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How to Deal with Disrespectful Students

Learn how to deal with disrespectful students from education consultant Grace Dearborn in this Howcast video.


Disrespect comes in a lot of different forms and people mean different things by it. But regardless of what you mean by disrespect, the way I look at it is, when kids are doing things I do not want them to do, that feel attacking or disrespectful to me, I like to think that that's just a test. A behavioral test that they're giving me to try and find out who we're going to be together in the classroom.

Kids who test their teachers that way, or act disrespectful in the classroom, are battling something in their life where they don't trust adults, for whatever reason. And they have some experience where adults will ultimately either abandon or abuse. Not necessarily physically, but emotionally abandon or abuse. And because that's been their experience, now they have to test every adult they come into contact with, to see if that person is safe enough, if that person loves them enough, cares enough to hold them accountable for their behavior but do it without giving up on them. And often times, those behavioral tests that students give us feel like disrespect. But if we can think of it as just a test for us to pass for them to figure out who we're going to be together, that will soften the way we discipline students in those moments.

So, if students are saying things like, "I don't care. I don't have to do that. I hate you. This is stupid. I'm bored." Or whatever these things are that feel like disrespect to us, come up with a default thing that you can say in those moments that does assume the best of them and passes the behavioral test. For example, one of my default things was, "Mrs. Dearborn what can I do right now to behave better?" So, if a student's saying, "This is stupid. Why do we got to do this?" "You know what you could be doing to behave better right now?" I want to go underneath their resistance or their disrespect and speak to the heart of the issue, which is that they don't feel safe and they want my help to feel safe in my classroom and with me.

If a student says, "I don't have to do that." Or, "I hate you." Or whatever that might be I say, "You know what, I hear you saying that but we're going to work together in a productive way. So, you know what you could be doing right now?" I don't need to take those kinds of comments personally and really they're not personal. The students don't really want to be attacking me, they just want me to prove to them that I can care deeply about them while still holding them accountable to speak and act appropriately in my class. And if I can pass that behavioral test then we can work productively together in the class. That's what I would do about disrespect in the classroom.

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