Attitudes are in the eye— and ear— of the beholder

Do you have snarky people in your life? This post was adapted from material originally written for beginning teachers. The same ideas and strategies are equally effective in home and work environments, as well as any educational setting. Just substitute “student” (or “kid”) for “child,” “co-worker,” or even “spouse.”

Disrespectful teenSome kids just know how to push our buttons. Fortunately, we have options when it comes to responding, including whether we take their behavior or words personally. If you are working hard to connect with students in a positive classroom climate, you should see a decrease in challenging behavior. Nonetheless, some students, especially those with a history of antagonistic relationships with teachers and those competing for power or status, may need some time to realize that those defenses simply aren’t necessary in their interactions with you.(Attempting to alienate someone who professes to care is a very clever defense indeed.) Likewise, students who have experienced a recent trauma that has absolutely nothing to do with you, may be adequately stressed, hurt, or angry, to express their emotions to someone who just happens to be on hand— you!

Although you may always be tempted to label or punish objectionable attitudes or comments, there are alternatives that can defuse conflict, prevent escalating tension (for you, the student in question, and the rest of the class), and build connections, all the while protecting the emotional climate of the classroom. Resist the urge to react, or even make the student wrong, and try one of the options below. All have worked at some point for professionals in the same situation, although you may have to try more than one, or more than one time. Keep in mind that these interactions happen in the context of the relationships and culture you have created in your classroom.

  • Validating the student’s experience: “Sounds like you’ve had a hard time with this subject in the past.” “This is a challenging concept. Hang with me. We can do this.”
  • Agreeing with the student: “No kidding.” “Yeah, this really is a long chapter.” “Sounds like you’ve already got a lot of work this weekend.”
  • Asking for a different behavior: “Let’s try that again without the yelling, please.” “OK, say that again, only use the tone of voice I use when I talk to you.”
  • Defer discussion: “Good point. Let’s talk about that after we get the seatwork started.” “I want to hear your concerns about that. Let’s get through this activity and then we can talk.”
  • Using the child’s objections (or potential objections) to leverage cooperation: “There really are a lot of problems on this page. Why don’t you just pick ten of them.” “We’ll have some time at the end of the period for you [to do something the you want to do] if we can get this done in time.”

If you suspect something unrelated to anything in your classroom to be going on, you don’t need to pry (or play psychiatrist), but it can sometimes help to give the student a few minutes to cool down and at some point, let the student know that your door is open if he or she wants to talk. And as far as being the adult in the classroom goes, it may just help to know that it’s OK to not react or get upset— much less take revenge on the child. If you don’t take every little thing as a challenge, you’ll finish your day in a much better frame of mind.

Watch your body language, too. A smile and nod can unravel dedicated attempts to test or provoke. And modeling respect and enjoying your students is far more satisfying and effective than making them wrong. You’re not telling them that disrespectful behavior— if you even choose to call it that— is acceptable. You’re simply letting them know there are other, more effective (and yes, more respectful) ways of expressing oneself in this class.

Adapted from a sidebar in chapter 12, “Create a Win-Win Classroom,” from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher, by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2010, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA. These strategies can be applied to any relationship or environment. 

Related resources:

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: The importance of meaningful feedback
A Report Card for my Teacher
Guidelines for Offering Choices to Students
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Student Behavior
Handling Negative Student Behavior
Improving Student Behavior Through School Climate— It’s not about the Rules
Dealing Successfully with your Students’ Parents
Getting Away with Success
Motivating Cooperative Behavior

Also check out a post by Ruth Moeller: Feedback from students— Who cares? (I do!)

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