How To Handle Disrespectful Students

Smart Classroom Management: How To Handle Disrespectful StudentsOne of the biggest classroom management mistakes teachers make is that they take disrespectful behavior personally.

To quote Tom Hagen speaking to Sonny Corleone in the classic movie The Godfather, “This is business, not personal.”

When you take disrespectful behavior personally, two things are likely to happen:

  1. You will desire to get even, to show your students who is boss.
  2. You will be inclined to scold, lecture, or react with sarcasm.

Both will encourage more disrespectful behavior from your students.

When you react angrily or with spite, you cause your students to resent you, resulting in more of the same unwanted behavior.

I’ve heard teachers say that they don’t care if they’re disliked, that it isn’t their job to have students like them.

This may be true, but it will make you a less effective teacher and make classroom management more difficult.

Taking poor student behavior personally sends the message to your students that they can push your buttons and disrupt your day if they choose.

This shifts control over to your students and weakens your ability to manage your classroom.

When you react out of anger, you are inviting, even daring, disrespect. Back anyone into a corner, and they’ll want to fight back or resolve to get even. Butting heads with students always results in more bad behavior.

You must have a bit of shrewdness in you when it comes to classroom management and understand that the most effective classroom management strategies don’t always jibe with our most natural reactions.

So when a student is blatantly disrespectful, especially in front of the rest of your students, it is only natural to take it personally.

It’s how we’re wired.

But if you can take a step back and realize you’re shooting yourself in the foot every time you react on instinct, then you can gain immediate control of the situation without losing your cool—or your authority.

So how should you react?

The most effective way to handle disrespect is to simply and dispassionately follow your classroom management plan and enforce a consequence.

Enforcing your classroom rules—which should include a rule specifically for disrespectful behavior—with an attitude of indifference strengthens your authority and your classroom management effectiveness.

This can be a challenge at times because initially, as a jolt of adrenaline surges through your body, it can make you feel like somehow the student won, that he or she got away without knowing how their disrespect made you feel.

But a student only wins when they’re able to get under your skin. Like the old deodorant commercial says, “Never let them see you sweat.”

Rest assured, you’re not folding or giving in by resisting the urge to react emotionally. Rather, your constraint is a model for your students for how to handle negative situations with poise and without lowering yourself to the same level of disrespect.

Let your classroom management plan do its job. Relying upon yourself and your words, besides being ineffective, is stressful. Send the message that being respectful is not a choice in your classroom and that anyone who engages in disrespectful behavior will be held accountable.

However, if your first consequence upon a student breaking a rule is a warning, then this isn’t a strong enough response to disrespect.

Therefore, as part of your classroom management plan, there must be an allowance made for situations in which stiffer consequences are needed immediately.

Disrespectful behavior, emotional outbursts, and bullying other students are examples of behavior that would warrant an immediate time-out separation from the rest of the class and, more than likely, a letter home to parents.

Your students must be made aware that there are circumstances that are up to the discretion of the teacher. Therefore, this exception must be part of your classroom management plan and posted on your classroom wall.

Handling disrespectful students with calmness and dispassion will decrease the likelihood of it happening again. But there are other things you to do to create an atmosphere of respect in your classroom. For example:

1. Students will emulate you and the way you treat others, particularly if they admire you. So it’s important to set the tone of respect in your classroom by the way you speak to students.

2. You must be respectful, exceedingly so, in all of your interactions. I know you’ve heard it before, but saying please and thank you works. For your students to get the message, you need to use exaggerated politeness (though never obsequiousness) in front of them.

3. Gain your students respect by doing exactly what you say you will do and having your words congruent with your actions. If you require your students to keep their desks clean and neatly organized, but you don’t keep yours that way, your students will notice. They clue in to little discrepancies like this. They glean more about who you are from what you do than for what you say.

4. Stop telling your students how you expect them to behave and instead show them how. Model what respect looks like (for specifics about effective modeling, check out this previous article) and role-play how to give it. Teach respect like you would any other subject area.

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22 Responses to How To Handle Disrespectful Students

  1. Keith Bayard October 28, 2010 at 4:37 am #

    Excellent article. I am a JROTC instructor and I have been teaching for 10 years. I sort of didn’t mind having the title “bad cop.” I have changed my style immensely over the years and this great article validated that the”bad cop” approach is not always as effective.

  2. Kristin Retterath November 2, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    Hi- I’m in the process of researching classroom management plans for students wtih behavior disorders in a 3rd grade classroom. I am the special education strategist and am consulting with the regular education teacher. I really like this plan, but am wondering what your time-out would look like both in a 3rd grade classroom and a middle school group of 5-8th graders.


    • Michael Linsin November 2, 2010 at 7:39 am #

      Hi Kristin,

      Time-out would look the same–or very nearly the same–for both groups. For specific information on time-out see the articles in the time-out category and the rules and consequences category. For specific questions, email me. I’m happy to help!


  3. Virginia February 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm #

    It’s really sad to read that this is your page with the most hits. What does that say about what is going on in our schools and among our youth? I have heard from Western European teachers that they are having respect problems too, but my guess is that it is not so much a problem in East Asian and Indian classrooms, and even co-workers who taught just below the border, an hour’s drive from my school, tell me they do not have this problem in Mexico. Outside of the teacher’s classroom management expertise, do you see our problem as rooted in parenting, the media, pop culture, something else or all of the above?

    • Michael Linsin February 21, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

      Hi Virginia,

      It’s true that this article is among the most popular, but I think that has more to do with the difficulty of dealing with disrespectful students. As to the reasons why some students are more disrespectful than others, and how much the possible causes you mention have to do with it, I can’t say for sure. My experience, however, has been that it’s possible to command utmost respect in the classroom–regardless of who the students are.


  4. Jon Conley March 24, 2011 at 6:28 am #


    Great article!

    After years as a cabinet maker, I have gone back to school hoping to become a teacher. I feel very comfortable with teaching content, but the discipline issues have been a constant concern for me.

    I am from a school of thought that promotes force to fight force. Though this works on occasion, I am beginning to understand that, like you said, acting out in anger just adds fuel to the fire.

    Thank you for this insight. Maybe now I can concentrate more on teaching and a little less on behavior.


  5. Rogelio Antenero Murro May 19, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    Only those teachers who are acting like a boss and feel like the only source of knowledge inside the classroom are usually disrespected by their students. Why? Because these teachers most likely do not credit the ideas, opinions and even suggestions of the students. Setting up rules and regulations inside the classroom at the very beginning of the school year will perhaps solve the issue. Let your students involve in setting up the rules and regulations of course not to surpass the school rules and regulations in general. Thank you Michael for the article.


  6. Sue Escobar October 19, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I came across your page because I am having a difficult time with disrespectful students in college classrooms. Many of my faculty are voicing the same concerns as they see it in their classes, too. I have been teaching college students since 1995 and I can tell you, the level of disrespect in the classroom (with cell phone usage, texting, surfing the web, talking and laughing, etc.) has increased dramatically. I have had my students sign a contract regarding consequences for laptop and cell phone usage in class but some still, passive aggressively, use their laptops. I have told them that I am aware of who is using them–and I have praised those who comply–and that points will be taken off their final grade for it. It still persists. I am at a loss and am thinking about quitting, to be honest. I am tired of being a broken record–with adults!– and the ‘worst’ offenders are juniors and seniors, and these are criminal justice majors. It is difficult for me to come across as a hardass, and perhaps they take advantage of that, but I have had to step it up this semester. I am not sure what it will take for them to be respectful. I model it daily in my classes, going above and beyond with my politeness and doing all I can to engage them, but at least 20% of my classes seem disengaged. The ‘worst’ offenders are in a larger class of 60 students. Anyway, any thoughts would helpful! Thanks and take care, Sue

    • Michael Linsin October 19, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

      Hi Sue,

      What a shame. It breaks my heart to hear that. It saddens me that you would have to model politeness for adults. And they are adults, no excuses. I don’t have experience teaching in a college setting. However, I know I wouldn’t allow the behavior you describe. Cell phones would be turned off the minute the enter the classroom and laptops left in backpacks. That’s the way it would have to be. If they don’t like it, they can drop the class. If the rule is broken, then I would ask them to leave the room, taking zero credit for the day. I certainly would be polite and respectful, but only because it’s right. They’re too old for modeling, too old for praise that isn’t based on accomplishment. You do them no favors by condoning or accepting bad or disrespectful behavior. It’s your classroom and you know what’s right. Set a standard of discourse and behavior you know is best for your students and their future success and stick to it. And here’s the thing. You don’t have to be mean about it. You don’t have to be unlikeable. You can be your kindhearted self. But you’re just not going to compromise, no matter what, on what you know is right–for them and for your classroom.

      Be the great teacher you know you are. Give your students the best of yourself. But expect and demand the best in return. It’s the right thing to do.


  7. Tamal December 12, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    I am gonna try this…

  8. Raymond October 7, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    I was absent one day and the substitute informed me that many students were disrespectful, obnoxious and refused to do the work I had left for them. How would I as the regular classroom teacher, deal with those students when I return to school? I had thought to contact the parents and to write them up, Are these valid ways of addressing the above mentioned problems? How would I discipline the disruptive/disrespectful students???????

    • Michael Linsin October 7, 2012 at 8:26 am #

      Hi Raymond,

      This is a topic on the list of future articles. I hope you’ll stay tuned. In the meantime, yes, you must hold your students accountable when they misbehave with a substitute. It’s always best, however, to set this up beforehand. In other words, your students need to know what the consequences are before the sub day arrives. This, along with your ever-widening and strengthening influence, is what ensures your students are well-behaved in your absence.


  9. Graham Sharpe October 19, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Hi there. I struggle with classroom management in a First nations reserve in northern Alberta. My situation is not a unique one but has its own set of problems. I teach a shop class to from grade 7 thru 12. Many of these students have no reading or writing skills and have no self confidence. They show a lack of respect to me and other teachers and students. Also if any project requires any effort they will destroy it or the equipment. I try to find fun and exciting activities but they are usually ineffective. The main problem stems from a lack of a good program for many years while I am trying to present a structured environment for them. This alone has sparked bed behavior. My goal is to deal with the ones that want to learn, and keep the others from harming themselves, others or the equipment.

    • Michael Linsin October 21, 2012 at 11:43 am #

      Hi Graham,

      Thanks for sharing!


  10. Steve November 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Thanks for the articles on this site. I am looking for advice for consequences. Office referrals are frowned upon in my school to some extent, not officially of course, but that’s the vibe I catch. What are samples that you suggest or your readers of meaningful consequences for my inner city classroom. Thanks again for the help.

    • Michael Linsin November 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

      Hi Steve,

      I’m glad you found the SCM website! Read through the Classroom Management Plan and Rules & Consequences categories of the archive. You’ll find the answers you’re looking for.


  11. Doc December 17, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    The word “jive” should be replaced by “jibe” in the article.

    to be in harmony or accord; agree: The report does not quite jibe with the commissioner’s observations.]

    • Michael Linsin December 17, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

      Thank you Doc! Noted and corrected.


  12. Charles February 16, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    Dear Michael,
    I discovered recently your website. It,s amazing and helpful for teachers. I faced a situation with one of my teachers regarding his reaction to the students’ disrespect. I already talked to him and mentioned a lot of your ideas in this article. And now I will refer him and all the teachers to your website hoping that they will learn how to be good and successful educators. Wish you all the best.

    • Michael Linsin February 16, 2013 at 10:50 am #

      That’s great Charles! Way to go! I know many principals find it particularly effective when talking to teachers to be able to point to an article or website in support of their comments.


  13. Ken Cole, Ph.D. May 27, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    As someone who retired after over 45 years as an educator (elementary, high
    school, and university), I notice a recent trend, by teachers (even primary grades) to use in-school and out-of school suspension referrals to administrators, for the most trivial offenses. I feel this is completely inappropriate. Your opinion?

    • Michael Linsin May 27, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

      Hi Ken,

      I completely agree. Suspension is only for dangerous, bullying, or threatening offenses that must be documented. Otherwise, it’s always best, for many reasons, that classroom teachers handle the issues themselves. Here is a related article: Why You Should . . .


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