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Children behaving badly: Has it gotten worse?

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
April 29, 2012
— A girl told her mother a kid poked her in the tummy with a pencil, causing a bruise. Then it happened again the next day.

Four or five kids in a class of about 22 were running around uncontrolled, slamming doors and pushing other kids, parent Diane Mayhew said.


A boy was seen poking his hand up a girl’s skirt. The same boy held scissors to the necks of his classmates, one witness told Janesville police.


All of the above were kindergartners at Janesville’s Van Buren Elementary School earlier this year.


“It’s to the point where these children are hazards to other kids and the teacher,” Mayhew said at the time.


Mayhew, who also has a boy in high school, said it wasn’t like this when he was in kindergarten.


Some teachers agreed, off the record, that the number of problem children has increased in recent decades, and the problems are showing up in increasingly younger children, making teaching a tougher job.


The extent of children with problem behaviors is hard to gauge. Clearly, there still are plenty of children who behave well at school.


Mayhew was one of several parents with children in the same class who complained to The Gazette after becoming frustrated with the school’s responses.


Parent Heather Kemps said her daughter was punched in the face and hit in the head with a wooden block, causing bruising and swelling.


“My son complains lot about having headaches every day because of screaming and yelling,” said parent Jamie Chareumthasouk. “He told me his friends say ‘F’ word and the ‘B’ word.”


Parental frustration

Mayhew met with her child’s teacher, the principal and the superintendent. She was assured steps were being taken, but she was not told what. School officials won’t reveal those details because of laws that ban disclosure of identities of students with disabilities or who are disciplined.


But the teacher at Van Buren hinted at a problem in a letter to parents obtained by The Gazette: “Some of the children are struggling with following directions and practicing safe classroom behavior. We are also stressing the importance of using appropriate language in the classroom. Please talk to your child every day … Encourage your child to tell you if they have had any issues with other children. Please notify me if your child ever mentions getting hurt or inappropriate behaviors.”


District Superintendent Karen Schulte acknowledged the classroom has problems, but she said they were being addressed. The school’s building coordinator, Stephanie Pajerski, was one of the district’s best kindergarten teachers until she was promoted this year to run the school, Schulte said


Pajerski told Schulte some of the kindergartners’ behaviors were “challenging” but nothing unusual and nothing Pajerski hadn’t seen in her career, Schulte said.


“Kindergartners are impulsive and spontaneous on top of that, and rambunctious, so you have to factor that in as well,” Schulte said.


Schulte said several times that classroom management is the teacher’s responsibility.


Change over time

“Do we have other challenging classrooms—kindergartens—in the district with even more children? Yes we do. They’re running very well,” Schulte said.


Schulte said the district brought in experts and pulled one student from the Van Buren classroom. She acknowledged that working in a classroom is more difficult than it was 30 years ago when she first taught.


“We do see an increase in autism, for example, and other behaviors that are much more challenging,” Schulte said. “… School districts across the nation are identifying more students with behavioral issues than we have in the past.”


Roberta Sample has seen many behavior-challenged children over the decades, first as a volunteer and then 12 years as the school district special-education parent liaison.


“Master teachers tell me, ‘I don’t know what it is, Roberta, but I’ve never had a first-grader tell me to “F” off before,’” she said.


“They tell me, ‘It is different, Roberta. I can’t tell you why, but the behaviors and the responses are different.’


“Somebody should listen to them. They’ve been on the front lines forever.”


Problem parents?

Sample resigned in 2010 but stays tuned in to parents and teachers. She believes teaching has gotten harder and children more difficult for a variety of reasons:


-- “Inept parents” who don’t know how to set limits for their children and who apparently think it’s OK for kids to learn vulgar language at a young age.


-- Technology—“At a very young age, they have access to materials that I would’ve been shocked if my 15-year-old had access to it. We don’t supervise because I don’t know that we know how to supervise it.”


Sample said she is getting more calls from families with children who have accessed “extremely pornographic websites.”


-- Substance abuse—Wisconsin has long been a leader in alcohol abuse, Sample said, and it’s known that alcohol affects fetuses. Society has not dealt with that problem as it has done with tobacco, she said.


Sample—not a health-food geek by any means—wonders if chemicals in foods we eat also might affect child behavior.


-- Mental health problems, often related to drugs and alcohol, which are not treated, sometimes because there’s no money.


“As a society, we just need to pick up our own problems and stop saying ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Start somewhere.”


Sample said society is to blame for not giving parents the tools they need to bring up their own children.


“You can’t just blame families and children, and you can’t just blame teachers,” Sample said. “It’s a shared burden.”


Teacher training

Simone DeVore, associate professor and early-childhood education coordinator at UW-Whitewater, said schools have higher academic and behavioral expectations of kindergartners.


“That raises the impression that we have more children with behavior problems. I’m not so sure,” DeVore said.


At the same time, teachers are dealing with a rise in autism and with more poverty and more diverse populations. Sometimes it’s a problem of understanding the child, DeVore said.


“Every behavior has a function, so teachers need to figure out what the child is trying to tell me, and that requires training, of course,” DeVore said.


Demands on teachers to get more training have increased, DeVore said, and luckily, Wisconsin has good professional-development resources.


Families also have more demands on them, and both parents often are working.


“Stressors families experience in the home can very much impact a child’s behavior in school,” DeVore said. “The function of the behavior is maybe to seek attention.”


Discipline programs

Schools say they are addressing discipline problems with programs that are said to be research-based “best practices.” The programs, such as PBIS—Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports—preach a behavioral code and try to steer children to do the right thing by rewarding good behavior.


At Janesville’s Roosevelt Elementary School, students who behaved well recently were recognized with a lunch ceremony, a picture display in the office, a certificate and recognition on the school website and in school announcements, according to a recent blog by Schulte.


At Van Buren School, in the same report: “Office discipline referrals are down for the quarter. Students continue to assist with morning announcements by reciting our mission statement and Eagle Expectations, along with sharing personal examples of how they are making positive choices and following our expectations.”


Other programs such as Response to Intervention focus resources on children with the most difficult problems as early as possible so they don’t worsen as the child moves through the grades, Schulte said.


The economy

“Parents are overworked. People are working two jobs,” Sample said. “I can learn more about children by visiting a day care than by talking to Mom and Dad. That’s scary,”


Good teachers are coping, but working in a difficult classroom will wear down even the best of teachers, Sample said. She said schools and parents need more common sense.


Sample said the Janesville School District has a culture of insisting the schools always do the right thing, so parents with concerns aren’t taken as seriously as they should be.


“You can’t say, ‘My kid would never do that,’ because the minute your child leaves your supervision, they may do whatever they wish,” Sample said. “And you can’t say, ‘My teacher would never say that or do that.’”


Teachers sometimes feel things have gotten much worse, but that could be a narrow view, said Marge Hallenbeck, who retired in 2010 as director of at-risk and multicultural programs in the Janesville district.


“If you have a tough class this year, that’s what it looks like, but you tend to forget the good years,” Hallenbeck said.


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Mental illness one key to misbehaving children

Mental disorders are one reason children might act up at school.


These problems often arise at young ages, but they may not be diagnosed or treated for years, experts said.


One in five children has a mental health disorder, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, and up to 80 percent of children and youth in need of mental health services do not receive them.


Early treatment is key, experts agree.


The problem of early mental disorders is just beginning to be recognized, and too often children are not treated until long after problems arise, said Simone DeVore, early childhood education coordinator at UW-Whitewater.


A recent survey showed that psychiatric hospitalization rates have increased for children ages 5 to 12, rising from 155 per 100,000 children in 1996 to 283 per 100,000 children in 2007. The increase was the greatest among all age groups, said Lana Nenide of the Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health.


The use of anti-psychotic medications in children is on the rise as well.


“Helping children as early as possible is very important. The longer we wait, the more behaviors become entrenched,” Nenide said. “In fact, research shows that when aggressive and antisocial behavior has persisted to age 9, further intervention has a poor chance of success.”


“We must work on prevention and early intervention,” Nenide added. “When we wait, we might be too late.”



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