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From Entitled to Empowered: Eight Steps to Combat Entitlement in the Classroom

In part one of this series, I provided evidence for an increased sense of entitlement in students today – from K-12 education to college. Students have received praise just for making their bed and awards for just being on the soccer team. In the classroom, students feel they deserve a good grade for simply attending class and doing the readings. They feel this way because they are accustomed to being rewarded for participating, not producing. Parents have moved from feeling they should give their children everything they need, to giving them everything they want. It’s the new gauge for family success.


Therapist James Lehman believes “it’s partly instinctual – back in the Stone Age, ‘giving to your child’ might have meant providing food, shelter and protection. Those urges are still there. Unfortunately, if you give in to every little want and need your child expresses, you are really feeding and nurturing a sense of false entitlement – which I believe can lead to problems later on.”

Entitlement in the Classroom

Professors may be enabling “academic entitlement” in their students, according to research by Tracey E. Zinn, associate professor of psychology at James Madison University. Entitled students learn less because they don’t think they need to do the work, notes Inside School Research. Joanne Jacobs says that signs of entitlement include the beliefs that:

  • Knowledge is a “right” that should be delivered with little effort or discomfort on the student’s part: “I deserve it since I am a student on this campus.”
  • A high grade should come not from mastery of material, but in return for non-academic aspects of education, such as showing up to class, or the student or his or her family paying tuition or taxes which go to the teacher’s salary.
  • If a student didn’t perform well on a test, it’s a sign that the test was too difficult, not that the student did not understand the material.

Many schools have given in to the sentiment. In a recent Undergraduate Survey, Dr. Art Levine reports that grade inflation has skyrocketed. In 1969, only seven percent of students had a grade point average of an A- or higher. In 2009, it was 41 percent. In that same time period, students having a C average dropped from 25 percent to five percent. Are kids that much smarter than 40 years ago, or do we just give them higher grades to keep them happy? Sadly, it appears this may hinder their readiness for the real world. In 2012, 80 percent of students said they planned on moving back home after college.

Signs of a Sense of Entitlement 

Entitlement isn’t hard to spot, whether in the classroom or the family room. Listen for words like:

1. I want it now. Kids are impatient and who can blame them? We live in an instant gratification culture. And often we find ourselves living in fear of saying no because our children are used to getting what they want.

2. I don’t want to work for it. Why work for something that will be given to you? When we constantly give to our kids without requiring any work, this fosters a cycle of laziness and poor work ethic. Kids need entry points to contribute to jobs or home chores.

3. I don’t have to clean up my mess. Adults must learn to choose their wars, but responsible living means that if you make a mess, you clean it up. You must live with the benefits or consequences of your actions.

4. I want it because everyone else has it. Society seeps in by telling us we need a gadget or some clothes because “everyone” has it. Instead of deciding if that possession (or grade) is appropriate or deserved, we fall into a comparison trap.

5. I expect you to fix my problems. We all love to help kids, but they often expect mom or teacher to make it right instead of learning to confront challenges on their own. This prevents them from learning about consequences or hard work.

From the self-esteem movement, to our safety obsession, to social media (all of which are good), we have a perfect storm producing offspring that feel entitled to all things good. As a dad, if I create a sense of entitlement instead of a work ethic that’s willing to earn what comes their way, they will be pitiful and miserable adults.

While caring adults naturally want to provide for the young people around them, there is such a thing as “over nurturing.” It happens when we give them what they should earn. Over-nurturing ends up harming kids – they learn to depend on someone else, and don’t experience the satisfaction of accomplishing something for themselves.

Surveys show that while they work less than previous generations, their expectation of success has risen sharply. These false expectations can lead to significant challenges later in life. A 2006 study found that students suffer from “ambition inflation” as their higher ambitions accompany increasingly unrealistic expectations. Many experience “quarter-life crisis.”

Consider this analogy. Statistics show that winning the lottery doesn’t make people rich over the long term. Within a few years, the money is lost or spent, and life is back to normal. In fact, you’re more likely to go bankrupt after winning the lottery than before. It’s an illusion of wealth. Why? If you haven’t learned to manage money before, having a lot of it only delays the inevitable. If we live in a broken situation before, we tend to return to it afterward. Cliché, but true – “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.”

Eight Ideas to Challenge a Sense of Entitlement in Kids

Ask yourself, “What do I want my student to learn?” Whenever you want to get a message across to your kids, consider what you really want to teach them. Do you want your children to understand about money and success in life? Then, come up with a procedure that will teach them about finances. Some important concepts might be:

  • Money and success don’t come easily.
  • People work hard to earn money; it’s a part of life.
  • If you want something, you need to work to earn it.
  • You are not entitled to things you haven’t earned.

Entitlement will not go away overnight. Instead, teachers and parents should put a process into place to lead them from entitlement to empowerment:

1. Earn the right to be heard.
I know you’re the teacher, but this generation of kids has not been taught to respect the title. You may have authority, but you must earn your influence. Build trust by doing what you say you’ll do, showing up on time if you require punctuality from students, and embodying the attitude and work ethic you demand of them. Often, the best way to earn the right to be heard is to listen to them. We must build relational bridges that can bear the weight of truth.

2. Be extremely clear and consistent in your direction.
Sometimes a student gains a false sense of entitlement because we’ve not been clear with our expectations up front. Communicate clearly the deadlines and guidelines that make for good grades or rewards. Then, stick to them firmly. If you don’t, you can actually create a deepened sense of entitlement as they manipulate your rules.

3. Communicate belief.
Teachers and coaches who win their students over authentically communicate that they believe in them. Make the effort to convince them that the reason you push them is because you believe that they have potential. Every young man and woman needs a caring adult to look him or her in the eye and say, “I believe you have it in you, I am convinced you have what it takes to succeed.”

4. Talk about equations more than rules.
Rules are seen as negative and are imposed by an authority. Equations are statements of fact – if I do this, then that will be the consequence or the benefit. Lay out clear equations and stick to them so that students will learn to live with behavioral consequences.
They also see they are not entitled to good grades or perks.

5. Do an experiment that expands their perspective.
If possible, take a group of students to a place where they can serve others in need, such as a local soup kitchen. In this experience, have them aid the under-privileged. Let them get their hands dirty and allow them to experience poverty first-hand. Fifty percent of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day. I did this with my own kids, as well as with college students serving war refugees in Croatia and Africa. It was life transforming, fostering both gratitude as well as humility.

6. Teach and lead like a mentor.
In our student focus groups, many express how much they want their teacher to also act as a mentor. This requires a connection beyond lectures and grades. When this kind of adult teaches, they do it in the spirit of hope. They want their students to grasp the material, work hard and ultimately – to win. Do a project together that reinforces the fact that they must earn what they receive. Model for them the hard work and satisfaction that comes with working toward a goal.

7. Remove the fear of failure.
When kids don’t try, it’s frequently because they’ve been conditioned to think that failure is unacceptable. Many of them have never failed or struggled; they have trophies in their rooms just for “playing.” If they fail, they fear letting someone down. So they don’t try. They expect others to do it. Adults must relay to them that failure isn’t final or fatal. It’s the way everyone really learns and grows. When they don’t fear failure, they may work harder for what they receive.

8. Challenge them with a hard assignment.
Deep down, we all want to be involved with an important project that challenges us. When we give a tough assignment – at home or at school – and let them know it will take everything they’ve got, it communicates that we actually take them seriously. On a foundation of support and belief, this is a logical way to prove you think they can really do it.

Incentive is the natural result. Students begin to possess incentive to earn what they want. Ambition grows as they wait for things they want, working instead of simply expecting others to give it to them. Over time, a healthy work ethic results, as they gain a vision for their future that energizes them to labor for it. They move from entitled to empowered.

May you lead them on this path.


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  1. FifthGrade Misch on March 6, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Tim- thank you for this post. It is right in line with the question I attempted to Tweet.

    Currently, I have a situation with a student student who’s parent is definitely a helicopter parent. The class has a group project for 5th grade social studies about government. I recieved a late night email from the parent requesting the expectations of the project (students have project guide sheets) because the parent does not understand the assignment. This is not the first time this request has been made. In the past I have always supplied the information requested and observed either the work done by the parent or the student given and dried with the information so it is memorized for the time it takes for the student to come repeat what the parent says and get the A, not learn through the process.

    This is a very capable student, who fears failing, and I would assume their strategy for handling this is the parent doing the work.


    • FifthGrade Misch on March 6, 2014 at 8:38 am

      (Finishing from before)

      Administration has a firm, “the customer is always right” policy. What advice would you give as I proceed? I want to talk with the very strong, opinionated parent about the student making attempts and possibly failing in the very supportive environment of elementary school, but know that I will be on a limb, alone.

      Thank you again for your posts the last few days. They encourage me that I am working in the right direction to influence students positively.

      • Tim Elmore on March 11, 2014 at 9:51 am

        I can empathize with your parent/student dilemma. Its a tough one. I think if I were you, I would meet with the parent and express how much you care for their student, and want them to succeed. Then, however, reiterate that you’ve learned over the years that students really don’t truly learn (as well) when either teachers or parents intervene. Tell them the next time they want to get the expectations of the assignment, it would be beneficial to everyone if they simply asked their child. This would push the student to at least clarify the assignment. Remind them that you passed out a project guide sheet, so anyone could understand the assignment. In short—encourage them to work with you in preparing their child for the future, where adults may not be nearby to save them from falling. If prepared well, no adult has to worry about that—the student will be ready to handle the fall and bounce back.

        Hope this helps.


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From Entitled to Empowered: Eight Steps to Combat Entitlement in the Classroom