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How to respond when you get an “attitude”

Every teacher knows what colleagues mean and what they’re going through when they say, I have a student with an “attitude.” If you’ve never had a student with an “attitude,” you’re lucky because they show a multitude of inappropriate and distasteful behaviors. They roll their eyes. They balk, disagree constantly, refuse to follow rules, and are often rude and insubordinate. Helping them is a challenge because they can push us away and make us want to get as far from them as possible. But if we reject or ignore them, their behavior will get worse.

While students may
show similar behaviors,
the reasons for their actions vary.

A key to changing their behavior is knowing all students are different in the “reason” or “purpose” for their behavior. And until we can discover the reason or purpose for their negative behavior, we’re not positioned or knowledgeable enough to take the right action in the right manner to influence them in positive and constructive ways. Worse, if we take their behavior personally, we may be giving them the kind of attention they want—and reinforcing rather than reducing their behaviors.

There are four reasons or purposes behind their behavior: Attention, power, self-confidence, or revenge. Some students with an “attitude” are acting out for attention. They must have it. Herein lies the problem. If we refuse to give them attention because we feel they don’t deserve it—they won’t change. And we need to know that some classmates do give them attention for their negative behavior. Too, some classmates may benefit from these students being in class. After all, by comparison, some classmates may “look good.” However, you must focus your attention—all of it—on positive and constructive behavior in the classroom—not on the negative and unproductive behavior. Tell them you can’t agree with them or a behavior that is working against their success. Say, “Your behavior is only about getting attention, not about achieving.” Focusing on positive and constructive behavior is the teacher action that gives them the response they need.

Students with an “attitude” who are trying to get any advantage are misbehaving for power.

Some students have an “attitude” to meet their need for power. For instance, when students try to manipulate you to do something or gain any advantage, it reveals a need for power. In a similar manner, laughing at and teasing others both fill their need for power. If you avoid them or get into a power struggle, you’ll lose. Remember, however, responsibility is power. You must talk about this reality—and give them meaningful responsibility. You must help them see that responsibility is real power. But in everything you do, relate that sustainable power is grounded in productive and successful handling of responsibility.

Many students with an “attitude” fear failure. They honestly feel they can’t do challenging academic work successfully. You must help get them a measure of success or they won’t change. Remember what Glasser taught us: The student knows this inappropriate behavior may get him or her in trouble, but the student also believes it won’t cause as much pain as everyone finding out he or she can’t do the work. Don’t let this behavior keep you from being a great teacher. Move in, look for the real causes of the misbehavior, and fill the self-confidence need of these students with positive and constructive attention that leads to success. Keep in mind that their misbehavior keeps people at arms-length and feeds their fear of failure. Remember, these students sincerely believe they can’t do the work. It’s not a sham. Therefore, focus on getting them to set even modest goals and try. You may be shocked how quickly they discover they can do the work—and love it.

The fourth reason for the “attitude” is scary: It’s revenge. In a nutshell, the world does not feel like a safe place for them—and they’re striking out against everyone and everything they think has contributed to their failure. Their “attitude” is an attempt to seek revenge against “the system” that’s not working for them. However, what they don’t need is isolation and rejection. To change, they must have acceptance and a measure of success. Check home conditions and give extra help at school. Know that rejection or any negative action will only confirm their beliefs—and issuing punishments won’t work. What will work is what they seldom experience: Acceptance and consideration. And these are two things they can’t and don’t give to anyone. They can and will change with acceptance and any success—often quicker than you might think. If the behavior persists, talk to a counselor or administrator about recommending professional help. When you can’t help the student, you still have the responsibility to seek professional assistance from someone who can.

The Master Teacher knows the key to changing is meeting the original need.

The Master Teacher knows that once you observe an “attitude,” stop. Put your ego in your pocket and begin the real interventions that will work. First, look for the reason for the misbehavior: Attention, power, self-confidence, or revenge. Then focus all your efforts on what needs to be done, what skills need to be learned, and which of the four causes are driving the students’ behavior. The key is to create new attitudes and behaviors to serve the students’ success.

The Master Teacher knows yelling, punishing, ignoring, or rejecting won’t work. Neither will long lectures that focus on all the ugly behaviors the student exhibits. What works is a 180 degree teacher adjustment, because the only way we’ll get the “attitude” to change is to first change our own attitude and behavior toward influencing and reaching them. Remember, they want to be reached.

To Learn More:
Ginsburg, D. (2011, December 3). Student attitude or teacher attention adjustment? Education Week Teacher.

Webster, J. (2012, October 27). Nasty student attitude—managing unpleasant students. About.com.

Thought for the Week

Finding ways to engage students, increase learning efficiency, and extending recall of what students learn can be a constant quest. Fortunately, designing activities and employing strategies that release the flow of dopamine in our students’ brains can help us to meet this challenge, especially now.

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