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NEK educators noticing student behavioral changes since onset of pandemic

A photo showing a classroom that's empty except for piled-up chairs and desks
Howard Weiss-Tisman
VPR File
A photo of an empty Newport City Elementary School classroom from the end of the 2020 school year, when students learned remotely because of the pandemic. Educators at the school say they're noticing behavioral changes in students due to the changes in education caused by COVID.

For two years, teachers and school staff have managed rapidly changing COVID protocols. In a series airing all week, independent producer Erica Heilman talks with teachers, administrators and staff in the Northeast Kingdom. In this story, Erica talks with staff and faculty at Newport City Elementary School about behavioral changes they’re noticing in kids since the onset of the pandemic.

Here’s principal Elaine Collins:

Elaine Collins: "We're seeing a lot more anxiety for kids. We see kids who have much less frustration tolerance, so very little ability to tolerate anything that is even slightly difficult or challenging for them. That speaks to resilience, to the sense of resilience that has taken a hit during the pandemic. Generally kids are super resilient, they encounter something that might be slightly frustrating or challenging, they can work through that. Adults can help them co-regulate.

"When you're living in this really toxically stressful environment, it only takes a little bit for that tipping point."

Erica: "Give me an example, so I can see it."

Elaine Collins: "So here's this worksheet we're going to work on, and a kid, you know, might either refuse or start crying or, you know, run out of the classroom because they don't want to do the worksheet, or they don't want to whatever it is. That's not typical. Our work refusals have tripled this school year as opposed to last year. That's significant."

Here's fourth-grade teacher Mike Pettengill.

Mike Pettengill: "So I have, typically, a student, or multiple students that will just say, ‘No, I'm not doing it,’ and get up and walk out. That is very unexpected behavior. And when it happens, like a little domino effect, and then other kids are like, ‘Well, I'm not doing it either.’ It's a little bit ..."

Erica: "It's like a mutiny."

Mike: "It is like a mutiny. And it's very disconcerting. And there's sometimes, there's just a lot of ups and downs.

"And we have had some students that have lost some close family, still dealing with grandparents that are in intensive care, that can be ... and if you don't know who those students are, you might feel like, 'Well, why are you choosing this behavior today,' and then somebody kind of clues you in, and it's like, 'Oh, they're kind of just living with it daily,' and they don't process it to say, ‘My grandpa's in the hospital, and he might not make it. And my mom and dad said get yourself to school, and we'll let you know when you get home.’ And so that student is kind of a wreck.

"And we do have a ton of support people to work with those kids. But there's a long line."

"If we don't really pay attention to this idea of social emotional health, we're going to end up with schools that are out of control. And the fallout is that nobody's learning when that happens."
Elaine Collins, Newport City Elementary School principal

This is social emotional coach Christina Malanga:

Christina Malanga: "You know, I think of kids, like, the most important thing for them is to feel like they belong somewhere, and that they feel connected to people. And I think during this pandemic, everything's been so unpredictable in so many ways that it's — and kind of chaotic — that it's hard to feel like a sense of belonging.

"And I think teachers are doing the best that they can, obviously, to make that kids feel that way. But you know, it's just like, you never know when there's going to be a COVID case in your classroom, or you have to be sent home.

"And the guidance counselors and the school-based clinicians, they're at like, max capacity, and they're trying to meet everyone's needs, and help kids manage their big feelings. Again, they're doing the best they can. But we have waiting lists for the school clinicians, the school-based clinicians, and I know in the community here, there are waiting lists for therapists. So there are a lot of kids that are not getting their needs met."

Again here’s principal Elaine Collins:

Elaine Collins: "And if we think about behavior as an expression of an unmet need, right. Kids are telling us in one way or another what they need from us through their behavior. So a kid who's throwing their chair, why are they doing that? Are they frustrated? They have low frustration tolerance? Did they have a lot of trauma in their background, and they're having a trauma response to a tone or something that someone has said or done? Are they frustrated about the work?

"So figuring out what that looks like for that particular kid takes time. If we don't really pay attention to this idea of social emotional health, we're going to end up with schools that are out of control. And the fallout is that nobody's learning when that happens."

More from VPR: In NEK elementary school, worries about kids falling behind as pandemic enters year three

This is fourth-grade teacher Tara Wiggins:

Erica: "You’re working with the same age group. What are you noticing about kids’ behavior, maturation… what are you seeing?"

Tara Wiggins: "They don’t always know how to interact with their classmates in a good way. They don’t know how to take turns, they are struggling with being kind to each other, they don’t know how to do well if they lose a game or if they win a game. Just being kind in general is something they are struggling with, because they don’t have those skills. They missed a whole lot of time when they should’ve been learning those, and so they’re behind."

Again here’s Mike Pettengill:

Mike Pettengill: "Surprisingly, some of the toughest kids, they can like, come back in 45 minutes, like nothing happened. And I think that's hard for me, 'cause I want that… I want that little bit of remorse of like, ‘Yeah, I'm sorry, I kind of messed up your day.’ And that seems to be a piece that's missing, that a lot of the students that struggle the most, that's become their norm.

Erica: And that used to be different?

Mike Pettengill: "Yes, yeah. So I mean, we typically — students would come back and, you know, either pull you aside, or part of the process you would go through would be like, ‘OK, now you kind of have to make some amends.’ And I think we're kind of in a cycle, that there's so many of these uprisings or emotional outbursts that are falling apart, that we're just trying to keep up. And you know, just like, 'OK, keep everybody safe.'

"But repairing the harm is a, is the next step, right. And we got to figure out how we're going to do that, going forward."

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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