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.