During the 2017-2018 school year, more educators asked me for ideas about managing disrespectful students than any year in my memory. One teacher told me a student in her class was slouching and drifting off to sleep. She walked over to him and requested he sit up straight and pay attention. This 17-year-old high schooler replied, “Make me.” (This sounds like a middle school student from the 1970s to me.)
She said, “I am not going to make you do anything, but I am asking you to sit up in my classroom and engage with the discussion.”
He retorted sarcastically, “You don’t get it. I can’t. You put me to sleep.”
When she responded that if he did not sit up, she would send him to the Assistant Principal’s office, “He spiraled into a flurry of four-letter words, calling her names, cussing like a sailor.”
I wish I could tell you this was an isolated incident, but it happens too many times in American education today.
Three Reasons for the Rise in Disrespect Among Students
Certainly, not all students are disrespectful. Many are raised well by parents who teach them respect. Why, however, are a growing percentage of kids acting this way?
1. Unlike past generations, kids today are not conditioned to respect elders.
Visit China or other Asian cultures, and you notice people are conditioned to respect their elders. We do quite the opposite. Our culture today worships being young and prioritizes youthfulness in our looks, words and actions. Even older adults attempt to look younger with skinny jeans, cosmetic work, hair color, piercings or tattoos. The message this sends is not that aging is something to embrace, cherish and respect, but it’s something to avoid. In fact, many often make fun of the aging and show less respect than in past generations.
2. Kids feel empowered by their exposure to information.
Today’s kids are part of the first generation that has as much access to information as their parents and teachers. They can easily assume they know as much as adults do. While this is usually not true, they feel less of a need for older adults to inform them, (thanks to Buzzfeed) or to instruct them, (thanks to YouTube). Let’s face it—they are the most informed youth generation in modern history. This provides them the feeling of empowerment and even entitlement because they know so much about so many things. Some can ask: why show anyone extra respect if you are as smart as they are?
3. Kids don’t see respect modeled or earned by older generations.
Probably the most glaring reason for students’ disrespect is that older generations have failed to model it for them. Both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were generations that rebelled against the establishment as youth. As adults, they now advocate for their kids and can show disrespect for teachers, coaches, administrators and other authorities. I know. I’ve met them in almost every state I’ve visited. I’ve met employers who say they have parents who lobby for raises or vacation time for their adult children who are now full-time staff members. It’s almost unbelievable. How can we expect anything more from children who watch their parents act this way toward authority?
Managing Disrespect From Students
1. Begin by living a life that’s worthy of respect.
Even though I believe respect should always be shown, many students believe we must earn it. We can’t get it merely by being older. One teen said, “Even fools grow old.” So, before I demand respect, I try to conduct myself in such a way that adds value to others, and thereby deserves their respect.
2. Ask questions and be kind.
Display that you are interested in them, and that they have dignity in your eyes. Even when you make demands, try to ask rather than tell. Request instead of require. It’s hard for another person—even teens—to “dis” someone who genuinely shows them they love them. What’s that phrase? Kill them with kindness.
3. Don’t raise your voice unnecessarily.
Unless there is a safety issue, adults would never raise their voice or yell at another adult who is a colleague. So, why do we do it with our young? Yelling or shouting is often the first step to creating a culture of disrespect; it is almost as if we’re saying: “What we lack on value or mutual respect—we make up for in volume.”
4. Take initiative in meeting with them.
I’ve discovered that when I observe a disrespectful student, my best approach is to initiate a meeting with them, one on one. Relationship can dissolve distrust or dislike. The very person I am prone to avoid, I need to approach and invest time cultivating a relationship with them.
5. Demonstrate respect before you expect it to be reciprocated.
Leaders go first. They know that people do what people see. Before you ever demand respect from students, look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Have I modeled it for them?” People tend to mirror strong leadership over time—good or bad. Make your strength your display of respect and see if that doesn’t draw a reflection from them.
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