Let’s talk about disrespectful behaviors in the classroom. The child who talks back. The student using their cell phone, even after being told to put it away. The kid who refuses to do their work, and even loudly tells you, “no!” when you try to politely give some encouragement. The student who jokes about your class being dumb, causing an eruption of laughter in the room.
As educators, we’ve all encountered some (or probably all) of these situations from time to time. Here are some strategies to help you manage these challenging behaviors and get back to what you do best – teaching your students.
Change your mindset. First, the most effective strategy is actually a mindset shift. Kids aren’t being rude to be rude or disrespectful. Kids and young adults are coping with challenging feelings the very best way they know how to in the moment. Let’s think about it: Wouldn’t it actually be easier for a student to follow the rules and just fly under the radar? In most cases, it would. So, it’s important to remember that disrespectful, rude, or challenging behaviors are not really directed at you. They are just a way to communicate needs.
Have empathy. Remember that we don’t know what goes on in the lives of our learners. Take a trauma-informed approach. Rather than blaming and accusing the student for their behavior, take a step back and consider that they are struggling in some way. Even if we don’t know the reasons for the struggles, it’s helpful to have empathy always.
Be consistent with expectations. Kids and teens need boundaries. Spend time teaching, discussing, and practicing the expectations. Adults can be fun and still have rules. The key, though, is that kids need to know and truly understand them. Prior to group work, talk about what the expectations for being a good ground member are. Act them out and highlight them while kids are working. Before independent work, model what a good independent worker looks like. Give reasons and explanations for these expectations. It’s also important to note that this isn’t just something for the beginning of the year. Reviewing expectations should be a year-round and continuous process. All kids benefit from a refresh and some kids truly need it.
Train yourself to not take offense. This takes real work. Remember, though, that these are kids and young adults. They are still learning and growing. It’s critical to stress that these behaviors are not often meant to be directed at you. Also, think about it: Are you really offended that a 10-year-old made fun of your hair? Do you actually feel upset that a teen said your class was stupid? When we phrase these “rude” situations like this, it seems even a little silly to take offense, really. With that said, there are times when kids and young adults can use their words as weapons. When this happens, it’s important to view those behaviors as needs and skill deficits. Train yourself to not take offense so that you can stay calm and collected.
Consider skill deficits. When a student says something mean or rude, consider how it could be the result of a lack of social skills. For example, if a student keeps blurting out in class, are they really purposefully being rude or are they struggling with self-regulation? If a child tells you that your shirt is ugly, are they trying to be mean or do they lack a strong social filter? While not all “rude” behavior fits into this category, it’s worth taking the time to consider first.
Focus on the relationship. Continually focusing on the relationship with your students demonstrating rude behaviors is extremely important – for you and for them. First, so often, a child or young adult with challenging behaviors needs connection. Spend time talking about non-school related topics, find out their interests, hear about family, and listen to their favorite music. No relationship-building topic is too small. There needs to be connection before there can be correction. There really is no other way. Use this free printable relationship-building questions list or read up on more strategies for building relationships with your learners.
Ignore what you can ignore. Sometimes, kids and young adults act out as a way to express their feelings. Of course, they aren’t going about it the right way, but in the moment is not the right time to address it. Other times, kids might be acting out for attention. In both cases, ignoring what you can ignore is often the best action in the moment. Walk away or pretend you didn’t see that eye roll. If you have to address some behaviors in the moment, say, “We’ll talk about it later.” This gives the adult the opportunity to let others know they are handling it, but also reduces any chance for power struggles along the way.
Be prepared for behavioral episodes. Using the word “ADAPT,” you can remember to act calm, de-escalate, acknowledge feelings, problem-solve, and think reflectively.
Avoid the impulse to punish. Now, I’m all for logical consequences. Punishments, though, are a whole different ball game. Sometimes, when a kid or young adult acts out, our first impulse is to punish them by giving them a detention or assigning extra homework. Almost all of the time, these on-the-fly punishments will do more damage to the relationship than they will help the problem. Problem-solving over punishing will always win.
Keep them in the room. As long as students are in your room, they can keep learning. This is especially important for those kids who refuse to do their work. Even if the student is not starting the classwork, leave them be. They will get much more out of the class conversations and discussions than they would in the office or in a desk outside your room. There are exceptions to this, of course, including when students are disruptive to the learning to others or if there are any acts of violence. It’s safe to say that those are times when additional support outside of the classroom is necessary. When possible, though, keep them in the room.
Use de-escalation strategies. Strategies to defuse a bad situation are worth their weight in gold to an educator. I strongly feel these strategies should be emphasized, discussed, and practiced during educator training every single year. Grab this free list of de-escalation strategies to print as a reminder and read up on more de-escalation strategies.
Consider the why. There is always a reason behind the behavior. If a student is acting out when they have to do math problems at the board, maybe they are really embarrassed to do work in front of others. If a learner disrespects you when you ask for the homework, maybe they didn’t understand it and they don’t want to look dumb. Don’t focus on the what. Focus on the why. These will lead you into the right direction of problem-solving, rather than blaming.
Be self-reflective. Take some time to reflect on the situations that led up to the problem situations in your classroom. Of course, this isn’t a blame game. Being self-reflective means just considering what went wrong and what could have gone better. Could you have asked a question in a different way? Did you put the student in a situation that was maybe extremely uncomfortable for them? Was the classroom too noisy, causing the child some distress? Be open-minded and ask yourself some questions to figure out what you could do better next time.
Meet privately with the student. Not punitively, meet with the student and talk with them. Rather than blaming them personally, highlight that you noticed there was a problem and you want to help solve it. For example, you might say, “Jane, I noticed there was a problem when you were working in a group yesterday. What’s going on with that?”
Listen. As educators, sometimes we have the habit of talking more than we listen. In this case, rather than talking at the student, give them time to speak. Sometimes, you will be amazed at what you learn. Maybe that student didn’t realize they were calling out. Maybe the student felt disrespected by something you said first. Regardless of what you think about their behavior, give kids a chance to speak. They deserve that. It can become the foundation for repairing relationships and moving on.
Brainstorm solutions. After listening to a student, brainstorm some strategies that might solve the issues together. Again, stay open-minded about suggestions from the student. Offer some of your own ideas as well. Actually brainstorming solutions goes a long way. The best solutions are almost always developed together.
Make a plan together. After brainstorming, set up a specific plan of action with your student. Come up with at least one thing the student can do and one thing you can do to do better next time. For example, if a student was acting out when in a difficult group setting, perhaps they can come up with a list of group ground rules, and you can agree to ask their input about their groups in the future. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to show that you care and you both are working in the right direction.
Make time for social and emotional supports. All kids and young adults deserve a supportive check-in with an adult. This can be done during morning meeting advisory, homeroom, or even study halls. Talk to kids about how their feeling and what’s going on in their world. You can even teach SEL skills with this morning meeting set for the year that I developed. While this intervention won’t fix disruptive or challenging behaviors in the moment, it is a proactive approach that will help learners throughout the year, even halting problems before they start.
Teach the skills. If a student is lacking some social skills, teach them. If they need to work on managing their emotions, teach emotional management and coping strategies. If they need to work on self-control, discuss and practice strategies for self-regulation. While not all educators have time for this set up in their schedules, there are many ways you can integrate social skills into your instruction. Another option is talking with support staff about setting up a small lunch group to teach the skills kids need explicitly.
Focus on your own self-care. Working with challenging behaviors can be stressful. Schedule time for yourself to unwind and relax. Whether you take time reading at home, head to the gym, or schedule time with friends, find what works for you. Use this printable self-care poster for educators to remind you throughout the week.
Throughout these strategies, there is a solid theme. Educators can learn to ADAPT. This is a acronym I created to stand for: Act calm, De-escalate, Acknowledge feelings, Problem-solve, and Think reflectively. These are the essential elements of handling challenging behaviors in the classroom, including behaviors we see as disrespectful and rude. If you are a subscriber, head over to the free resource library to grab your very own ADAPT poster as a reminder. If you aren’t a subscriber yet but are curious, head over here to learn more and join.