Photo By: Austin Pacheco from Unsplash

Vandalize school bathrooms, smack a staff member and flip off the front office. These aren’t plot points to the next 21 Jump Street movie, but rather, instructions for the “Devious Licks” TikTok trend that’s gaining traction in schools everywhere. 

The challenge encourages students to film themselves committing crimes and then upload them to TikTok. Aside from the obvious, “oh my God, don’t film yourself committing a crime, you’re making it so easy for them to catch you,” of it all, the trend is really just a small part of a bigger problem facing schools today. 

It was generally expected that there would be higher rates of misbehaviour as kids returned to the classroom following the pandemic. Students missed nearly two years of social learning. For young children, that often meant regression. That is, children behaving in a manner generally associated with an earlier stage of development. For example, a child who’s recently learned to talk about their feelings and take a deep breath when they experience stress, might begin throwing tantrums and having meltdowns that they’d previously outgrown. 

Regression does explain some of the behaviours we’re seeing in schools. Restlessness, or newly developed social anxieties, can be traced back to spending the better part of a year away from school, friends and everything else that once made life feel routine. 

There’s something more to the way that kids are acting out though. Kids did dumb stuff when I was in high school, often under times of stress, like exam weeks or the first few days of school. Of course we weren’t living through a pandemic, but there was something different about the way bathrooms got vandalized when I was in 10th grade in 2015, and the way bathrooms get vandalized in 2021. 

It’s not just restlessness, regression or a lack of discipline that’s making these kids act out, it’s anger, especially in older kids. 

As adults, we have a tendency to underestimate just how much kids are capable of noticing or taking in what’s going on around them. Students know exactly what’s happening right now. Older kids understand the pandemic, they understand that the world as they know it is fundamentally changing, they notice the injustices that have occurred and continue to occur. Younger kids might not understand everything, but they’re absolutely aware that something is wrong. 

There’s anger and rage that has been simmering in so many children as they were expected to carry on with business as usual in a time that is anything but usual; they haven’t been given the resources to deal with it as they return to classrooms. Of course they’re lashing out. 

In Ontario, many high schools have adopted a quadmester system, as opposed to regular semesters. This means that instead of having four classes for half the school year, students have two classes for each quarter of the school year. Instead of being in one class for a little over an hour every day, they spend just under three hours in one of two classes every day. Last year, some school boards were alternating weeks, with students doing a week straight of a single class before switching to their second class. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I had to sit in grade 10 math class for six hours a day, five days a week, I’d probably be tempted to punch a wall too. 

Not only do I think this way of education is detrimental to learning, I think it’s definitely contributing to the volatility that’s being reported in schools everywhere. The entire structure of students’ lives has changed and they’ve just been expected to get used to it in the middle of the biggest historical event that they’ve been around to experience. 

Kids haven’t been able to see their friends, they’ve had to get used to rules and policies that seriously limit how they interact with each other and the world around them. Connection has been limited and support has been minimal. Last year, Ontario kept yo-yo-ing students from in-person to online learning. One week it was too dangerous to go to school, the next, they were required to be in the classroom.

It’s not so simple as, “kids these days just don’t understand respect,” kids these days have been disrespected by the world around them and they’re lashing out in harmful ways. 

To put it simply, I’m worried. I’m concerned for the kids that are in school right now, all the way from kindergarten to post-secondary. They’re expected to take in new information, they’re expected to learn and be on their best behaviour, and they’re living through a time that makes all of those things so difficult that they might as well be impossible. 

Kids are acting out in schools, and it’s understandable. I can’t blame them for smashing a mirror or taking out their frustrations on teachers who are just as powerless as they are. How can you look at kids who have to walk past anti-vaxx and anti-mask protestors on their way to school, who’ve been told that they can’t eat lunch with their friends because it’s too dangerous, who spent the last year going to school on a Friday only to be told over the weekend that they’d have to learn from home on a Monday, and tell them that they have to carry on acting like everything is fine?

Everything is not fine, and they know it. The suffering of children is something that hasn’t really been addressed in this pandemic, it’s certainly not something that school boards have accounted for. Most teachers are doing their best, but they’re suffering too. Things have gone wrong and children have been shown minimal kindness and compassion during it all.

These kids aren’t misbehaving for no reason, they’re acting out because they’re begging for the adults around them to acknowledge that they have suffered. For everyone’s sake, let’s try and do that.