In the demanding world of education, teacher burnout has become a critical issue, often rooted in the complex interplay of dysregulation and challenging student behavior. By understanding the underlying factors of these challenges, we aim to offer insights and strategies to support educators in navigating daily life in their classrooms, ultimately fostering a more sustainable and fulfilling teaching environment.
Teacher Burnout Epidemic
More than 70% of educators in a national survey report that students are misbehaving more now than ever. The most common unwanted student behaviors they observe in their classrooms include emotional and behavioral outbursts, constant fidgeting, nonstop chatter, inattention, getting out of seats to leave the classroom and defiance. The National Center for Education Statistics cites worsening student behavior as a reason for teacher burnout. More than four in 10 K-12 school professionals in the U.S. (44%) say they “always” or “very often” feel stressed at work, outpacing all other industries nationally making educators among the most burned-out groups in the U.S. workforce.
Student Mental Health Crisis
Managing a classroom of students has always been a challenge but over the past few years, this job has become increasingly more difficult. The number of youths experiencing mental health symptoms and reactions such as anxiety, depression, attention problems and behavior dysregulation has increased. Mental health disorders since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic have continued to rise among children as well as adults. Stressful and traumatic experiences related to the pandemic along with constant exposure to racial tension and political conflict have remained constant. Child maltreatment, domestic violence, and the overuse of substances such as alcohol and drugs have also increased. In 2021 a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health was declared by the American Academy of Pediatrics. This declaration comes with reports of a severe shortage in the number of mental health practitioners available to meet the demand.
Emotional Dysregulation in Kids: The driver of misbehavior
Often, what is observed as defiance, deliberate or intentional misbehavior may not be what it appears. It is a student’s best attempt to regulate their nervous systems. When students experience a significant amount of stress over a prolonged period, their bodies become dysregulated, thus over-active nervous systems. At times the need for movement can appear disrespectful and not aligned with classroom norms and rules. A dysregulated body cannot sit still as it demands a discharge of energy and activation from the stress overload. A dysregulated body, in survival mode, will do everything it can to regain balance even if that involves a fight or flight response.
- An overwhelmed student can seem inattentive but really be worried about what happened at home the night before.
- An angry student appears to start unnecessary conflict with a teacher or another student however, they couldn’t control their body’s response to a threatening look or tone of voice.
- A student elopes from the classroom – they seem not to care but really it is their way of avoiding what they perceive as intimidating and scary.
- A student refuses to complete an assignment then you learn they were afraid of looking dumb in front of their classmates.
How to Heal a Dysregulated Nervous System to Return to Learning
When educators view unwanted behaviors through a lens of being trauma-informed they can see that the real problem is rooted in a student who is dysregulated rather than a student who is “bad” and needs punishment. Dysregulated students need to feel safe by experiencing a sense of connection with a caring adult who is curious about what they need most. Reframing behaviors from what is observed to what the behavior is communicating can make all the difference. Behavior can be a clue to help understand unmet needs such as dysregulation – difficulty with emotional and or behavioral control. Giving up a need to know exactly what to do when unable to control classroom behavior and shifting to a mindset of curiosity can help.
Starr’s Trauma-Informed, Resilience-Focused Behavior Support Plan will help you become curious about the function of the behavior you observe, assess potential unmet needs for students and develop a support plan to help meet their needs.
American Academy of Pediatrics (2021). A declaration from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association: Retrieved November 10, 2023, from https://www.aap.org/en/advocacy/child-and-adolescent-healthy-mental-development/aap-aacap-cha-declaration-of-a-national-emergency-in-child-and-adolescent-mental-health/.
Marken, S. & Agrawal, S. (2023). K-12 workers have highest burnout rate in the U.S. Gallup Poll Education. Retrieved November 10, 2023, from https://news.gallup.com/poll/393500/workers-highest-burnout-rate.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Teachers’ Reports of Disruptive Student Behaviors and Staff Rule Enforcement. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved [date], from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/a11.