HALT! Four Ways to Curb Unexpected Student Behaviors

By Lisa Parry, M.Ed.

As educators, we would certainly rather invest a chip in staving off unexpected behaviors than a chunk to clean up the aftermath of an unfortunate episode. (Note: “Unexpected behavior” is a behavior deemed unusual in a particular context. For example, hollering and clapping are expected at Fourth of July fireworks display but not during a traditional exam.)

Prevention doesn't just benefit teachers.

It is an equal-opportunity friend for staff and students alike. After all, as a rule, kids don’t want trouble. They sometimes find themselves careening toward danger without the ability to apply the brakes. Consequently, we have a responsibility to help them slow their roll.

Notably, students who are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and/or Tired don’t just take a leisurely Sunday drive through the land of combustible emotions. Rather, they are flying down an Autobahn, hoping that no one will be there to pull them over and issue them a citation like in Germany.

This metaphor is not only memorable; it is accurate. Research tells us people in a state of HALT rely almost exclusively on emotion, and that’s never good under these conditions.

What must we do?

Because we know many of our students have unmet needs …

and because we know these gaps lead to negative feelings and unexpected behaviors …

and because our students (and caretakers) are increasingly hungry, angry, lonely, and tired …

we must seek first to understand and next to intervene.

Fortunately, when we consider these core conditions, we recognize them as addressable. The difficulty is not the actual intervention(s) but the mindset necessary for implementation.

You see, when students exhibit unexpected behaviors, we often react with wrath and retribution.

  • “No recess for you!”
  • “You will eat lunch with the teachers, not your friends, today!”
  • “I am not going to allow you to finish this assignment since you continue to waste time!”

What if, instead of raining fire and brimstone down on kids who may be experiencing HALT, we investigated the "why" behind behaviors, then provided remedies so students could find social and academic success?

HUNGRY

Keep some fruit snacks (or, better yet, fruit), granola bars, nuts, jerky, cheese & crackers, and other shelf-stable snacks at the ready. Feed them when kids are crashing because their blood sugar is plummeting (or because it has been flatlining for days because of food insecurity). Enough said.

ANGRY

Sometimes we act as if we have a monopoly on anger. Boy, we can go from calm to crazed in seconds, but when kids get mad? Well, we are going to shut that down ASAP!

Instead of unleashing the magma bubbling inside an angry student by launching verbal jabs or challenges, imposing artificial consequences (“No PE for you!”), or assigning demerits, referral points, or tallies, consider a course of action meant to cool the fire.

  • Give the student physical space.
  • Model calm behavior.
  • Use as few words as possible.
  • Direct students to control and notice their breathing.
  • Describe what you notice and ask if your observations are accurate.
  • Ask students what they are thinking or feeling.
  • Find out what students need.
  • Meet the needs you can.
  • Explore ways to meet the needs beyond your immediate control.

 LONELY

People are unique in many ways, but one trait binds us all: we need to belong. Students who feel alone in school will operate from a place of inferiority, desperation, and sadness. It seems inevitable that those who see themselves as ghosts floating through their classrooms, lunchrooms, and playgrounds will display behaviors tainted by their realities.

To make matters worse, as lonely students may not have sharpened their social skills in play with others, they often act in ways that further alienate their peers. After all, no one wants to play with someone who shoves, won't share, lies, or picks her nose. And so bad becomes worse.

What to do?

Our “little littles” love to spend time with their teachers. Seize opportunities to pour out our attention while modeling expected behaviors. If we can utilize older students in these cases, all the better. Frankly, nothing beats time spent playing with trucks, shooting baskets, coloring pictures, taking a nature walk, or singing karaoke with a “big brother” or “sister.”

Our “older littles” and our “bigs” are a little more difficult to assist. We must face it’s tougher to pair pre-teens and teens with like-aged or older students, and the prospect of spending time with a crusty teacher may not tickle them. This does not mean we wave the white flag though.

Instead, we forge ahead and abate their loneliness by inviting them to help us with meaningful projects, taking them (and perhaps a compassionate peer) to lunch at a local restaurant, and though it might seem too insignificant to move the needle, sidling up with the pure intention of focusing on them and what makes them tick.

Once lonely students begin to believe someone—anyone—is happy to see them, a shift in perception and subsequently reality sets in. What follows is a more joyful, more classroom-ready kid.

TIRED

Who isn't dog tired? Can I see a show of hands? No one? That's what I thought!

There can be lots of reasons for this. As far as our kids are concerned, it often comes down to a set of clashing causes: parents exerting too much control while exercising too little power.

Too much

Mom and Dad may love to spend their evenings in a gymnasium watching a game or in a neighbor’s living room watching Netflix. Either way, these parents are dismissive of their children's need for restorative rest, so they roll into their driveways late, and their kids are denied the sleep they need. The idea of altering their social schedule to accommodate their child's schedule falls on deaf ears.

Too little

Today's students—even our littlest littles—are up all night, their tiny faces illuminated by even smaller screens. At best, they are watching cats play with giant balls of yarn. At worst, they are watching … well, I would rather not go there. The resulting fatigue is an epidemic that compromises our students' academic, social, and emotional experiences.

Give students opportunities for quiet time (and maybe even dimly lit) spaces. If the fatigue is crippling enough, let kids sleep.

I know, I know—if they are sleeping, they are not learning! We cannot have that!

But consider this: when students are exhausted, no one wins. And as we push ahead, the potential for victory—students getting what they need and teachers getting what they want—slips further away. A refreshed student is more likely to be classroom-ready.

In short, we need to tend to our students' bodies, minds, and hearts to HALT unexpected behaviors to find happiness and success in school.

I am a K-12 principal proudly serving a 2021 National Blue Ribbon and a 2020 ESEA Distinguished Elementary School. My 20+ years in education have taught me many lessons, including this truth: kids don't want trouble.

They will behave if they can; they will not if they cannot. My mission is to convince my peers the best way to approach our learners is to "Teach Hard and Stay Soft."

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels
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