‘Behavior is language’: Schools share behaviors they’re seeing in students, finding out why

7 Investigates: Supporting Students
Published: May. 18, 2023 at 5:45 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - Schools are like little cities; students bring all of the good, bad, and everything in between that the larger community faces. Most of the challenging behavior and struggles school staff observed are seen across districts.

The levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts students have reported experiencing have increased over the last decade, with nearly 34% of high school students in Wisconsin self-reporting those feelings. School counselors and social workers at districts throughout north central Wisconsin said anxiety is the most pervasive of the three mental distresses.

“It can be anxiety, for multiple reasons: anxiety, of fitting in anxiety of trying to make the grade and all the classes,” Gina Lehman, the student services director at D.C. Everest Area School District began. “But I think fitting in and also we’re coming off of a pandemic, and how does that all fit together? So I think a lot of the behaviors we’re seeing have underlining things that are causing them. When you see behavior, it’s another form of communication from our students, and we have to ask the ‘why’ so we can get ahead of it and start removing the barriers to help our students.”

Corie Zelazoski, the director of operations at Antigo’s Boys & Girls Club said she is hearing mentions of suicide happening in younger age ranges than they have seen previously.

“So, we used to see this more where we’d provide a suicide screener for sixth grade, and we’re now starting to see that at (the) elementary level.”

She gave an example of elementary-level verbiage of those comments being something like, “I want to be in Heaven,” or “I don’t want to be around anymore.” Zelazoski noted that most often, after doing a suicide screener those kids do not have any plan or intent, however.

Kids K-12 are also having difficulty self-regulating and handling emotions too and knowing how to react to situations. Kyle Schilling, the school resource officer for the Antigo School District said he has seen a lot of fights, especially this time of year as school is about to end.

“We noticed that it’s really easy for our kiddos to say that they’re angry because anger is an easy emotion to feel right? We don’t like feeling sad, or uncomfortable, or vulnerable, or talking about those other emotions, so it comes out a lot as anger,” Zelazoski explained.

“We have, as staff discussed, you know, is this the pandemic that’s impacting for, you know, our kindergarten, first graders,” Amanda Mohr, school social worker for the Antigo School District questioned. “They weren’t able to go to daycare and those things, so they weren’t able to get those skills necessarily. So it’s, it’s a lot of those peer relationships at the younger levels that we’re trying to work on, how to interact with your peers.”

Those skills are needing to be worked on at the high school level too.

“I think we have definitely seen a shift in students feeling less and less comfortable around their peers, due to the pandemic, you know, they were isolated for essentially a full year and having to relearn how to socialize with one another,” Haley Kerswill, a counselor at Wausau West High School. “Because at that time, screens were kind of their main way of socializing.”

Kerswill is also the advisor to the school’s Raise Your Voice Club, which has been directly targeting that issue by getting students to have more face-to-face interactions through the club’s activities. This is an important skill to build, not only for them to be ready for future careers but also for their overall mental well-being.

7 Investigates: Supporting Students

About two in five high school students in Wisconsin feel like they do not belong at school, increasing more than 12% over the decade. The data are grimmer when parsed out by demographics, such as race. White students fair slightly better than the 40% collection of all students, and Black students fair slightly worse. Half of all Hispanic students and 65% of Asian and multiracial students do not feel like they belong at school. In Marathon County, it is three in five students who identify as being in the LGBTQ+ community do not feel that sense of belonging.

“Especially kids who have experienced trauma and have mental health, it can feel very lonely and isolating,” Zelazoski stated. “So, we’re really working to make sure that all of our kids who come into the club, feel like they belong and feel like they have a place to be and feel like at least they have one supportive relationship with a staff member.”

Students who feel like they do not belong are more likely to be bullied, feel unsafe at school, get less sleep, and have worse mental health outcomes. It also means they are more likely to skip out on school altogether.

“We’re seeing huge increases of truancy at all levels and trying to reengage kids and families back into school,” Heidi Siebert, the director of pupil services and special education at the Antigo School District stated.

Nearly a quarter of students in Wisconsin were considered chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year. Again, the rates look different when parsed out by race. About 45% of Black students and more than a third of Native American students were absent 10% or more of the school year. Students from other races or ethnicities were either around the overall student population or below.

As noted in the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health’s 2022 Annual Report, “Attendance is critical to more than academic success in school. Students who feel connected to their school also have better mental health.”

Substance use is also a concern. For some students, school staff find it is a way to connect with their peers. For others, it is a way to cope with mental issues like stress or anxiety. Still, others are found to have an addiction.

D.C. Everest recently installed vape detectors in their secondary buildings. Mohr, like staff at many other districts, said she regularly checks bathrooms, often finding multiple students in a single stall vaping either nicotine or marijuana, though more often it is nicotine.

“I would say almost every single day, we’re dealing with some sort of that one way or the other,” Schilling said.

Mohr added that in addition to physically consuming whatever substance, she describes the behavior she is seeing from students who are using as “general disrespect.”

“As far as if, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ ‘Nope, you cannot go to the bathroom, because your friend just went to the bathroom.’ And so they walk out, they just go. It’s a struggle because that’s to the point where I consider it to potentially be an addiction, like if you absolutely need to go. So we’re seeing some of that, not reporting to class because they’re in the bathrooms, or they’re doing different things leaving, you know, whatever it might be... Overall, they’re just not engaging, and they’re either leaving or, you know, being disrespectful to the point where they might have to leave the classroom, or are not going at all.”

”Behavior is language, we know that with our students,” Erin Jacobson, DCE’s school social worker and Mental Health Navigator said. “We don’t always know what their behavior is telling us, and that’s something that we have to try to find out.”

Finding out the ‘why’

School social workers, counselors, resources officers, teachers, pupil services, and after school program leaders note each student’s situation is unique, but there are common patterns they are seeing when they talk with students to find out why they are behaving a certain way.

”It’s a lot of internalized trauma, maybe that’s happened in the past and stress that they have, dealing with relationship issues, trying to navigate their gender identity, their sexuality,” Allie Libby, a counselor at Merrill High School said.

“This yelling or becoming aggressive,” Zelazoski explained, “that’s how they’ve survived the trauma that they have been going through in their life.”

She said in some respects, adults to be grateful for some of that behavior because it has allowed those children to survive, then meet those kids where they are to teach them better ways to manage their emotions and behavior.

“I’ve heard about students who’ve been sexually harassed. I’ve heard about students who are couchsurfing,” Tony DeGrand, a science teacher at DCE Senior High said. He explained he makes an extra effort to build connections with students to understand their behaviors so they can get addressed and be willing and able to learn what he has to teach.

“I hear about students who have parents with substance abuse issues, students who have parents who are either deceased, or in jail, or prison or something, and you hear this and you see the student, and you see how that’s affecting those students emotionally.”

”When you have a pile in front of you, you don’t know where to start,” Mohr explained. “We see, like, they get so far behind in their homework, and they’re sleeping in class and all of these other things are building up, then at that point, they don’t know where to start. So, they just stop altogether, and they are disengaged and withdrawn.”

”Being completely overwhelmed and not knowing what to do next,” Jacobson stated as being the confession she hears from students that makes her heart sink. “And feeling like there isn’t a next, so they turn to look at suicide, or they turn to having thoughts of suicide, that ‘I don’t know, a way out, and so I see that as my only way out.’ When they’re talking about it, though, to me, that tells me that they’re asking for help. And it’s such a positive that we can get them help, and we can show them that there is another way or that there is a support system.”

Especially given the impact that the pandemic has had on kids, which is yet to be fully understood, educators say everyone has to meet students where they are currently at developmentally, emotionally, socially, behaviorally, and academically in order to make positive gains for each whole child.

“We have to go back to understanding this is where kids are coming into us and readjust what we’re doing at those levels to be able to support them so that they don’t feel like they’re doing something wrong,” Siebert stated. ‘Oh, I’m, I’m misbehaving,’ right? Well, but you didn’t weren’t taught those things for three years.”

“When we get that backstory, you know, we always look at what can we do at this point to help you,” Schilling directed to students. “Because if you’re willing to change it, we’re willing to help you.”

Schools have gotten creative to do what they can to address all of the barriers students face inside and outside of the school setting to create more equitable access to learning, using limited resources. Next week in 7 Investigates’ Supporting Students series, we share how school staff are supporting students and where they say they need more help.

correction: Previous versions of this story incorrectly spelled Amanda Mohr's name; it has since been corrected.