Running on Empty: Teachers Are Not Prepared for Increasing Challenging Behaviors

By: Christina Whalen, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Published: June 13, 2023
happy diverse junior school students gathered at teacher's desk looking at laptop

Behavioral challenges in the classroom are on the rise in terms of frequency and severity, and teachers are not equipped to manage it. Problem behaviors include bullying, tantrums, defiant behavior, elopement (running off), self-injury, aggression, unresponsiveness, emotional outbursts, and non-compliance. More than 70% of teachers report a recent increase in disruptive behavior in the classroom compared to 66% in 2019 (Prothero, 2023).

A major contributing factor is the negative impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on student’s emotional development with 87% of schools reporting increased incidents of misconduct, rowdiness, disrespect toward staff and peers, and prohibited use of electronic devices (NCES, 2022). In addition, more than 70% of schools are reporting dramatic increases in absenteeism.

Only about a third of teachers are effectively trained to manage challenging behaviors (National Council on Teacher Quality, 2020). More than 40% of teachers think that they are not fully prepared for classroom management and handling student behavior (National Council on Teacher Quality, 2014). This is partially due to the paucity of coursework and training in college programs for teachers. Only 15% of teacher special education programs provide sufficient coursework on classroom management and only about 33% of programs require teacher candidates to practice these skills (National Council on Teacher Quality, 2014).

In addition to the insufficient training of new teachers, there is a concerning trend of teacher shortages and lack of on-going professional development to meet the needs of students. In the 2020-2021 school year, 44 states reported shortages in teachers and that has jumped to 48 states reporting teacher shortages in the 2021-2022 school year (Gaines, 2022). In many cases, unqualified teacher candidates are placed in classrooms with a provisional license.

This can be problematic when the candidates have not had sufficient training in classroom management. This can also add to the increasing numbers of teachers leaving the field and ultimately, these issues affect student safety and outcomes.

In addition to the lack of appropriate training in behavior management, teachers frequently suffer from extreme stress and burnout. This, of course, adds to teacher shortages and has a negative impact on students. The level of burnout is directly related to classroom management skills of the teacher and can have profound consequences such as emotional exhaustion, difficulties with emotion regulation, depersonalization, negative perceptions of students, and poor job satisfaction (Gilmour, et al., 2022).

This can lead to poor attendance, attrition, and lower student outcomes. The COVID pandemic led to increased stress and burnout for many educators. In one study,55% of teachers reported that they were thinking about leaving the field of teaching (Kamentz, 2022).

While professional development can have immense benefits for educators, often, it is not targeted toward practical applications, such as classroom management. High quality professional development can be the key to keeping educators and has been shown to affect their decision to stay in education or at their school (Hagaman & Casey, 2018). In addition to building classroom management skills, it is important to help educators learn to handle their own stress and improve their mental well-being. Teaching them skills in emotional wellness and mental health, in conjunction with improving behavior management skills, can improve job satisfaction and create a safer and more positive classroom environment (Whalen, 2021).

Going in with a Full Tank: Simple Strategies for Successful Behavior Management


Find the function.

Behaviors happen for a reason and when you can identify why it is happening (i.e., the “function” of the behavior), it becomes much easier to figure out the best way to address it. For instance, is the student seeking attention from you or peers? Are they trying to avoid or escape a task or activity? Is there something going on at home? Is there something going on with peers (e.g., bullying)? What are the key areas of development for your age group that might impact behavior?

Understand behavior.

RethinkEd’s professional development series for Behavior can help you to better understand how behavior operates and how to apply basic procedures to respond to and prevent challenging behaviors. Modules cover all grade levels, trauma, mental health, developmental disabilities, bullying, implicit bias, compassion fatigue, creating a positive learning environment, teaching behavior skills to students, and managing behavior. These tools can build your confidence and help you to produce a safer and more productive learning environment.

Learn preventative strategies.

When you apply these strategies, you can often stop a challenging behavior from happening. The RethinkEd Behavior series teaches you how to implement strategies for self-regulation, self-monitoring, goal-setting, time management, organization, planning, focus, conflict resolution, cooperation, respect, and asking for help. All of these strategies can act as replacement behaviors for challenging behaviors and can prevent unwanted behaviors from occurring.

Look at the data.

Taking data is not only helpful for reporting but it can also help you make decisions about what is working and what is not working. RethinkEd’s behavior tracking can help you with the simplest point system with your whole class, creating behavior contracts, or even developing a behavior plan for the students who need one.

Teach pro-social behaviors.

When students learn effective strategies for getting through their day, they are less likely to feel the need to use disruptive behaviors to get what they need. The RethinkEd makes it easy to teach student wellness skills such as empathy, cultural competence, growth mindset, emotion regulation, support systems, healthy boundaries, and responsible decision making. These important wellness skills have been shown in numerous studies to reduce challenging behaviors.

Adopt a growth mindset.

A fixed mindset is one in which you think that everything is what it is, whereas a growth mindset is one in which you believe that change is not only possible but inevitable and you are open to learning, changing, and growing. What worked in the past may need changing, what did not work in the past might work today. Keep an open mind and always try to learn new possible solutions.

Nurture your own physical and mental health.

As you know, a burned-out teacher is not good for anyone. When you take care of yourself, you will feel less stressed and more in control of your classroom. Taking care of yourself is part of your job and you, your family & friends, and your students will all benefit from a happier and healthier you.

Keep a close support system.

Teaching is hard and dealing with behavior is harder. Find your people – your administrators that can support you, your peers to talk to and exchange ideas with, your coaches and trainers to help you master your behavior skills, and your friends and family.

People with a strong support system are better prepared to face adversity and tend to overcome difficulties in life more quickly.


Gaines, L. V. (2022, April 20). Students with disabilities have a right to qualified teachers — but there’s a shortage. NPR.

Gilmour, A. F., Sandilos, L. E., Pilny, W. V., Schwartz, S., & Wehby, J. H. (2021). Teaching Students With Emotional/Behavioral Disorders: Teachers’ Burnout Profiles and Classroom Management. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 30(1), 106342662110202.

Hagaman, J. L., & Casey, K. J. (2017). Teacher Attrition in Special Education: Perspectives From the Field. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 41(4), 277–291.

Kamentz, A. (2022). More than half of teachers are looking for the exit, a poll says. NPRT, KBPS. Over half of teachers want to leave the profession early, NEA poll finds : NPR

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2022). More than 80 percent of U.S. public schools report pandemic has negatively impacted student behavior and socio-emotional development. Institute for Educational Sciences (IES). Press Release

National Council on Teacher Quality (2014). Training our future teachers: Classroom management. Future_Teachers_Classroom_Management_NCTQ_Report

National Council on Teacher Quality (2020). Clinical practice and classroom management. NCTQ Teacher Prep Review: Clinical Practice and Classroom Management

Prothero, A. (2023). Student behavior isn’t getting any better, survey shows. EdWeek. Student  Behavior Isn’t Getting Any Better, Survey Shows (

Whalen, C. (2021). Professional development in Rethink Ed’s social emotional learning relates to less educator stress and burnout and better perceptions of well-being and school connectedness.

About the Author

Christina Whalen, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Director of Research at RethinkFirst

Director of Research, psychologist and behavior analyst for RethinkEd

Dr. Christina Whalen, Director of Research, is a psychologist and behavior analyst and lives in La Jolla, CA. At RethinkEd, she is the primary author of Tier 3 curriculum for Social Emotional Learning and assists with the development of professional development videos for educators. She has over 20 years of experience working with children, teens, and adults with special needs. She is the author of the book Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments and has presented at numerous education, behavior analysis, and psychology conferences.

Dr. Whalen was the initial founder and creator of TeachTown, a computer-assisted behavior analysis is intervention for children with developmental disorders. She also worked for various clinics, schools, and research programs. She received her PhD from University of California, San Diego and did postdoctoral training at UCLA and University of Washington.

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