Recently, I received an email from a teacher who was yelled at by a student.
Her class had been in the middle of a learning game, and everything was going smoothly.
Or so she thought.
The students were playing by the rules. They were having fun and enjoying each other.
They were playing cooperatively.
In fact, she was thrilled with how well the activity was going.
But then, out of the blue, a student stood up and accused her of favoring one team over another.
When she tried to explain, he began arguing with her.
When she defended herself and her decisions and assured him that she would never do such a thing, he became furious.
He began yelling, pointing his finger at her, and calling her a cheater. It was an ugly scene, and the teacher was left shaken and unsure of how to handle it.
This isn’t the first email we’ve received on this topic. And it won’t be the last. Confrontations like this are happening more frequently.
In this day and age, students seem more aggressive when they feel slighted and less willing to listen to another point of view. Further, many have never had anyone show them, or model for them, what respect looks like.
This underscores the importance of first deescalating the situation—in order to ensure your safety and the safety of your students—before teaching a life-lesson the offending student won’t soon forget.
The instant you recognize—or think you recognize—a student becoming angry, your singular goal is to calm them down and avoid confrontation.
In the case above, the moment the student stood up, the teacher should have gone into deescalation mode.
The best way to do this is to delay.
Do not respond directly to the student’s complaints. Doing so will only make things worse.
Instead, stay cool and relaxed, pretend it’s no big deal, and say “It’s okay. I understand what you’re saying. I can see how you might feel that way. I promise I’ll fix it, but let’s finish the game first.”
Then move on as quickly as you can. Go ahead and let the student complain a bit longer if they wish or get in a last word. Delay, delay, delay, and they’ll calm down.
You are under no obligation to explain yourself or your decisions to any student who speaks to you or approaches you disrespectfully—nor should you. It only encourages more disrespect.
However, after the student settles down, it’s smart to set the record straight by clarifying your rules, protocols, or procedures related to the game or activity to the entire class.
This allows you to defend your decisions as the teacher and leader of the classroom while at the same time fulfilling your promise to “fix it.”
Get to the point, be brief, and provide facts only.
Your classroom management plan should include an addendum that allows you to skip the warning stage and jump directly to a more appropriate consequence.
Any incident of brazen or continued disrespect should be met with your strongest consequence—which may include an extended time-out for elementary students or detention for high school students—plus a notification of parents.
The behavior should also be documented and, if it was in any way threatening, aggressive, or potentially dangerous, then officially referred to an administrator.
(Note: Although we have strong opinions about how administrators should best handle severe misbehavior, and support and protect classroom teachers, we are a website dedicated to helping teachers. We do not provide advice for principals on this blog.)
Only after the student has forgotten about the incident, which may be much later in the day, or even the next, should you approach, deliver the news of your consequence, and then turn on your heel and walk away.
Students tend to repeat the behavior they see from others.
This is one reason why a class can get out of control so quickly. Therefore, it’s important that you review your rules again a day or so after the incident.
Severe misbehavior can act as an agent to improve behavior and politeness class-wide. Whenever you have a dramatic incident or a particularly bad day, you should view it as an opportunity to teach a valuable lesson to the entire class.
Focus on your rule concerning disrespect.
Be sure and define once again what it looks like and reiterate that it won’t be tolerated, that you won’t allow anyone or anything to upset the experience of being a member of your class.
Finish your review by reminding your students that the goal of your classroom management plan is to safeguard their right to learn and enjoy school and your right to teach great lessons.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the less contact you have with the offending student, the less likely a similar incident will happen in the future.
We’ll delve deeper into this topic in future articles, but just know that pulling them aside to counsel, patch things up, force an apology, or convince them of your point of view will only weaken your leverage and influence.
Let accountability do your talking for you.
By not taking their disrespect personally, but instead keeping your cool and following through on your promise to protect learning, your respect in the eyes of all your students will grow.
The offending student, especially, is often changed by the experience. So much so that they’ll begin treating you with reverence and even admiration.
When you then show them—through your simple kindness and no-hard-feelings acceptance—what grace, forgiveness, and true respect looks like . . .
You’ll forever change how they view the world.
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