How To Handle Disrespectful Students Who Don’t Know They’re Being Disrespectful

handling disrespecful studentsA student points their finger inches from your face and teasingly says, “I’m mad at you. That homework last night was hard!”

Or . . .

A student raises their hand and commands you to “Tell John to stop bothering me.”

In either case you’re uncomfortable with the way you’ve been addressed.

It’s given you pause, and you’re unsure how to respond.

On one hand, neither student appears to have any malicious intent.

From their tone of voice and body language, it’s clear they don’t realize they’re being disrespectful.

On the other hand, they are being disrespectful, no doubt about it.

So how should you proceed?

Should you follow your classroom management plan as it’s written and risk causing confusion and resentment? Or should you ignore their disrespect on the grounds that they don’t know any better and risk more of the same behavior?

What follows are seven steps that will allow you to handle this surprisingly common situation with grace and sensitivity, while all but removing the chances of it happening again.

1. Move on.

The first step is to quickly move on from the incident while neither endorsing nor condemning their behavior. The key here is to keep your cool, avoiding any outward expression of anger or disappointment.

A thin smile and a nod of the head will usually suffice. However, if applicable, you may have to calmly tell the student that you’ll speak to them about it later.

2. Pull aside.

After the incident is forgotten (30 minutes is a good rule of thumb), pull the student aside for a quick word. Here at SCM we typically don’t recommend private meetings with students regarding their behavior. In this case, however, it’s warranted.

3. Avoid confrontation.

There is no reason to question the student or force assurances from them. Your sole purpose is to educate. You see, when you tell students “this is the way it is,” they readily accept it. It’s when you browbeat them into telling you what you want to hear that they become defensive and argumentative.

4. Recount and inform.

Recount the exact actions and words the student used that triggered your instinct that their behavior was disrespectful. Then simply inform them that it crossed the line, that it isn’t okay to speak to a teacher the way they might a friend or sibling.

5. Model the alternative.

The next step is to illustrate how they should have addressed you. Model it for them so they know exactly what you mean. No matter how irritated their behavior made you feel, be sure and maintain a helpful demeanor. It’s key to ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.

6. Pause.

A short pause will give the student a chance to speak if they wish. You’ll often get an apology. If you don’t, however, or if the student clams up, that’s okay. It’s not important that they admit their mistake. Your meeting isn’t a form of accountability, and it shouldn’t be construed as such.

7. Make a promise.

Finish your conversation with a promise that if it happens again, you’ll enforce a consequence. By patiently setting the record straight, the student will walk away from your two-minute meeting with a greater appreciation of you and a fuller, more meaningful understanding of respect.

Defining Disrespect

Disrespect appears to be on the rise—particularly among younger students. It’s important, however, to determine if the disrespect is intentional or a misunderstanding of the definition.

Sadly, as surprising as it may seem, due to poor home and neighborhood influences many students just don’t know any better. And enforcing consequences for behavior your students don’t understand to be wrong will jeopardize your relationship with them.

It will cause friction, distrust, and resentment and increase rather than decrease the chances of it happening again.

The good news is that body language and tone of voice will always tell you whether to enforce a consequence immediately or pull the student aside for a brief lesson.

This underscores the importance of teaching this particular topic thoroughly in the beginning of the school year.

If you model the most likely scenarios—like those above, for example—and define for your students precisely where the line is, then instances of disrespect, intentional or not, will be few and far between.

Note: This article was in response to several passionate requests. If you’d like us to write about a particular issue you’re struggling with, just send us an email or leave a comment below.

Also, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving classroom management articles like this one in your email box every week.

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38 Responses to How To Handle Disrespectful Students Who Don’t Know They’re Being Disrespectful

  1. Litsa Podaras November 9, 2014 at 5:52 am #

    Thank you for all your help.

    L. Podaras
    (ESL teacher)

    • Michael Linsin November 9, 2014 at 7:42 am #

      You’re welcome, Litsa!

      Michael

  2. Chuck November 9, 2014 at 9:50 am #

    Hello Michael,

    I’ve had a lot of success with simply telling the child right when it happens, that such behavior is disrespectful and to watch their tone next time without having to set up a private meeting or anything. I do this with an attitude of education and not one of punishment or of having taken real offense. The student almost always understands, apologizes and it doesn’t happen again. If it does, then I enact a consequence.

    Is there a reason you advise to put it off for a while and schedule a private conference?

    • Michael Linsin November 9, 2014 at 11:04 am #

      Hi Chuck,

      It can be a challenge for many teachers to so quickly compose themselves and address the student with a helpful tone. The other risk is that you may not have the time to fully explain why to the student, along with offering them an alternative—which can leave them privately resentful.

      Michael

  3. Lynn November 9, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    Micheal,

    How would you deal with manipulative student who is trying to turn adults and classmates against you? Have talked to student after class and he will get defensive and start crying.

    Thank you

    • Michael Linsin November 9, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

      Hi Lynn,

      If you wouldn’t mind emailing me with more information–grade level and specific details and examples–then I can either give you some quick tips or put it on the list of future topics.

      Michael

  4. Dan Kirk November 10, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    I appreciate the piece and agree with the strategy. Many students almost do this to show how comfortable they are with the teacher or that particular classroom setting.

    Another possible response goes as follows.

    I teach in a High School (mostly junior students) and have found a simple reply that is useful for the whole class to hear. I try to say it in as flat a tone as possible to keep the possiblilty of shame out of it or of upping the ante for the student in their attempt to save face.

    I pause, a bit longer than usual and then simply ask the student: “Did you mean to sound disresepectful? When they answer no, I reply with: “I need to let you know that it sounded disrespectful and that’s not OK.

    Almost all of the time they instantly apologize and add some version of that not being their intention. And I reply that I didn’t think that was their intention. The vast majority of the time I don’t think it was their intention.

    What this seems to do is give them (and the rest of the class)information about what is appropriate and what crosses a line.

    In more that 10 years of using this I have only had one student answer in the affirmative which led things in a different direction with different consequences.

    Keep the posts coming. My colleagues and I enjoy them immensley and they often initiate discussion.

    Dan

    • Michael Linsin November 10, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

      Excellent strategy, Dan! Thanks for sharing.

      Michael

    • Barbara April 2, 2016 at 7:13 am #

      I like that! I think that will work for me at home. Thanks!

    • Karin May 28, 2016 at 4:56 am #

      Brilliant response Dan! I teach high school too and often its not what they say but the tone that is disrespectful. if you call them out on it you end up looking foolish if you don’t deal with it you look foolish.

  5. Mrs. A November 11, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    My main tactic (and I find that it works well 99% of the time) is to say, “Please say that in a more respectful way”.

    Another way to say it is, “Could you try that again in a more appropriate way?”.

    Or, “I would appreciate if you could ask me rather than demand it of me.”

    Immediate modeling also works. If the student demands, “Tell John to stop bothering me!!”, I would immediately reply back and pretend that I am a student and say, “Mrs. A, please tell John to stop bothering me”… and usually the demanding student then repeats what I said because they IMMEDIATELY realize that how they stated their request was inappropriate.

    OR: “It seems that you need some help solving a problem with Johnny. Is there a question that you need to ask me?”

    At the elementary level, we can’t wait 30 minutes to address behavior – by then, the students have totally forgotten the little things that they did 30 minutes ago!

  6. Kayla November 13, 2014 at 4:26 am #

    How would you handle the fact a child a misbehaving daily and parents are not helping to handle it on the home side, parents make “threats” no desserts or TV yet don’t follow through or pretty much change the subject when behavior is brought up as though they think ignoring it will cause it to dissappear pretty much, becomes frustrating not having support from parents, I do as much positive bragging as I can to help, but at a stand still with child & parent.

    • Michael Linsin November 13, 2014 at 7:16 am #

      Hi Kayla,

      We’ve covered this topic as part of several articles, but will be sure to revisit it in the future.

      Michael

  7. Amanda November 15, 2014 at 2:21 pm #

    Obviously this is elementary level because by high school, the above doesn’t even classify as rude. Addressing the above is e-a-s-y. If this is the worst you’ve got it, you are in a good place — enjoy.

  8. Donald November 15, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

    This post sure helped me out with my subconscious thin smile I had on my face, as I was approaching a confrontation between two girls.

    It sure worked perfectly for me, I been using it for over 8 years now to date, but the people in my Country don’t see the effectiveness of using a thin smile when trying to calm an adolescent down.

  9. Julia November 29, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    I agree with this article and it’s helpful. I feel compelled to point out that the use of the word “powwow” out of context is not culturally sensitive. I work in a school that has a large Native American population and have been told that this can be offensive. Just like we don’t say to sit “Indian sytle” anymore; we say “criss cross applesauce.” It’s also not good to use the saying, “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”

  10. Liz January 13, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

    Obviously, you have not spent much time in an urban school district with high poverty. I had to laugh at “your sole purpose is to educate”. Many of my students come to school solely to be loved. Some days I spend equal time teaching and loving (and I teach high school).

    I find that “this is the way it is” causes more disrespect because students cannot see the thought process behind your decision, and they make the assumption that the decision was made (many times against them) because you do not like them. One of my students’ most disrespectful behavior is cursing and they feel it is okay behavior because they are not cursing at the teacher. I explain to them that the way their friend allows themselves to be talked to is not my business. My issue is that I am being disrespected, but did not do anything to them to deserve that. Once I go through this explanation, they usually get it. And if they cursed again, I would write a disciplinary referral but I would be laughed at in the deans office (consequences only work if you have administration support).

    • Bryn July 23, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

      Liz- I also teach high school in an urban area with more than 50% free and reduced lunch. The lack of administrative support is shocking to me as a 3rd year teacher. I had a student shove me out of the way with the door to enter the classroom he was not to enter after cussing and walking out, only to have him back in my class after 1 class period of in school detention.
      It is not uncommon to have a student tell you off if they are asked to go back to the cafeteria during lunch while on hall duty.
      I love the posts here and have found many tips and insight in better managing my classes, but like you I don’t think many of the strategies are geared toward difficult high schools where teacher leave after 1 year.
      I want to know how to handle the student who on a bad day will shout curses in your class at you and other students or the students who will text each other during class and shout to each other across the room. I can redirect, write them up, or send them out if anyone even comes to get them. What else is there…

  11. Lori Heller March 1, 2015 at 6:09 pm #

    I’ve found that giving them a ‘do-over’ helps them practice addressing you appropriately while allowing them to save face. Simply saying “I don’t think that’s how you meant to say that. Would you like a do -over, or would you like to try that again?” This makes it clear that you expect to be addressed respectfully and it gives them a chance to erase their mistake and do it correctly. I let my students (and my children) see me use do-overs as well so they know we all make mistakes. I might say “Wow! I said that very sarcastically. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. Let me try that again, or I’m going to use a do-over.” They appreciate it when we authentically model the behavior we expect from them.

  12. Rose October 16, 2015 at 7:08 am #

    I had this disturbing experience today. I had to inform my English teacher that she had forgotten to give marks for some classmates and me. When I was saying so in the staff room, another teacher nearby requested me to come to her a little later. When my teacher had gone elsewhere, she came and said that I talk too loud and that was not the right way to talk to a teacher. I was dumbstruck when she made this accusation that I could only blurt out that I was sorry. Later my English teacher called me outside the staff room and asked why I was showing my anger towards her and that she was disappointed in me. I could hardly understand what was going on. I said so and she said ‘don’t pretend like you don’t know’. I have a naturally bold voice and the staff room was quite noisy, so I had to raise it to be heard. Now, she accuses me of disrespecting her when I have always adored her and never had an intention like that. She never let me explain that my tone of voice sometime seems like that which even my mother says so at times. But its always a joke with my family and friends, and nobody had ever accused me of disrespect before in my life. I feel so embarrassed and angry for being blamed when I never meant anything disrespectful. I don’t even know if I should apologise. She can’t seem to understand that I never meant any disrespect. She’s fixated on the fact that I was angry at her for not giving marks. Who even becomes angry for that? I was the class topper! Also, term is over and I won’t be seeing jer for a month. I’m so depressed to have heard this from my favourite teacher. Need advice. Should I apologise or just forget it and move on?

    • Michael Linsin October 16, 2015 at 8:34 am #

      Hi Rose,

      I don’t think you need to apologize, but rather just speak from the heart and explain just like you did above. If nothing else, you’ll feel good in knowing you did your best to correct the misunderstanding. Whether or not they believe or accept it isn’t your issue. Set the record straight for yourself and then move on.

      Michael

  13. Sabrina October 27, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I have a grade 8 female student who is very disrespectful to myself (homeroom teacher), other staff, students and visitors to the school.
    I had this student in my class last year as well, where disrespect was also a problem, but was dealt with, however, now the issues have escalated.

    Student has always claimed that she doesn’t like school (even last year) so because of this she has always been disrespectful within the learning environment. Shouts out during lessons, “this activity is dumb/ stupid, etc” and since students see her as a leader (popular and outspoken) they follow her behaviour and attitude towards school and learning. Therefore, students will usually laugh and get off topic.

    When a test/ school event is coming up, if the student does not want to participate on that day, she’ll announce to the class that she’s not coming and then not show up. When I spoke to her mother, about missing a test (all I asked is how the student was feeling and let the mother know that there was a test) mother became defensive and said, “how dare you imply that my daughter is lying, she is sick”.

    Student is disrespectful when speaking with saying things such as, ” I don’t have to do that” or “I don’t want to do that” while rolling eyes, etc.
    When I spoke to her about her tone of voice/ disrespect, she claims that she is not disrespectful and will walk away and say that she does not want to speak to me anymore or she will cry and say that I’m picking on her.

    Then, she will not be disrespectful for a short period of time (to avoid consequences) and instead manipulates other students to be disrespectful.

    Any suggestions on how I can deal with this situation, I’d really appreciate it.

    • Michael Linsin October 27, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

      Hi Sabrina,

      I know it sounds simple, but you must, must, must hold the student accountable for her disrespect. Whether that looks like detention and/or a direct effect on her grades depends on your school policies, but it’s the one essential to getting her attention and changing behavior. They are many other strategies that can help turn her around, which you can find on this site, but none will be effective without accountability.

      Michael

  14. Lyne Keenan November 8, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

    These articles are very informative and should be required reading for every teacher as a refresher at the beginning of every year! I am a firm believer that students are what they have been taught directly or indirectly. Most students have not a clue what being respectful or disrespectful means because of what they have learned from home. Respect must be taught in the classroom because it’s not being “taught” at home. After 40+ years of teaching, I unfortunately see this trend of disrespectful students increasing. We as teachers must turn this tide!

  15. michelle cutajar November 15, 2015 at 1:32 am #

    I had a student this year whom I had taught in the early forms. He became very arrogant and had to send for the Head of School as I would never allow students to talk to me that way. I demanded an apology and the Head also; he was challenged by the Head to do so well that then he could change class.

    Now that weeks have passes, this student is not only polite to me but politely amicable, and equally or more importantly, he is working hard and paying attention in class as I expect him to do. In fact he is excelling and I hope he will be able to sit for his GCE next year and pass with flying colours.

  16. Sue B. December 19, 2015 at 11:49 am #

    Written OK at best. A teaching moment needs to be teaching across the board on how to be respectful to everyone they have a relationship with, only if they want their relationships to last. Life teaching is going the extra mile to show LOVE. Many generations were not taught this so how are they suppose to know if not shown to them out of LOVE.

  17. Vicki White February 18, 2016 at 8:46 am #

    I have a 6h grade special education class in middle school. We had our issues first semester but talking wasn’t one of them. Second semester a talkative student I had in elementary joined our class. Now the class has taken on a whole new tone, that of talking every time they feel like it. I have tried to change it, unsuccessfully. HELP!

    • Michael Linsin February 18, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

      Hi Vicki,

      This is too big of a question to cover here. I’ll be sure to put it on the list of future articles.

      Michael

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