When I was a classroom teacher, one year I was hit, kicked, bitten, or scratched every single day. Two bites sent me to the doctor. I still have scars on my hands from scratches. It took a huge mental toll. I became depressed. I would even automatically flinch from other children who were just playing. Violence against teachers is a serious issue. But sometimes it feels like admin and politicians are sitting down, reading the newspaper, or asking for more data when teachers are trying to tell them it’s on fire.
That year, I had multiple students with behavior intervention plans. But I didn’t leave the classroom because of the kids. Even despite the behaviors, I absolutely ADORED them all. Ten years later I think about them frequently and hope they are doing well.
I left the classroom after that year because of lack of admin support in properly addressing the issues. Admin did not have a great understanding of behavior. They didn’t grasp when to reward and when to wait for compliance. My admin did not understand how their reactions to these behaviors increased the behavior rather than extinguishing them. I’ve since learned that there is protective gear available for special education teachers. Nobody ever informed me of this while I was in the classroom. You can find out more here. Protective clothing helps in an immediate crisis, but it can’t be the only solution offered to special education teachers.
My students, due to the nature of their disabilities and their young age, did not fully understand the pain they were inflicting on me and my paraprofessionals. They were in elementary school, which helped make the injuries to others less severe.. However, this issue occurs in middle school and high school, and the results are serious. I have heard of other teachers getting punched in their stomachs while pregnant, teachers being out for extended time because of concussions, and other injuries with devastating consequences. Sometimes the kids understand what they are doing, and sometimes they don’t. But the result to the teacher is the same.
Behavior Intervention Plans are important. But without an underlying understanding of psychology and behavior, they are often implemented incorrectly.
While BIPs are easy to implement incorrectly, it’s also important to not jump to blame teachers when students are becoming violent. A teacher could implement a BIP perfectly, but that doesn’t mean a student will behave perfectly. Behavior takes time to change; sometimes a lot of time. A BIP is not a magical document that prevents violent behavior by its mere existence. When teachers are getting beat up and others say it’s because you didn’t do XYZ (even when they did do XYZ to the best of their ability), it’s victim blaming.
What we really should be asking is why so many special education students (and gen ed kids) are acting violently. Besides students behaving violently, but there are also students eloping, and students refusing to work. Together, we have the trifecta of fight, flight, or freeze.
The fight, flight, or freeze response is a response to danger. What is happening in our schools that our kids are feeling deeply threatened? We keep hearing that kids are acting in ways that they didn’t used to when we were kids. That the behaviors are so different. We’re being asked to implement all sorts of behavior interventions, both general and special ed teachers alike. We need to be asking what changed and how to fix it. The system is broken, not our kids.
Violence against teachers is a bigger problem than is being recognized. Immediately, we need to find ways to balance the teachers realistic need for safety in the workplace with students rights to FAPE and least restrictive environment. Longer term, we need to identify what it is about our school system nationwide that is causing the fight, flight, or freeze response in our students.
Before we write a BIP, we look at the ABCs of behavior, the Antecedent, the Behavior, and the Consequence. Because IEPs are by their very nature, we’re looking at these problems on an individual basis. But there appears to be a larger pattern going on. We need to look at the system wide antecedent causing so much turmoil for our kids.
The consequences of not doing so are already becoming clear. According to the Education Week Research Center, who analyzed ten years of federal data, the number of special education teachers has shrunk by 17%. I likely was included in this number. I’m certain that many others left for reasons similar to me. With less special education teachers, and the same amount of students needing services, kids aren’t getting what they need. For some of those kids, it logically follows that problematic behaviors may increase when their needs aren’t getting met. Which in turn could be pushing even more special education teachers out the door. That’s a dangerous cycle for everybody.
I don’t know what it is about our system that is causing these behaviors. But I’d like to know your thoughts. What do you think is causing this epidemic? What do we need to do to solve it?