By Kevin Copher
The past three school years have been a tumultuous time for everyone in the school system. Middle-level educators are keenly aware of the energy and challenges pre-teens and early teens experience as they assert their independence, develop critical friend groups, and navigate changing bodies and hormones. As our best hopes for this school year include a return to normalcy, we must remember that our middle-level students may not know what normalcy looks like.
In Colorado’s middle schools, state-reported discipline has dropped from 12.32% of students receiving discipline in the 18/19 school year to 3.96% in 20/21, according to the most recent data available from CDE. However, the data across all levels show increases of 3.5% for detrimental behavior and almost 4.5% for “other violations of code of conduct.” The available data is skewed given the significant variety of learning models from March 2020 to today (fully in person, hybrid, online, and switching between any and all of the models). However, widely published national surveys and anecdotal conversations point to a marked increase in discipline events in the most recent school year. Perhaps two explanations for the increase in peer-relationship misconduct are that our students who have experienced the trauma of the global pandemic are suffering from emotional dysregulation and students lack necessary peer communication skills previously taught in elementary schools.
This year, we should be more intentional about a return to basics approach. This does not mean a return to “Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic,” but a return to the basics of being a student and engaging in a functioning learning environment. We may need to borrow some pages from the intermediate elementary behavior management playbook as we reset expectations and routines. We must ask ourselves what behavior we want from our students and what strategies and supports need to be implemented to teach and reinforce those behaviors.
Middle school teachers in the early 2000s described ideal classrooms that promote student sharing, students helping others, persistence through challenges, inquisitiveness, and completing assignments (Wentzel, 2002). Those values and goals are still relevant today and feature prominently in CDE’s Essential Skills (CDE, 2017). We may often assume those expectations were taught at the elementary level; however, with the significant upheaval and inconsistent learning environments over the past three years, we should be more explicit about what these behaviors mean in our classrooms and schools.
CDE’s Essential Skills requirements center around entrepreneurship skills, personal skills, civic/interpersonal skills, and professional skills (CDE, 2017). Within the guidance, students spiral from novice to emerging expert (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Essential Skills Developmental Milestones
Source: CDE (2017). Essential Skills Guidance.
As we think about this school year, we may need to restart with building Novice skills. Students may need support in accurately recognizing their own emotions and how they impact their behavior, understanding and managing their impulses and behavior with minimal direction, resisting distractions, and maintaining attention to the task.
We may need to pause and re-teach. We may have previously been able to operate with the belief and understanding that 7th-grade students should be in the Advanced Beginner stages or even in Strategic Learner stages regarding their self-awareness category of personal skills. Yet, we should pause, go back to the basics, and reteach Novice-level skills. The past three years of trauma may mean we restart with a fresh approach to teaching these skills. With the mounting recent evidence of lost academic skills and performance related to the pandemic, we must also remember the lost essential skills that do not appear in school and district performance frameworks.
For example, if we want to promote students showing persistence through challenges, what lessons do we have in place that can highlight and teach this skill? How can we intentionally and explicitly teach this skill in academic and personal relationship contexts?
This year, let’s permit ourselves to go back to basics in teaching essential skills. Doing so will help us return and sustain a normal, positive, and productive learning environment. We will also thank ourselves later for the time and effort invested now in reteaching these skills with kindness and grace.
Colorado Department of Education (2022). School View Data Center [interactive data set]. https://edx.cde.state.co.us/SchoolView/DataCenter/reports.jspx?_adf_ctrl-state=pac20phbp_4&_afrLoop=2870402442216815&_afrWindowMode=0&_adf.ctrl-state=2pyn69rd7_4
Colorado Department of Education (2017). Essential Skills Guidance. http://cde.state.co.us/standardsandinstruction/2018coloradoessentialskills
Colorado Department of Education (2022). School View Data Center [interactive data set]. https://edx.cde.state.co.us/SchoolView/DataCenter/reports.jspx?_adf_ctrl-state=pac20phbp_4&_afrLoop=2870402442216815&_afrWindowMode=0&_adf.ctrl-state=2pyn69rd7_4Wentzel, K. R. (2002). Are effective teachers like good parents? Teaching styles and student adjustment in early adolescence. Society for Research in Child Development, 73(1), 287–301. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00406
Kevin has been an educator for over 21 years and serves as the Weld Re-4 District Coordinator for Attendance and Discipline.