I’ve written A LOT about behavior management: creating a strong, positive classroom culture and being proactive, as well as what to do about extreme student behaviors and how to undo your classroom management mistakes. I’ve talked about how to avoid getting discouraged by these kinds of behaviors, and how to not give up on apathetic kids.
But I haven’t addressed practical responses in the moment to student attitudes:
- How should you respond to the little things students do that are rude, disrespectful, or just annoying?
- What should you do for minor behaviors that don’t necessarily warrant some kind of consequence, but that you can’t let slide every time?
- Is there a way to keep kids from eye-rolling, teeth sucking, muttering under their breath, and so on?
- What do we do about bad attitudes?
I don’t want to settle for trite, rehashed info, so I reached out to Robyn Jackson, founder of Mindsteps Inc, because I knew she could take this conversation to a deeper level. Robyn was a National Board Certified English teacher in Maryland, just outside of Washington DC, and has since been an administrator, adjunct professor, consultant, and speaker. She’s been championing equity, access, and rigor for over 15 years.
Robyn is seriously one of my favorite experts in the education space, because she has a deeper understanding of human behavior and motivation than anyone else I know, and she always keeps it real. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her speak in person a few times and I just hang on her every word–there’s so much good info there. She has this lovely way of uncovering the root problem and also calling you out on your own mess instead of allowing blame-shifting.
I highly recommend using the audio player below to listen to the full interview, but even if you’d rather read, grab a pad of paper because you’re going to want to take notes.
Want to listen to Robyn instead of read? Download the audio above!
Is it even possible to create a class culture in which kids don’t get an attitude or disrespect you over minor things (especially at the secondary level)?
Absolutely. In fact, how depressing would it be if that weren’t possible? I don’t just believe it’s possible, I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it with all kinds of kids.
I spend a lot of time in schools, and I’m in all kinds of schools — urban schools, suburban schools, rural schools, schools in the US, schools in other countries. I’ve seen it happen, but creating that kind of classroom culture is not easy. I don’t have anything like, “All you have to do is ___ and you can have that kind of culture.” There are a lot of things that go into it, including not just the personality of the students, but the personality of the teacher.
One of the things I shrink from whenever we talk classroom management issues is espousing a particular strategy because those strategies work if you have a particular personality. They don’t work with some personalities. We often don’t factor in who we are when we’re thinking about grabbing strategies and applying them. There is no key that says if you’re this kind of personality, this strategy will work, and if you’re that kind of personality, this strategy will work. It’s a lot of trial and error.
The teachers I’ve seen pull off this off created a classroom culture that is a good fit for their own personality and the personality of the kids involved. I think that both are really important, and I think it’s often a missing link that people have when they’re trying to figure out how to create that classroom.
They think there’s some magic bullet: “I must not be doing something right,” or “I saw another teacher,” or “I read something that this teacher said, and it worked for them. Why isn’t it working for me?” We don’t factor in who we are and how much of a difference that plays in whether or not a strategy will work.
What are appropriate consequences for kids who show disrespect?
I think we have to distinguish between disruptions and disrespect, because not every disruption is disrespectful. I don’t think teachers should tolerate disrespect, ever. That always has to be addressed. But a disruption may not be a sign of disrespect. I think we have to be really clear about the difference. I’m trying to think of a clean, easy distinction, but oftentimes there isn’t one. One person’s disruption is another person’s disrespect.
But typically I consider: Is the child trying to challenge my authority in the classroom? Is the child doing something in direct disregard for something that I’ve directly told them to do? That feels more like disrespect. Is a child being a teenager? Then that’s a disruption.
So disrespect I never ignore. Disruptions, I may or may not ignore them. I may not directly address them right away because I might be able to redirect that student, or I may be able to get that student re-engaged. I think that that’s the difference. We have to be really careful about how we interpret student behavior, because a lot of times in our frustration, we end up interpreting things as disrespect that were never intended to be disrespectful.
How do you keep yourself from taking students’ misbehavior personally?
I still struggle with not taking it personally, even though I know better. Somebody’s attitude rubs me the wrong way or does something that I feel is disrespectful when really there’s something else going on, and rather than taking the time to figure that out before I respond, I just react, and say, “Hold up. No. Wait a minute.”
Especially now, because a lot of times when I’m teaching or doing demonstration lessons, there’s a lot riding on that demonstration. I’m coming in and showing people how to do something, and I’m the supposed expert. And when somebody does something that’s a disruption or is blatantly disrespectful, it’s hard for me to step out of, “Wait a minute. You are challenging me. You are a 13-year-old. How dare you?” Or, “Wait a minute. I’ve got to show people that I know what I’m doing, so I can’t allow you to have any ground in my classroom.”
Those are short-term solutions. And you might be able to quash the rebellion in the moment, but you have lost the war, because classroom management/discipline is supposed to be about helping our students become better at managing the learning and managing themselves.
When we sacrifice that bigger goal for a temporary win, we create other problems down the line, and it doesn’t even feel good to us. It doesn’t. We think it’s going to solve that issue of that, “I feel disrespected,” and it doesn’t. It doesn’t solve either of the issues. It just quashes the rebellion at the moment.
How do you show the class you’re in control without escalating the situation?
When you make the wise decision to not escalate things in the middle of class and to address it later, it’s tough when the student tries to get the last word. There’s something inside of us that finds it hard to walk away from something like that. We immediately worry that our other students are going to think, “Oh no. Look, he got away with it.”
This is a hard situation, and it’s hard to take the long view of things. Students won’t think that he got away with it if you are effective in that post-classroom conversation, and the next day he comes to class and he’s well-behaved. So you have to think about it from that perspective and remember: don’t sacrifice the war because you want to win a small skirmish. You’re fighting a bigger war.
I hate to use war language when we’re talking about dealing with children, and I say “children” but I mean teenagers. I taught secondary–I’m not talking about third-graders here. I’m talking about that 16-year-old who’s being a jerk in class and doing it for attention, and at that moment, he is being disrespectful, right? So how do you deal with that?
The first thing is that you have to keep in mind the longer game. Is the goal of that exchange to prove to the other students that you’re in charge, especially when so many things can go wrong, or are there other ways to show students that you don’t tolerate that kind of behavior?
For me, I think that if you let it go right then and there, as bad as that feels, and you settle it when you talk with that student later on, and then that student comes to class the next day and is well-behaved and the students see that that student is being respectful to you — then what students are going to think is, “Whoa. She must have let him have it in that other conversation. She’s not somebody you mess with,” and they leave it alone.
If you don’t settle it in that follow-up conversation, then that’s when students start getting the idea that that behavior is tolerated. Students are always watching, yes, but you aren’t tolerating that behavior now. What you’re not doing is getting in the last word, and eventually that student looks ridiculous, especially if you remain calm and you remain in control of the classroom.
That’s the struggle: Remaining calm, because I know what that feels like in the moment. I’ve had those situations where you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, “Oh no. What are the kids going to say? Do I respond? Do I not respond?” And unfortunately, there’s no manual for this because kids come up with all kinds of things that we’re not prepared for. There’s no way to prepare for it other than this:
At all times, remain calm. At all times, remain in control. You don’t worry so much about what the other kids are going to think, because you are in control, even of that situation. It’s one thing if that student is doing something and you’re cowering in a corner. It’s another thing if students see you choosing to ignore that behavior. It’s not that you are tolerating or they can get away with it. What students will see is that you’ve made a choice to ignore that behavior.
How do you show students you are CHOOSING not to engage?
A long time ago I wrote a couple of blog posts, and the title of the series was, Are You a Discipline Problem? And it was directed at teachers. It wasn’t to blame teachers, but it was to make this point: A discipline problem is anything that disrupts instruction. Anything. Which means that a child can be a discipline problem, but it also means that a teacher can be a discipline problem.
When you choose not to escalate the situation as a teacher, you choose not to become a discipline problem, because the moment that you start getting in the last word with that student, you now are playing that student’s game. What you’re trying to do is get the student on your page, not get on the student’s page. If the teacher follows up with the student, gets that student back on track, then that’s what the class is going to see–that’s the permanent, lasting effect that students will notice.
You can make it clear to the other students that you are choosing not to engage. Even in how you ignore, you can look at the student sadly, shake your head, and then keep moving with what you’re doing and get everybody back on track. And that will look like you’re just, “Poor pitiful little thing. You have no idea what you’re in for when I talk to you after class.” You can do that, and that shows that you remain in control.
If the student’s trying to get you to react, and you do, then you’re playing his game. You just have to remember: Who’s in charge? I am. That means you just let the “last word” stuff go, even though it feels horrible to do so. But you don’t have to just let it go and act as if it didn’t happen. You can acknowledge it without engaging in it.
You can look at it and shrug your shoulders and keep moving with what you’re doing. Then everybody knows you saw it, you’ve chosen to ignore it, and you’ve handled it without escalating it.
How do you find a “teacher look” that works consistently?
Some teachers are tough teachers. I’m the kind of teacher that I could stop a kid in his tracks with a look. I’ve looked at kids before, a kid started getting smart with me, and I looked at her, and she immediately said, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” But that’s who I am, right?
There are some people who haven’t found their teacher look yet, or whose look isn’t as ferocious, and so they shouldn’t try the look. Because if kids don’t buy your look, if there’s no conviction behind it, then all students are going to do is say, “You can look at me all you want … ” That can escalate things.
So whatever you do, commit to it, but make it fit who you are. Some teachers look disappointed, some teachers look sad but not cowed. Some teachers look at them and say a certain word. “The look” can mean a lot of different things. It could be there’s just a look, or maybe it’s body language.
Or maybe you respond with humor. Some teachers might say, “Aw, do you need a hug?” and then the rest of the class laughs. So you have to figure out who you are, and that’s why it’s so important to do something that’s consistent with your personality, and not try to be the teacher with the look, if that’s not who you are. You have to find what works for you.
Will ignoring disruptive behavior just make it worse?
There’s a way to deal with the behavior without escalating it, without saying a word, that lets everybody know the student is going to be dealt with. He has not won, and everyone including him knows it–you’re just choosing to ignore it.
And if you make the choice to ignore it obvious, that’s the difference. It’s when we don’t make that “ignoring choice” obvious that there’s a problem. When kids aren’t sure: “Are you ignoring it or did he beat you into submission with his words? Which one is it?”
So I think it’s important that you have to make that choice obvious, however you choose to do that, but you don’t have to engage it or escalate it.
I think that’s the thing that they don’t teach us about deliberate ignoring: you don’t ignore it as if you don’t see it. You’re just ignoring it as if, “I’m not going to deal with it at this time.” And is students see that choice, then you are still in control of your classroom.
What happens when you try to tell parents about a behavioral situation, and they think you should accept being treated like a doormat?
Oh, no, never, never, never. Not just because “no one deserves to be treated like a doormat,” I just think it’s hard for kids to learn in that kind of environment where they feel like they’re in control of the classroom. It just hurts you and it hurts the kids, so never accept being treated like a doormat. But what do you do instead?
As a teacher, I had parents cussing me out, I had parents slamming down the phone and hanging up on me saying, “You handle school, I’ll handle home. If you can’t do your job, why are we paying taxes for you?” I’ve had parents come up to the school and lay me out. I’ve had administrators who have capitulated to parents’ demands.
I’ve also had the other side of the coin as an administrator where parents are calling the school, and the child can do no wrong, and how dare you? I’ve had parents get off the phone with me, leave work, and drive up to the school in order to just yell at me in person.
I’ve learned over the years that there are a couple of things you can do to enlist parent support:
1. Be proactive. At the very beginning of the year, outline what the expectations are, and also explain how you’re going to support that student.
That way the idea of handling it in-house is re-couched as, “When things get out of line,” or “If things get out of line, here’s how I’m going to help and support your child. And here are the ways that you can help me support your child,” so that you lay out the expectations: “When I give you a call, this is the script, this is how I expect you to handle it.”
You lay it out before things go badly, so that you have precedent there, and it’s not the first time parents are encountering your expectation for their support. You’ve laid out what that looks like to you, you’ve had that conversation with parents ahead of time. You can do that at back-to-school night or in other ways.
2. Get the story to the parent before the child does.
If something happened in school that day, make the call home. Email is not enough, because parents may not read their email before they talk to their child, so you really want to get to the parent. Whoever gets to the parent first controls the story.
3. If you can’t get to the parent first and s/he is angry, let the parent vent BEFORE you talk.
When parents are yelling at me like it’s my fault, I don’t interrupt. I let them vent, and when they are done yelling, then I will come in and talk. I’ve been yelled at by a lot of parents because I hold my kids at pretty high standards, and not all parents are supportive of that. So let them vent and hear them out, because in their complaints you’ll always find the way to their hearts.
I hated it when parents yelled at me and screamed at me. If parents are being disrespectful, they’re cussing you, they’re calling you outside of your name, you can stop the conversation until they can calm down, and then solicit some support.
But in most cases, they’re like, “I don’t know why you keep calling me. I feel like I’m doing my work at home. If you can’t handle it … ” If it’s that kind of thing, hear it out. In that is a plea for help. Basically, that parent is saying, “I am having enough struggle controlling him at home. I don’t need more of this.”
4. Enlist parents as partners rather than tattling on their kids.
I think that’s the most important thing. Parents may be accustomed to the school calling home about their child, and it feels like you’re tattling, or it feels like you’re saying their kid’s not a good kid. So I try to talk about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and use the language of the goals that the parents have for their own children.
How do you convince parents that the consequence you chose was appropriate and get their support?
Once I had a situation with a father in which he didn’t believe the son should be suspended. I said, “I know this feels like punitive for your son and you don’t think he deserves it, but let me talk to you about what I’m hoping. Tell me what are your hopes for the kind of young man that you want your child to be.”
And he started talking to me about that, and then I said, “You know, I have some of those same hopes for him, and this is why I think it’s really important that he is suspended, because this isn’t punitive. I want him to learn a lesson, and I think we’ve gotten to the point where the only way he can learn this lesson is that he have a consequence that’s dire. And in giving him a consequence on this level, we save him from having to face an even more dire consequence later on. We have to get this behavior out of him.”
And so I talked to the father not just as, “Your child did this, and therefore he’s having this consequence,” but also shared the thinking behind the consequence. I’m not asking him to handle something, which I think puts a lot of parents on a defensive kind of posture. I’m saying, “Here’s what I’m doing in support of the type of child that I think we’re both hoping that your son becomes, and here’s what’s behind it.” And every time I’ve done that — and I’ve had to do it quite a bit — I’ve secured the support of the parent.
When you don’t have the support of the parent, when it seems like they feel their child can do no wrong, you need to talk about the discipline not as a punishment. You connect it to the goals that the parent has for the child, to the challenges the parent may be having with the child. When you show the parents that this is not a punishment (that’s what they’re protecting their child from, punishment), you’re teaching them that this is another learning opportunity.
And when you do that sincerely, it’s really hard for parents to resist someone who cares so much about their child that they’re taking the time to apply the discipline, even when the parent doesn’t agree.
What happens when your approach totally backfires — how do you figure out what you should have done differently?
One of the things that I find really challenging is that people will bring situations to me and they’ll say, “What should I have done?” And the truth is, I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
And quite frankly, things happen so quickly in the classroom, it’s hard to do a postmortem. It’s hard to say, “You handled this correctly,” or “You did it incorrectly.” There are just so many moving parts.
When I see teachers out there who are sincerely trying to support students, I wish that I had a tactic, a magic word, something that I could give them that works every time, but I’ve not found it.
When I can’t find the magic thing that works every single time, I always fall back on the principle that I should change my perspective and look to discipline as another learning opportunity. It’s something that I would treat with the same rigor that I use when planning any other lesson.
When I’m planning my consequences and my responses, I plan it with the same intention that I would plan a learning activity. I think about what I want the child to ultimately learn from engaging in this disciplinary activity with me or working with this child to manage behavior. It relieves me of some of the natural, human feelings around how the child is behaving at that moment.
And it’s a hard thing to hold onto. I’m not perfect at it. But every time I’ve done it that way, I have found a way to reach the child. And every time that I haven’t done it that way, I look back with regret on how I handled things.
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How do you respond when nearly half the class is talking over you?
I stop. I mean, what’s funny is, it’s not just kids. It happens to me when I train teachers, too. I stop. I just stop. Sometimes it may take four or five minutes, depending on the class. If I’m walking in cold, I might not do this … but I’ll tell you what I don’t do.
I don’t say, “I’m not going to talk as long as you’re talking,” because then they’re like, “Fine. We don’t want to hear from you anyway, thank you.” So I don’t set myself up for that response, but I stop and I talk about why.
I try to make a case for why what I’m saying is more important, and try to secure their respect. But I don’t talk over kids. I don’t just keep going, especially when it’s half the class. And I don’t try to say anything smart either because that’s just a setup. I just stop. And when people get quiet, I start talking again.
How do you respond to profanity — when kids are just casually conversing with each other and you hear a curse word?
Oh, no. I’m old-fashioned. People have to work on their own tolerance. Nowadays the language is so profane, but my kids know how I am about this from the beginning. A lot of times I don’t have to say anything. A lot of times it’s just a part of how they speak, and they catch themselves, and they’re like, “Oops.”
When I was younger, when I first became a teacher, I was trying to charge 10 cents every time somebody cursed, but that creates a lot of problems, so don’t do that!
What I try to do now is just set an atmosphere in the classroom where kids know that’s not appropriate, and then when it happens, I just stop, and I say, “Can you rephrase that using the language of the classroom?” And kids do, and they apologize, because they know that that’s not something that I really like in the classroom.
What do you do when a student refuses to comply with a really simple request, like “put your phone away” or “sit down”?
When a student refuses to comply with a simple request, most of the time there’s a bigger issue at stake. It’s not just about the request–there’s something else going on. And a lot of times it doesn’t have anything to do with you on that particular day. They’re going through something else.
So if they refuse to comply with a simple request, I’m not going to stop instruction until I force them into submission. I’m going to get instruction going and then check in with the kid, because if not, that’s how you get those blow-ups. That’s how you get the kids who just go off.
If it’s a simple request like “put your phone away”, and they don’t do it, I move on. I say, “OK, I’ll deal with you in a second.” I get everybody else moving so that the learning in the classroom doesn’t stop, and then I deal with that student.
The exception is if it’s become a big disruption (like if they’re loudly playing a game on their phone, and it’s interrupting everybody else’s learning), because then I’m going to have to deal with it right away. They’ve created a bigger issue. But if it’s just simply, “My phone’s out. I’m not putting it away right now, and you can’t make me,” then let me get everybody else started so I as the teacher don’t become the discipline problem. And then once I’ve got everybody moving where they need to go, then I’m going to go deal with that student, and at that point, it’s not about the phone.
One of the things I learned from Cynthia Tobias, who has this great book on strong-willed children, is when strong-willed kids don’t comply with a simple request, ask the question, “How come?”
So I say, “Put your phone away,” and then the student just doesn’t do it or says no, and then I say, “How come?” calmly. And a lot of times that gets them talking so I can find out what else is going on. They’ll say, “I’m talking to my mother — my grandmother is sick,” or “I don’t feel like it.” “OK, why not?” You get them engaged in conversations that can help you figure out what’s going on and help you deal with the real issue, and not make the phone the issue.
How do you respond to kids who are volatile and belligerent when they’re spoken to about their behavior — those who can’t accept correction?
Oftentimes I’ll say, “We can’t continue to do this. I have a job, and you’ve got a job. And a lot of times you’re reacting in ways that, to me, feel out of proportion for what I’m asking you to do. So I need to know what’s going on with you, and we’re going to have to figure out something else that you can do instead, because that particular reaction doesn’t work. You’re allowed to have a reaction, but let’s find one that will work in the classroom.”
Then we figure out something that works. With some students, I’ve had to do “antiseptic bounces.” So I might say, “OK. Our arrangement is that if you’re getting to the point where you feel like you can’t behave in this classroom, then you can go sit in the back of Ms. So-and-So’s classroom and finish your work there, and Ms. So-and-So knows you’re coming.” The student goes in her room, and sits in the back. I’ve found that that works with some of the really volatile students.
Others have a safe word that they say when they feel like they’re about to go off. And when I hear that word (it’s something that’s just between me and the student), I say, “OK,” and I back off. The student then gets himself together and we address the issue when he’s calmer.
I have to work it out with the student so that we have an agreement. Then once you have that agreement, you can hold them accountable to the agreement, even when you can’t hold them accountable to the behavior and to the behavioral expectations of the classroom.
What’s the most important thing you try to remember about student behavior, attitudes, and disrespect?
You have a bigger end game than that moment when you feel disrespected. And you’re not just teaching that student: every student who witnesses it learns something, too.
So, you have to be very careful about how you respond to student behavior and address it. Because in that moment, whether you realize it or not, you are teaching. You want to make sure that you’re teaching the right lessons in every interaction. It’s not just that student: everybody’s watching, and everybody’s learning.
I think when you take that principled approach, you cut down on a lot of the disciplinary issues that happen in the classroom so they never even come to the surface. You never even have to deal with them when you set up a classroom in that way.
Want to learn more from Robyn Jackson? Visit mindstepsinc.com, or check out her (amazing!) book, Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching.
This post is based on an episode from my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.