anything that doesn’t go his way, and he screams at teachers when they attempt to redirect him. His behaviors have increased exponentially as the year has worn on.

These students are all in need of more behavioral intervention supports. We spend almost all day every day putting out fires in our classroom, and none of that energy seems to be focused of getting these kids the help they need. 

“We spend almost all day every day putting out fires in our classroom, and none of that energy seems to be focused of getting these kids the help they need.”

The answers we get are that personnel our school as well as the entire district are just stretched too thin with a budget that has no room for getting the resources we need. When I ask for help, I am given tracking cards and flowcharts of how to respond to/prevent behavior escalations. These are not things I can reasonably manage while also teaching and managing behaviors in the rest of my class.

My students who need regular therapy are not receiving it, and additional one-on-one support in our classrooms would also make a big difference. Many of these kids learn and play so much more effectively when given the opportunity to express themselves as well as working and playing in small group settings.

I also feel very strongly that if teachers are expected to manage these extreme behaviors, we need a lot more training and education to deal with trauma and stress related behaviors. We often feel that are thrown into the fire without being given the right tools to effectively manage the situation or even protect the other students. I know this affects the other students is complex ways we cannot fully understand without more supports. Unfortunately, all of my students are experiencing trauma on some level every single day in my classroom.

School used to be a safe place

Kathleen Brandt
Third Grade Teacher
Eugene, OR

Students come to school tired because they don’t sleep at night. Some students are on and off homeless. Some students are unsupervised during the night so they might stay up late or experience physical abuse by a sibling. They might sleep on the couch.

These challenges all lead to having difficulties at school, and more disrupted learning for all students. Students with disruptive behaviors are often not getting support from anyone other than their teacher. They are not in friendship groups, anger management groups, or social skills groups. They only receive support if they explode to the point that the class needs to do a room clear for student safety. Then they receive support by being removed.
Often, they come back to class the same day or the next morning still escalated. I’ve had 15 room clears so far this year. Each room clear takes away 15-30 minutes of instruction. Students often need a debrief after a room is destroyed or lights were shattered from a thrown chair.

Students’ specific needs are not being met because of lack of staffing and training, and other resources. Administrators, counselors, and staff lack training on how to deal with behavior students effectively. We need this training, but we also need more educational assistants to help with individual behavior needs. Right now, the counselor has to spend time chasing kids all day and not teaching groups or working on addressing needs.

For some students, school is their only safe place. Sadly, escalating behaviors have created a dynamic where school is no longer safe. Students with intense behaviors should be supported. They should receive anger management skills, friendships skills, social skills. They should have the opportunity to learn in a smaller environment or go to a calm space if needed. They should have someone checking on them after each subject period. Some need a physical break after each subject period. If classes were safe and well resourced, then all students, especially students with trauma, would feel like school was their safe place again.

Student homelessness

Cara Dodge
Supported Ed, K-5
Bend, OR

Students who are homeless do not know where they are going to sleep that night or if they are going to eat dinner. They spend their days worrying and are not able to attend to what is going on in the classroom. They are not interested in fractions, literature or writing a narrative. They are worried about where their next meal is coming from and where they are going to sleep next.

A few years ago, I had a kindergarten student who was living in a tent with his family of 4. They had to move every 2 weeks because that is as long as they could stay at a campsite. It was hot and this boy had a severe sunburn on his face. It hurt and was peeling and bloody in spots. He tried so hard to listen to the stories that the teacher was reading or to write his letters and numbers. But in the end, he ended up crying and ripping papers off the wall and kicking and screaming. We had to clear the room and have the rest of the students work in the library so that this student could vent his hurt and anger by destroying the classroom. He always ended up crying on the floor, ripped up papers of his classmates scattered around him, crying, “I want to go home! I want to go home!”

“They are not interested in fractions, literature or writing a narrative. They are worried about where their next meal is coming from and where they are going to sleep next.”

Many of the students who have disruptive behaviors simply need more individual attention. It is hard for the teacher to listen and support one student in a class of over 30. The student who is struggling waits and waits for help or for someone to listen until the dam bursts and they explode. General education class sizes are too large and special education caseloads are too high. Add that to all of the testing and data tracking, teaching to the test and the Common Core Standards -- and the individual child is getting lost. Unfortunately, special education teachers have so many meetings and paperwork requirements that they often have to write Individual Education Plans (IEPs) based on the schedule that is available and not on the needs of the child.

As I am a case manager and trained in crisis response, I am called when one of my students is having a violent outburst. When I am called, I have to leave the group of students that I am teaching and send them back to class. These kiddos are missing out on their instruction. If we had a special education assistant assigned to these kiddos to be specifically available to respond in a crisis, then we wouldn’t pull teachers away from the other students. A trained behavior specialist could maintain and prevent behavior and be on hand when an outburst occurs.

Deescalation rooms

Karen Adamczyk
Special Education K-6
Hillsboro, OR

The behavior needs of the students in our building are not being met because we do not have the appropriate physical space that many of these students need and we are understaffed. When behaviors escalate, this understaffing leads to huge disruptions in the school day. It is unfair to the other children trying to learn, the children who are having difficulties, and staff trying to help. Adequate support and space are just not there for these students.

When I am trying to teach students in my classroom and there is a child running down the hall screaming profanities and tearing things off the wall seeking sensory input, I try to turn on soft music in my classroom and ensure the door is closed to deescalate the situation. Many students have become almost numb to the behavior they witness. As a parent, I would be demanding to know how these incidents will be resolved and prevented in our school.

We need school social workers, behavioral specialists, and the physical space to have deescalation rooms for our students who are struggling.

I do not understand why Oregon is so understaffed with mental health personnel in schools. My students need these resources. The relationship between social worker and case manager is vital in order to fully provide some of these children with the supports they need. At my school, we don’t even have a social worker.

I moved to Oregon from Illinois last year. Having worked the same job in two states, my lens is crystal clear. Despite Illinois’ growing deficit, the state still manages to make mental health in schools a priority. They have much stronger Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams to support their students, including case managers, social workers, SLPs, OTs, PTs, classroom teachers, and parents. Over the years in Illinois, I watched IEP teams grow stronger with the implementation of social workers in buildings. In terms of mental health, I am very sad to see Oregon schools so far behind where they need to be, but I hope to be a part of positive change as I continue my teaching career here.

Absent or unable to focus

Rose Abbey
Fourth Grade Teacher
Cottage Grove, OR

My name is Rose Abbey and I’ve been an educator for four years. I have found that students who have stresses at home are more likely to be absent and have an inability to focus when they are present at school. The stresses I have seen my students experience include: homelessness, family trauma, lack of financial stability, and countless other issues.

"The resources that are most needed and would make the biggest difference is simply more staff (counselors, skills trainers, additional aides or teaching staff). We also need more training on behaviors, ways to deal with them, and training in how to support students who are affected by poverty."

I believe that students who exhibit disruptive behaviors need a team to support them, a plan for how to overcome what is causing the disruptions, and the resources to execute that plan. Many times what students want in response to their disruption is attention, even negative attention. When a school (or district) can come together for the betterment of the student, find the root cause and work towards fixing it, then students can focus on school and not on whatever is causing their disruption.

These needs may not be met because often students are labeled as the “bad kid”, and given some kind of “check-in” for behavior. However, the behavior is being demonstrated for some reason, whether the student can explain it or not. Schools need to work on finding the root cause in order to help the student succeed and be given the resources to do so.

The resources that are most needed and would make the biggest difference is simply more staff (counselors, skills trainers, additional aides or teaching staff). We also need more training on behaviors, ways to deal with them, and training in how to support students who are affected by poverty.

In our district, poverty is one of the main causes of student stress, and it is directly evident in the classroom.

Class time lost

Judith Siviglia
Seventh Grade Math Teacher
Portland, OR

Our biggest behavioral problems are related to kids whose families are functionally homeless. Even when those students can make it to school, they can’t really focus on the work. A lot of students will miss the first part of the school day because they are taking care of smaller siblings at home while their parents are at work. I have had several students who were working really hard to get caught up at school then just stop coming, and all that progress was lost.

We have two counselors for almost 1,000 students. We try to refer students to counseling services outside of school, but often they don’t have insurance that will cover it. One student had been on the Oregon Health Plan but dropped off the rolls while living with his grandparents, because they didn’t speak English and didn’t have support to navigate the system. Some students simply can’t function in a classroom of 30. They need smaller classrooms and special services, but we have no alternatives for middle schoolers in our district. We spend hours and hours documenting and collecting paperwork, but there’s no solution at the end of the process.

My first year teaching I had a student who was experiencing homelessness. He was very bright and, when working with someone one-on-one, very sweet. In the classroom, however, he could not refrain from blurting out during lessons, making comments about other students or simply making disruptive noises. He was not the only disruptive student that year. Every year there are at least a couple students who monopolize our attention both inside and outside the classroom. If we had more resources, we would be much better equipped to serve all of our students.

If I spend 6 minutes dealing with disruptive behavior in a class period, that’s 10 percent of class time lost. When a student interrupts a lesson with, say, a rude noise, everyone laughs, people make comments, others copy the behavior. That easily eats up a couple of minutes. If I stop to address the behavior and the student argues or resists redirection, that can eat up another 2 to 5 minutes. If behaviors are ignored, they escalate. Other students see this and either feel empowered to act out themselves, or generally feel disempowered or disenfranchised in their own classroom.

It’s impossible in a room of 30 students to monitor everything that’s going on all the time. With a full or overfull classroom, there are few options for moving a student to a seat where he or she may be less likely to disrupt. The more students there are in the room, the more opportunity there is for disruptive dynamics. I have some classes where there just literally aren’t enough corners in the room to keep students separated so they won’t cause problems.

One-to-one relationships

Aimee Viramontes
Special Education K-5
Corvallis, OR 

Here in Corvallis School District, we have many students who are navigating homelessness, abuse, or other trauma. These challenges dramatically affect our kiddos while they’re in school. They cannot focus on content standards and assessments when their minds are wandering thinking about what they’re facing at home. Questions such as where will my family sleep tonight? Are the police going to knock down our door? Will my family get to stay together or will someone be deported?

Many students are in situations that we as educators cannot control. They might have parents who are either absent or not engaged with parenting. Some have mental health issues that aren’t being addressed. Others are in situations such as homelessness or financial instability.

The more kids you have to manage, the less time you have to build one-to-one relationships. When you can’t build those relationships with kiddos, especially ones with red zone behaviors, you have a harder time defusing a situation when it arises. Larger classes mean more students disrupted at one time and possibly more kids in each class facing these challenges.

Some days it can take at least 30 minutes before we could recover in the classroom from one outburst or another. The other students are left feeling unsafe, scared for the next outburst, and wary in my ability to defuse the situation next time. When the disruptive kiddos are so explosive they require a room clear, the entire class has their educational minutes diminished. Math, reading, science experiments, PE, art, music.

I am not a trained school psychologist or mental health professional, so the tools that I have to work with students who have learning disabilities do not always transfer over to working with kiddos who are emotionally disturbed or dealing with trauma. As educators, we do the very best we can with the limited resources we have. We need more manageable class sizes and more mental health professionals in our schools to work with kids during the school day.

Trauma ripples out

Gene Trowbridge
First Grade Teacher
East Portland, OR

For the past three years, I have experienced severe, violent and disruptive behaviors on an hourly basis. Behaviors range from constant interruptions to instructional time (yelling in the room, leaving the classroom, turning over furniture, dumping supplies and materials off of shelves and desks, ripping instructional materials off of the walls) to verbal abuse (threatening and/or obscene language) to physical contact (being hit, jumped on, scratched, grabbed). All of these actions impact my ability to teach, but more importantly they impact every other child’s ability to experience school as a safe, supportive environment. Classmates begin to normalize the disruptive behaviors of their peers, they learn to dodge chairs, protect their school work, move away from threatening behavior. Not only are the needs of the disruptive student unmet - but the situation has caused the trauma to ripple out to classmates.

"​Without on-site early childhood social workers, therapists, counselors, nurses and other professionals to meet with students in appropriate settings, we cannot adequately support our students."

Students often come to school with such extreme social and emotional needs that they are unable to focus on the challenging academic expectations laid out by the Common Core. Students exhibit a wide range of behaviors, including: sleeping throughout the day; stomach aches due to hunger; hyper-vigilance to perceived threats - striking out after an accidental bump in the lunch line; limited experience with constructive problem-solving; escalating peer misunderstandings into verbal and physical confrontations; physical reactions (throwing furniture, hitting, kicking, scratching, grabbing, jumping on other) in response to stress. All of these factors shift the primary instructional focus in my school from academic fields to introducing and building positive social/emotional behaviors, interactions and expectations. Students cannot learn and teachers cannot teach.

Without on-site early childhood social workers, therapists, counselors, nurses and other professionals to meet with students in appropriate settings, we cannot adequately support our students. A general education classroom teacher responsible for 25 - 35 elementary school students is simply unable to identify all the unmet needs. A range of adverse childhood experiences are present for my students: homelessness, hunger, drugs or alcohol in the home, family disruption through separation, divorce, incarceration, violence in the home or neighborhood. Their needs are not being met at school because the State of Oregon does not fully fund the Quality Education Model.

We need more teachers for smaller class-sizes especially K-2; we need full-time nurses, therapists, social workers, counselors, and other early childhood specialists. These resources may not be needed in every elementary school across the state, but it is easy to identify and prioritize resources for areas of concentrated poverty. Fewer students in a classroom means that a teacher can devote more time to each individual student. Students with a high need for teacher support, re-direction and guidance draw attention away from classmates who also have needs - but who are not manifesting those needs through dangerous and disruptive actions. As those “quiet” students observe how much attention violence and disruption garners, they may choose to follow that behavior pattern in the hopes that they too will be able to get attention.

Adverse childhood experiences

Alexis Hennessey
Special Education 6-8
Oregon City, OR

In my school, 85% or more of my students have what are known as ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). Many of them are experiencing issues with their family’s financial, physical and/or emotional well-being. In addition, a significant number of my students live below the poverty line. Some are homeless or transient, and too many survive mostly on food provided by the school.

A child who is emotionally threatened and/or hungry and/or not well rested will not be accessible for academic instruction even if we do our best to provide necessities. Survival needs will always take priority over academic growth and behavior. Alan E Beck said, “You can’t do the Bloom stuff until you take care of the Maslow stuff.” Trauma only takes a moment to experience, but it can take years to come back from. Working with students on the root causes of their behavioral issues can be difficult, trying, and often thankless, but is the most important aspect of decreasing behavior disruptions in the classroom and school setting. We don’t always realize that we often re-traumatize these students by how we work with them and treat them in the school setting.

In the past many of these students would have been suspended, expelled, removed from the school or allowed to drop out/fall through the cracks. It is only recently that we have begun to take behavioral education and social/emotional learning seriously as a component of educating the whole child, but we need resources to do it well.For my students, larger class sizes are a major hurdle because of sensory input concerns, anxiety, trauma, or academic support needs. The larger the class size, the less likely that one teacher can provide the level of support that a student with behavioral challenges requires to feel safe and be successful.

We need training for general education staff and administration on behavior/trauma informed care, and to deeply understand how best to implement the Least Restrictive Environment for special education students. We need school social workers and school counseling for students, parenting support classes, access to supports. We need coordinated family care such as a health clinics for physicals, medical needs, dentists visits, etc.

Over my 15 year career, I have noticed an increase in this problem. Lack of funding to schools or drop in funding to schools has resulted in devastating cuts to critical staff and resources. We need more resources to address these problems.

Stressful environments

Christina Denkinger
Second Grade Teacher
East Portland, OR

My students who come from stressful environments often bring that stress and trauma with them to the classroom. They might have a negative attitude, get angry or frustrated easily and have difficulty maintaining good friendships. Because they are in need of additional support, many of my affected students have high levels of frustration with school work. They give up too quickly and will say negative things like “I can’t do this” or “this is dumb” or “this is boring”.

“At my school, we are fortunate to have community support and have counselors come in, but the amount of students that need support far exceeds the number of people we have to help us.”

My students that tend to act out are often wanting attention, individual attention in particular. They try to get it any way possible, even if it means they hurt or scare someone. When they get one-on-one time, either for class work or just to talk, they thrive. The reason they are not getting this need met is mostly time (we don’t have enough of it with large class sizes) and not enough adults to support them. At my school, we are fortunate to have community support and have counselors come in, but the amount of students that need support far exceeds the number of people we have to help us. With such large class sizes, there will always be a child who will get left behind, and sometimes the quiet ones need the most help.

Last year I experienced daily violent outbursts from a few of my struggling students, culminating in a student throwing a chair at the window and breaking it. We were not getting through lessons like we should because we had to do conversation circles to talk about what was happening. I broke down several times in front of my students and my principal because I hit my breaking point. It felt like a very disjointed year and I feel guilty that I could not provide the education I feel these kids deserve with the limited resources I had.

Having educational assistants would make such a difference! We have a limited amount of assistants in our schools. Right now, our assistants often must put all of their attention towards one student. Yes, some need a one-on-one aide, but when we only have five in a school of over 500 students, support is stretched to its limits. Our assistants are very caring and supportive, but many of them are not given adequate training in dealing with children who have high needs. I have seen many become frustrated over their inability to adequately help out a student. The children who are struggling also need someone to talk to who can help them sort out their problems, such as a counseling professional.

Hyper vigilant and anxious

Erin Hull
School Social Worker
Albany, OR

Many students are struggling in school because their families are struggling at home. Housing issues and homelessness, drug use, domestic violence, and poverty are just a few of the top stressors our kids face. They are angry, they are hurt, they are tired, they are stressed, and they have little control in their lives to make it better. Our brains shut down when we are flooded with stress and emotion. It’s biological. It’s a human being’s survival instinct. Math and reading will never take precedence over basic needs like feeling safe.

There are many students who experience these challenges. I’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with their families and other agencies involved. One of the biggest needs I see that is not being met is secure, stable and adequate housing. This is not an issue that can be dealt with by the school. Educators train to teach, and schools are meant to be places for learning. Our schools have become one stop shops for so many other needs, and while I do believe there is a place for these resources (laundry, dental screens, therapy, 3 meals a day), schools can’t be asked to provide all of this and still teach.

Having support staff would make a great difference. If teachers are stressed and administrators are stressed, the kids feel it. These students need a stabilizing factor in their lives and often times their teacher is the closest thing they’ve got. Unfortunately, out of control behavior is something that most teachers have never been trained in. We are educators! Not therapists, mediators or behavioral specialists.

Students are traumatized, or their previous trauma is triggered. Many kids have anxiety about going to school and much of it has to do with the unpredictability of what the environment will be like. How can a student learn on a battle field, or the site of a previous battle? They can become hyper vigilant and anxious, or they might learn from others’ behavior that there are no standards. I’ve witnessed classrooms being disrupted by children’s out of control behavior many times. I’ve seen kids pick up and throw chairs, turn tables, curse and hurl insults at teachers, and destroy entire rooms.

It’s getting worse every year. A few years ago the recession put a lot of people into tough places, but right now we have a housing crisis that has only gotten worse. The lack of available housing (where the rents are low enough for housing vouchers to be used) has been a huge factor that severely impacts our children. Every year I listen to teachers tell me they are done. That they can’t do it anymore. This year..... it was different. By October I heard it in multiple buildings from first year teachers to 20 year veterans. We need support in order to best serve all of our students.

Hierarchy of needs

Theresa Just
Learning Specialist
North Clackamas, OR

I currently have 43 students on my Special Education caseload, and 21 of them have behavior concerns. At my school, many of our students with behavior concerns have experienced trauma (such as poverty, foster care, domestic violence, parents with substance abuse, abandonment, neglect, and abuse – sexual, physical, emotional).

"It used to be that there would be one student with a behavior concern in a class. Now we have multiple students in classrooms that have behavior concerns. Teachers are not able to meet all student needs because of huge classroom size."

Recently, I had a student miss her medication because of an insurance change. She got upset and started to tear the classroom apart (throwing heavy blocks, tearing items off the walls, hitting people). I was called to her room and had to stop her, have her clean up the room with the adults, get her items, come to the resource room, wait for her to deescalate, problem solve with her, and then call her parent.

Our students often do not have their immediate survival needs met, which impacts our ability to educate them. As a result, our resource room spends time feeding, cleaning, teaching hygiene, getting clothes for students, washing clothes at our own homes for students, obtaining snacks, and making sure students are rested. If these needs are not met, students are not able to learn. Because of this, many students will “blow out” of class (scream, flee, room clears, make it impossible for the teacher to teach with disruptive behavior).

We need more mental health counseling to help with student needs. We also need more support in classrooms - every school should have behavior coaches to help respond to crisis situations. In many schools, counselors, principals, office staff or learning specialists have to stop their work and address these situations, which impacts their ability to properly perform their jobs. I am constantly pulled from my specially designed instruction groups in special education to address behavior. My own students aren’t getting quality instruction in reading, writing, math, social skills, and behavior because of this.

It used to be that there would be one student with a behavior concern in a class. Now we have multiple students in classrooms that have behavior concerns. Teachers are not able to meet all student needs because of huge classroom size. Behavior impacts learning for all students, and often students who might have accessed general education cannot because of the interventions needed. As a result, students are missing out on a quality education and are getting referred for special education services because of constant behavior in their classroom. If we had more resources, we could better support these students.

Larger classes exacerbate the problem

Jennifer Flagel
First Grade Teacher
East Portland, OR 

I have been an educator for fifteen years, and in my experience, students whose basic needs aren’t being met have a harder time learning in class. They experience more difficulty with fatigue, malnutrition, social deficiencies, unaddressed mental health needs, exposure to violence/disfunction, etc.

At my school, we experience disruptive and violent behaviors due to these issues on a daily basis. There are students in the halls every day slamming classroom doors, throwing objects, and pushing peers. My students often ask if we can shut the door because they are frightened of what is going on in the hall.

Larger classes are more difficult to manage. When we experience violent and severe behaviors, larger classes aren’t as safe for many reasons (more bodies, more stress, and more tension that results from not feeling safe). And because we don’t have the resources to address the root of these problems, it is very important to have effective systems in place to clear the room when you have a violent student. All of it becomes more difficult with a larger class.

I have seen and experienced things in the last few years that I never thought I would see at work. I have seen students bite, hit, and kick staff members; I have been hit by a student. I have had a student try to throw a large, heavy object at a group of seated classmates. I have seen students kick, beat, and hit their heads on their classroom doors.

Many schools, including mine, have adopted a more inclusive model in class to more fully include students with special needs (academic, emotional, and/or behavioral), but we don’t always have the resources to fully execute those programs according to plan.

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