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Nasty Student Attitude -- Managing Unpleasant Students

Using Applied Behavior Analysis


Nasty Student Attitude -- Managing Unpleasant Students

An angry boy with attitude

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For many teachers of students in intermediate and middle school grades, the thing that can most easily get under their skin is something we call "attitude," as in: "Boy, does Desmond ever have some attitude." A critical part of effective Classroom Management is avoiding all the little irritants, like disruptive students who dish attitude.

This writer, and specialed@aboutguide.com will always use a behavioral approach to behavior management, because it works, and it springs from data based, scientifically validated research. Applied Behavior Analysis does not address "attitude," but it can changeattitude. I would recommend these steps:

Define the Behaviors that Accompany "Attitude."

Once you address the behaviors that accompany the "attitude" you may find that the attitude goes away. You may also find that by changing your behavior you may at the same time change your students opportunities to exhibit attitude. Students exhibit "attitude" because it is being reinforced.Are you making a big deal about the "attitude?" You may be reinforcing the behavior with attitude. Are you backing away from "demand" when a kid gets in your face? You may be reinforcing the attitude by letting that student avoid doing a task that he or she may be unable to. Rather than being embarrassed and lose face in front of their peers, the student may dish attitude.

Your student may often receive reinforcement from peers. Do they titter or laugh when he or she gets in your face? Do they steer clear of the student? (which may reinforce the child's desire to escape scrutiny from peers.) If attention is the purpose of the "attitude," the student may be getting it from his or her peers, and not you.

Behaviors that May Accompany "Attitude."

  • Head on arms on the desk, eyes shut.
  • Failure to follow directions (notice I didn't say "refusal." Avoid assigning. It will prevent you from seeing the behavior because of the emotions the students is successfully evoking from you.)
  • Leaving his or her seat and sitting on the floor.
  • Using offensive or profane language (especially if this automatically creates a free trip to the office.)
  • Smirking, hands on hips, and other positional behaviors meant to evoke anger or imply disdain.

Assess the Function of the Behavior

There are basically 6 functions for behavior;

  1. Get a desired item or activity.
  2. Avoid or escape an unwanted demand or situation.
  3. Attention
  4. Self-stimulation (the consequence of the behavior is in itself reinforcing.)
  5. Communication
  6. Control or Power.

Some people would include frustration, but in most cases tantrumming or other behaviors communicate that frustration. In the case of most general education or students with specific learning disabilities, they are able to communicate their frustration, though it may be in the form of some "behavior," such as swearing, throwing things, slamming the door and stomping out of a room.

When students give you attitude, how does the "attitude" function?

Does a student spin the attitude in hopes that you might give them or return something you have taken (a cell phone or Ipod that is used in class: the attitude is an attempt to intimidate you.) Function: Get something they want.

Does the student deliver the attitude in order to get you off topic and avoid the content of your class? This may especially happen at the end of the class, and it may make you so upset you don't give out homework. Or, you may send the student to the office. Function: Avoidance or Escape.

Does the student get a lot of feedback from his or her classmates (does it sound like an African American Church during the sermon? "You tell em, brother!") while delivering the attitude? Are the classmates smirking or smiling during the "attitude?" Function: Attention (or perhaps power.)

Does the student have attitude in lots of other situations? With peers? With other authority figures? It may be a learned repertoire of behavior that was learned from Mom, and has kept people at bay. Function: It could be self-reinforcing, as well as serve as a form of maintaining power.

How does the student respond when challenged? If they are at a loss when you ask, "Okay, David, what do you really need to tell me?" then they may be having trouble telling you what is really bothering them. Function: Communication. Of course, they may not know what they are communicating, like "I feel really threatened by you right now and don't know how to feel safe." This may be a pattern of communication learned from a bullying or abusive parent.

Does the student seem to enjoy sessions of "getting in your face?" Do they walk away with a swagger, once they have challenged you? Has a student every succeeded in getting you to cry, or to leave the room? Function: Power. They may get really juiced by proving that they, and not you, are in charge. If you let it go, they will be in charge.

What to Do?

Find a Replacement Behavior.

Once you have determined the function of the attitude, you can start to decide on what behavior you want to replace it, known as the replacement behavior. you know what it will look like: it will not have the sass, the eye rolling or the oppositional emotional content of the current "attitude." To make that happen you need to match the replacement behavior to the function:

To get the preferred item or activity: Don't give in on returning the phone. Follow your schools policy or have a very clear policy of your own, such as: First time, the phone is returned at the end of class. Second time, the phone is only returned to a parent. Third time, the phone can only be retrieved from the principal or the dean of students.

To avoid or escape an academic task: Is the student capable of doing the work you are asking of him or her? Do you need to modify your assignments for him/her? Is the student receiving special education services, just not in your class? Be sure to confer with this kind of student out of the hearing of his or her peers, because the attitude may be to disguise the fact they are panicked about your class.

To get attention: If you have a student that gives you attitude to get your attention, you need to find ways to "catch him/her being good," and give appropriate behavior. The students who used to give you attitude because they wanted your attention will become your biggest supporters, when you are giving them encouragement. If it's for their peers attention, find ways you can be the gate keeper for positive peer attention, such as asking them to lead a team in a class game, or be the recorder for a class discussion, working at the board.

To communicate: Pay attention to the non-verbal messages you may be getting from the student. If their need to communicate their stress about a situation or school or home makes them too vulnerable in front of their peers, they will dish attitude. Find a way to listen and get the student to communicate that isn't so threatening to them.

For control or power. Never yield it. As simple as that. If it is evident that your student is attempting to bully you, stand your ground, call for backup from the office and have a clear discussion with the student, an administrator and their parent/s about the situation. Remember, the apple may not have fallen far from the tree, and the parent may attempt to intimidate you, as well. Be sure you and your administrator are on the same page with aggressive and bullying parents.

Self Reinforcing: See "control or power." That is probably the reason it is reinforcing, though if the child is the victim of an abusive or bullying parent, the attitude may be a form of psychic self preservation. You get to be bigger than the parent.

Evaluate Your Contribution to the "Attitude."

Give your own behavior some attention. I work with some really fantastic, dedicated teachers, and you don't hear any misbehavior coming from the classrooms in the building I am in now. That has not always been true. I have worked with teachers who feel that being loud is an effective way of creating an orderly classroom. I have worked with teachers who believe that being negative and dismissive will create an effective learning environment. I have also worked with teachers who were just so screwed up that they didn't understand how their own behavior was impacting the behavior of their students. I have worked with some major whack jobs. They have needed more than administrative attention, they have needed an intervention to get into psychiatric or chemical dependency treatment. (So, do your job, principals!)

Often, though, we may be creating problems without realizing it. It may be helpful to have a colleague come in and observe.

Give your preparation some attention. Often the problem is that the teacher is poorly prepared or boring. Or they are asking children to do something that is not appropriate for their skill level, either too hard or too easy. Being well prepared is often the best way to avoid misbehaviors of all kinds. Being prepared and engaging is not being entertaining. Students respect teachers with high expectations who come to the table with well prepared lessons and engaging activities.

Model Positive Attitude. You can expect students to treat you with respect if you have treated them with respect. You can also "redirect" snarky responses by reminding students that everyone in your classroom treats others with respect, but only if you don't aren't negatively engaged.

Avoid Power Struggles. You are an adult. Act like one. Don't let students entangle you in a power struggle. If your student is motivated by "power," by letting yourself be engaged you will definitely reinforce your student's need for power. You need to find a neutral, matter of fact affect to let your students know you will not be engaged in power struggles. "Jeremy, you need to return to your seat right now. We're not going to argue. Thankyou."

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