(NewsNation) — Recent acts of violence in classrooms are raising questions about safety and whether the pandemic might be contributing to student misconduct.
Earlier this month, a student was fatally stabbed inside a classroom at a Northern California high school. Not long before that in Florida, a 17-year-old student with special needs attacked a school employee. Both incidents happened on the heels of an investigation in Virginia where officials say a 6-year-old boy shot and wounded his first-grade teacher.
A recent survey from the Institute of Education Sciences found that more than eight in 10 public schools have seen stunted behavioral and socioemotional development in their students relative to pre-pandemic levels.
Research into the pandemic’s effects on student behavior is far from complete, however.
“We’re not really able to capture whether COVID has a direct impact on school violence,” said Sarah Stilwell, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for School Safety. “We did, however, notice that there was an uptick in violent events after the pandemic … what we do need to do as researchers and as community in general is get a better sense of what is going on.”
How bad is the issue?
The majority of behavioral issues reported were minor — things like tardiness and classroom disruptions — according to a May 2022 survey from the Institute of Education Science (IES).
“When we talk about violence, it’s really important that we are making these distinctions because the way these trends are changing are really different,” Stilwell said.
Incidents like homicide and suicide seem to be stabilizing, or even decreasing, over time, Stilwell added, whereas “incidents of mass shootings or targeted violence seem to be increasing over time.”
Most schools across all regions said COVID-19 especially increased threats of physical attacks or fights between students, according to the IES survey. The teachers surveyed overwhelmingly agreed levels of bullying remained about the same as they were pre-pandemic while verbal abuse and general disrespect directed toward teachers increased.
“I do think the pandemic had a meaningful impact on kids’ behavior,” said Maurice J. Elias, a psychology professor and the director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University. “I don’t know that it’s just the lockdown aspect of it. I do think that many many kids experienced significant trauma because of COVID itself.”
Parents reported changes in their kids’ behavior as well, with 48% reporting the first year of the pandemic negatively impacted their children’s emotional well-being, according to a Pew Research Center survey from last fall.
Is COVID-19 to blame?
Teachers reported big changes because of the pandemic and an overwhelming majority agreed COVID-19 negatively impacted students’ behavioral and socioemotional development.
More than half of teachers believed increases in disruptive student misconduct were influenced by the pandemic.
But those studying behavioral changes say it’s too early to say definitively COVID-19 was the problem.
“We’re not really able to make any strong conclusions about the impact between COVID and these violent occurrences,” Stilwell said. “So what we know is that we don’t really know.”
The thick of the COVID-19 pandemic was so recent that research hasn’t caught up yet, and what does exist can’t tell the whole story. Still, researchers have identified some possible links between the pandemic and student behavior.
“Maybe they were feeling a little bit of a loss in the sense of community and a little bit of confusion around how to interact with peers or have a supportive figure in their life in that capacity,” Stilwell said.
The issue isn’t one-size-fits-all. Student and staff experiences with COVID-19, the lockdowns that took place and people who got sick were personal and possibly traumatic, Elias said.
On top of that, there may have been unrealistic expectations placed on schools to make up for significant learning losses in a short period of time, he added.
Children might not have the tools to articulate what they’re feeling while navigating trauma and added stress, sometimes causing them to act out.
“The violence that we’re seeing in schools is largely because the kids engaging in violence don’t know how to manage their strong emotions,” Elias said.
What needs to happen?
Making sure schools are supportive and compassionate spaces is the best chance for improved behavior, Elias said.
“Until kids walk into schools for 180 days a year that are supportive and understanding and not pressure cookers, we’re going to see continued problems,” Elias said.
That kind of social-emotional learning might vary by school, depending on the local community’s needs and resources, Stilwell said.
“It’s not just about paper and pencil and scoring well on particular tasks,” she said. “But really emotionally investing in the students beyond just the overall day-to-day, but their well-being and emotional safety in general.”
Children want to feel like they’re doing something meaningful, Elias added, emphasizing the importance of inspiring young people and not just correcting inappropriate behavior.
“We find that when we give kids the opportunity to be helpful to others, it is a very powerful source of mental health,” Elias said. “We keep figuring out treatment, but equal to that, we should be thinking about opportunity.”