Running from one fire to the next: School Climate and Behavior Challenges

Years ago, a sixth grader was getting into trouble.  Although he was a smart kid, he got into several fights.  In fact, he brought a knife to school for protection from a group of boys.  In a different scenario, a student constantly disrupted class but not enough to get suspended.  Yet another student is referred to administration for disrespect.

Schools face disruptive behavior challenges like these every day.  Indeed, as an administrator, you may feel like you are running from one fire to the next.  When you finally look up to catch a breath, half the day is gone because you have been investigating a like observation, providing feedback, professional development, etc.

In our earlier blog called Pressures and Pains of Being a Principal, we discussed student behavior challenges as being a major cause of stress for administrators.  Although we volunteered for it, we still have to understand and address it.

Addressing CLASSROOM MISBEHAVIOR takes time

Classroom misbehavior affects student achievement; it takes the teacher, student and other students off task.  Addressing the disruptive behavior takes time as well.  The teacher has to address the behavior, sometimes investigate it, and possibly write a referral. Redirecting behavior takes time and energy.  Also depending on the teacher’s social emotional capacity the situation can escalate. Then the referral process causes the teacher to lose on average 10 minutes and the student loses 20 minutes.  Every minute dealing with the student disruption is time away from teaching and learning.  The administrator also has to investigate the issue taking approximately 25 minutes.  He/she interviews students and other witnesses, asks the teacher what interventions they tried and the results, and if the teacher contacted the parent.  After gathering all of the facts the administrator then issues a consequence.  This administrator considers board policy, what’s best for the child, and the building; all of which doesn’t always neatly align.

Inadequate School Climate and Culture Plan

One problem is that many times there is no clearly communicated behavior management plan that governs adults and students.  The lack of a school climate plan allows for:  

  • board policy to be broken;  
  • for teacher disappointment and frustration.  For example, if the administrator does not give the consequence that the teacher thinks is appropriate then that teacher may feel unsupported;
  • everything, including minor infractions, referred to the administrator;
  • and poor classroom management and school culture and climate.


I am guilty of the next one.  I had a plan that focused on negative behavior and consequences.  Over 80% of my students met or exceeded expectations but I naively spent more time on the 10-16% of students who did not meet behavioral expectations.  This hyper-focus on controlling negative behavior increased student suspensions.  Although it reduced negative behavior, it did not increase positive behavior and student self-control.  Consequently minor student disruptions and misbehavior only slightly decreased.  

Another tendency is that school-wide plans don’t include classroom management.  Many plans set behavioral expectations for the cafeteria and other common areas but leave the classroom teacher to fend for themselves.  What should a teacher do if a student walks out of class or a minor infraction occurs?  What is disrespect in one classroom versus another teacher’s classroom?  When there is such loosey-goosey-ness then everything lands on the administrator’s desk. Then the accompanying paperwork steals more time.  The referral, the response to the referral, notifying parents, teachers, attendance clerk, and others.  Please don’t get me wrong.  For, by no means am I suggesting that the administrator develop classroom rules in isolation.  What I am suggesting is that administrators use shared leadership practices to create a comprehensive school climate plan that supports teachers and students.

Indeed that leads to a third inadequacy of a school climate plan.  Typically the plan is made by a small group of people.  When a non-representative few develop a plan it is bound to be insufficient.  It is missing various perspectives and experiences that would make the plan comprehensive.  The same plan is less likely to be implemented with fidelity because the teachers and other stakeholders don’t have ownership in it. 

Support vs Consequence

Another issue is the overuse of suspension.  Although it removes the student from the building it actually can be cutting your nose off to spite your face.  That same student is now not learning. Furthermore, that child may have wanted to be out of class.  So instead of a punishment it turns into a reward.  On a deeper level, does the suspension even solve the problem?  Does the suspension reduce the likelihood for a repeat offense?  Let’s not begin to discuss how suspensions have been disproportionately used against minority students.  (Well we will discuss it but just in a later blog.)

Let’s go back to the student scenarios at the beginning.  Should these students be suspended?  Should we support them?  Should we investigate more deeply to uncover the root cause for the misbehavior.

Students act out for any number of reasons.  And addressing the manifested behavior oftimes is dealing with the symptom rather than the cause.  What if that child experienced some trauma and is acting out because they don’t know how to process the issue or how to properly ask for help.  I was that 6th grade kid consistently getting into trouble.  It was not until Mrs. Norbert looked beyond my misbehavior and uncovered the real reason behind things that my academic career turned around.  My story speaks to the issue that student misbehavior is an indicator of what the student does not know or some deeper issue that needs support and help rather than isolation.  (Now don’t get it twisted, administrators have to be tough in some instances but we must have empathy as well!)

But how do we balance the need to deter negative behavior with empathy.  And why should we?  We must ask ourselves what is best for this child and the school.  We balance it by creating a discipline plan that embodies both.  

Of course, there are more reasons why student disruption makes our job more challenging. Some argue that the lack of engaging instruction and positive professional relationships with students contribute to a poor school climate. And I agree. However, I believe a comprehensive school climate and culture encompasses these issues.  What are some other issues that make student misbehavior a thorn in an administrator’s side?