May 6, 2012

End of the School Year & Behavior Issues

For schools that don't have a year-round schedule, this time of year gets a little rough. The weather is so nice that lots of kids think about their after school ball games more than they think about what's going on in their classrooms. Schools know this, and schedule field trips, picnics, field days, talent shows and all kinds of fun events for the last few weeks of the year. Older high school students think about prom, graduation and...the future (whatever it may bring.) That stuff is definitely fun for most kids, but for some it causes almost debilitating anxiety. The loss of routine, the fear of change---all of that can be really hard for some kids. And honestly, there are not very many kids in any grade who are mature enough to be able to walk up to an adult and say something like, "I'm having difficulty with this transition to the end of the year. I'm really overstimulated by the changes to our schedule and I don't know what to do."  Instead, kids start exhibiting a lot of behaviors. Personally, I think that all kids get antsy at this time of year; but the kids who are most thrown off are kids who have special needs of some kind, and kids who live in poverty.

Why do I mention these two kinds of kids? I've seen it in my own classroom and with my own children--the angst that the end of the year brings for some kids.  Here's what I mean:

Some kids only eat at school. Our economy is so tough right now that the numbers of kids receiving Free or Reduced lunch is growing monthly. In Iowa, check the district-by-district numbers of students receiving Free/Reduced lunch by clicking here. Only 3 districts in the state have less than 10% of students enrolled  receiving Free or Reduced lunch. 57 districts have more than half of their student population receiving Free/Reduced lunch. Where do these kids eat in the summertime?  For some students, the end of the year is a time of worry. They know that they may not get to eat regularly until school starts again. With that kind of worry weighing on you as a child, would you be able to behave well?

In my own classroom, I know that I have students whose only mealtimes happen at school. Some communities like mine have a summer lunch program, where sack lunches are handed out daily in a local park; but not all communities offer a summer lunch program. I worry about my students; and I forgive some of their behaviors at this time of year because I know that they are worried about where their next meals may come from.

Some kids have little or no adult supervision over the summer.  Most parents don't get summer vacation. Many families can't afford summer child care or camps. What happens to their kids? Many are left alone. Some parents are faced with deciding to go to work so that they can afford rent and food, or staying home from work to watch kids and receiving public assistance to pay for rent and food. Younger kids know that when summer comes, they are leaving a structured and supervised school environment to go to a very unstructured and unsupervised environment. For the first few days it might seem like fun to do whatever you want to, but after that kids may feel lost. They may feel abandoned. They could feel angry or sad and begin to get into trouble.

In my own neighborhood, there are kids who wander all summer. They bounce from house to house looking for something to do, usually knocking on a door just in time for lunch or dinner. Several boys who are in my son's grade frequent my house for access to snacks, air conditioning, and just some positive interaction. Summer is really hard on them. In May, they know it's coming. Whether they acknowledge it or not, in the backs of their minds they know what the summer holds. They may already be a little bit worried, and their behavior at school often is a reflection of that worry.

Some kids are scared of change. The end of the year means that kids are getting ready for big changes: a new grade next year, a new classroom, a new teacher. For some kids that is really, really scary. Some kids have more than just a new teacher looming because they have huge transitions happening: graduation. Whether it's graduation from elementary school, junior high/middle school, or high school, kids know that their lives are on the verge of changing dramatically. The unknown future looms in front of them. Not knowing what will happen next can be really scary for adults, too!  If we have a hard time handling those major life changes, how can we expect kids to handle them? Kids who are pre-graduation, at any age, can have a wide range of reactions: cockiness, sadness, anger and avoidance of school are all things I see in my own classroom and with my own son (who is about to graduate elementary school.)

Those kinds of changes can be even more difficult for kids who have some kind of special need. I think all kids thrive when they are in a stable environment with consistent routines and structure, but kids with special needs absolutely require that structure and routine for day-to-day survival. Variation from the routine can cause some kids to lose their ability to concentrate, focus, and function. All the field trips, field days and fun stuff are drastic changes to the routine. They can cause kids to become lost, worried, and anxious. They don't always have the ability to express those feelings, though, and their behaviors may be the way they express them .

Two of my own children have ADHD, and one also has issues with Anxiety. It has been a rough spring for us so far. Stomach aches from anxiety, anger outbursts towards other students and teachers, inattentiveness and forgetfulness--all of these are issues my own kids have had in the last week or so at school. My kids don't have to worry about being supervised or getting meals over the summer. Can you imagine how a kid who has special needs AND has to worry about food and supervision over the summer might be feeling? Can you imagine how a kid with those issues might act in class?

The point of all this is that sometimes teachers, parents, and community members get frustrated by kids' behavior at the end of the school year and during the summer months. A lot of times, the first reaction we all have is to punish kids with office referrals, detentions, suspensions or calling the police. But the reality is that punishment won't really help most kids.

Think about it: how old were you when you could verbally identify your feelings about something and share them in a reasonable, calm way with an adult? I would bet that many, many adults still can't do it. If we can't maturely talk about our feelings and fears, how can we expect kids to do it?  Kids exhibit behaviors because they are communicating something to us. Many times it is fear, worry, or anger at a situation that they are communicating. Instead of punishing them, why not teach them more effective means of communication?

I encourage teachers and parents who deal with kids having end-of-school year behavior issues to talk to your kiddos to see what might really be going on. There is a good chance that all of the changes happening at school are affecting them.  Teach them how to communicate those worries. Give them a picture card, survey, matrix or list of feelings and ask them to identify what they're feeling. Help them try to explain why they're feeling that way. Then see if there's something you can do to help them make it better.

I encourage you all to look for and spread the word about any summer lunch programs offered in your communities. I encourage you all to keep your eye out for kids who look lost this summer. Invite them into your yard or your home for a snack and some positive interaction if you can. Don't look away from kids who are alone. Say hello. Interact. Pay attention. That simple contact might be enough to help them feel better, or at least feel connected to someone while school is out for summer.


  1. Jen, this is a great post! Thank you for the reminder that there is so often more than meets the eye. You bring up some really important issues. Now I am very curious as to whether our community has a summer lunch program.

    "How old were you when you could verbally identify your feelings about something and share them in a reasonable, calm way with an adult?"  And, how many adults really LISTEN when kids share their feelings and concerns, so that the child feels heard and supported, rather than dismissed and brushed aside?

  2. I hope you are able to find out if your community has a summer lunch program! Sometimes it is hard to figure out. It is a program that is usually sponsored by a local park district or recreation board in conjunction with the USDA, and it is not usually school-sponsored (but schools often know about where it will be!) 

    You raise a really good point about listening. Kids know when you are really listening with full-attention. When you're not, they move on to try to get attention in any way possible--not always in positive ways.

  3. Jen, it must be painful for you to see your children go through these struggles. I hope things settle down for them, soon. If they're anything like my son, they probably give you hell and need to reminded of how lucky they are to have you as a mom who "cares" and is "able" to see to their needs. It gives me angst to know that we are a resource-rich and wasteful country, with a twisted set of priorities, where the marginalized are further marginalized. And then we wonder why some children cannot concentrate in class, have emotional outbursts, or anger issues. Who of us knows what it's like to not know where our next meal is coming from? 

    As for change, my son DOES NOT do well with it, either. He needs loads of advance notice for any deviation from his normal schedule.Two days ago he sat at the kitchen island eating his breakfast before school and said, "I don't want school to end." I knew why. For all the reasons you cited. The prospect of the irregular summer schedule has made him anxious. I really don't think it's a matter of just "keeping them entertained." It's about sticking to what's familiar. Seems to get worse the older he gets.

    We need to catch up, my friend. Miss you. xoxo

  4. Jen,
    Great post w/great advice.  Whenever I see a child anywhere... who has that "lost" look, I try to interact in a friendly way and invite them to join in whatever we are playing outside.  It hurts my heart to know that some kids have to deal with worries of being left alone during the summer and worrying about their next meal.  Thanks for bringing this reminder to our attention.  Hugs to you and la familia!

  5. The kids in your neighborhood are so lucky to have a mom like you around! Hugs to you and your familia, too, amiga! 

  6. I miss you too, Ezzy. This week got better (a trip to the therapist and many emails shared with teachers to create action plans helped!) 

    I hope your son can adapt to the summer routine quickly. It seems to me that as soon as we get the summer routine down, it's time to start school again, which triggers another whole set of anxieties. I really, really wish that we had year-round every 6 weeks would be much easier on kids than months off in the summer. It would help so many kids!


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