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How to Accentuate Respect and Eliminate Disrespect in Your Students
by Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing


Many of today’s students lack an understanding of respect because their experiences with this essential character trait have been minimal. Think about it: If you are rarely around people who display respect and if you aren’t treated as though you are a valued and worthwhile individual, how can you possible “catch the behavior?” That’s the secret of learning new character building behaviors—they’re caught by watching others do them well. Today’s schools and classrooms are enormously significant institutions because for many students these places may be the only times appropriate character building traits can be taught. If you recognize this premise, you’ll also recognize the power of educators. Tune up the behavior you want to be caught and accentuate it. Here’s how:

1. Model respectful statements. Never forget how you impact your students—you may very well be their only model of respect! You may wish to say respectful statements so that the class may hear you: “Thank you, Mrs. Smith, for sharing your slides with us. We really appreciated them.” Or, “Excuse me, Sally, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.” For many students this may be the only time they hear what respect sounds like.

2. Accentuate respect. In any environment, establish a firm commandment, “You may not talk hurtfully about yourself or others.” Put it in your own words if you like, but post it in a highly visible location, such as on the door, along the length of the chalkboard, or on a bulletin board.

3. Build awareness of respectful language. Like is or not, we have become a negative, disrespectful society that too often emphasizes sarcasm, put-downs and disrespect. Listen to the popular sit-coms on television and count the frequency of statements based on negativity, ridicule and sarcasm. Studies show the average student is watching a minimum of three hours of television a night. Many of today’s students are reared in homes seeping in disrespect and negativity. So don’t assume your students know the language. Why not brainstorm lists as a class of statements that show respect and post them as a reminder that there are other choices to replace disrespect. “Thank you for sharing.” “What would your opinion be?” “Are you okay?” “Thank you.”

4. Label appropriate respectful language. Many students need help in distinguishing between appropriate language and destructive language. They man have said disrespectful put-down statements so often they’ve conditioned themselves to say the negative. It is helpful to label appropriate and inappropriate language for students. Terms that can be used to describe appropriate respectful language (depending on the age of your students) include: “Compliment,” “Sparkler,” “Validator,” “Booster,” “Builder-upper,” “Respect.” Inappropriate disrespectful language can be labeled by terms such as “Disrespectful,” “Zinger,” “Terminator,” “Put-down,” “ Detonator.” Choose one term from each category, teach it to students and then consistently use it to label character builder language. “That’s a put-up,” or “That’s a put-down.” Remember, your attempts at teaching students the skills of positive, respectful language will be greatly enhanced if students her the same key phrases, encouragement, vocabulary and tone.

5. Reinforce respectful statements. Reinforce what you want to be repeated. Try to key in on the students’ respectful statements and forget the disrespectful ones for awhile. It’s easier to change behavior by focusing on the positive aspects instead of the negative. Some students, however, make that very tough to do and will almost provoke you to put them down. If you remember that you’re only hooking into their game if you do, it’s be easier to stay focused on the respectful.

6. Practice respectful behavior skills. Listing respectful statements on a poster, while helpful, is not enough to change students’ behavior. Students must be given opportunities to practice respectful behavior. In many cases, positive character building skills will be unfamiliar to your students; they may not have been exposed tot he skills frequently enough for mastery or they may never have been exposed to them all. We can no longer assume today’s students have acquired any of the essential character building skills and habits.

Keep in mind that many students may not be comfortable saying respectful statements. These students should be allowed to choose the kids of statements that they feel safe saying. “Hello,” “Hi,” “How are you?” or a smile and eye contact are appropriate first steps. Keep things in perspective: what kinds of behavior were they using yesterday? Think in baby steps.


Steps to Eliminate Disrespect

We all know that changing habits takes time and effort. Many students have been locked into saying and displaying disrespectful words and behaviors for years. We certainly can’t expect overnight success. So do expect skill backsliding for awhile in which a child will start to demonstrate the new skill, then just when you think they have moved up a notch on the respect ladder, the next day they’re back to where they had been or worse off than they were before. These are normal patterns to expert since our behavior tends to resort to what we’re most comfortable with—that’s why habits are also so difficult to change. Don’t despair and never give up! You can help students learn more respectful behavior by slowly replacing their own disrespectful habits. These next techniques show you ways to replace the older habits with newer, more appropriate ones. The most important rule for your success is this: “Be Consistent.”

1. Draw awareness to disrespect. Whenever students go against your classroom “respect commandment,” be careful not to be negative toward their already disrespectful disposition. Disrespect quickly breeds disrespect. Casually mention, “Remember, we only say respectful words.” Some teachers use a private code or signal between themselves and certain students. Each time the students says a disrespectful comment, the teacher says a word such as “Zap!” or uses a quiet signal (such as raising one finger) as a reminder to stop.

Often students are not aware of how many disrespectful statements they are saying. One way to bring them to this awareness is to use a simple tally system. On paper, designate one column for respectful statements, the other for disrespectful ones. Each time students make either a respectful or disrespectful comment they add a stamp or mark to the appropriate side. The key to this activity is to keep the tallying private. It should never be published for other students to see.

Another way to help students become aware of disrespectful statements is to use tokens (i.e. marbles, poker chips, pegs). A student holds the tokens in his left pocket, and whenever he makes a disrespectful statement, a token is transferred to the right pocket. Often just one reminder will get the message across.

2. Label disrespect…Call it! Students need to recognize disrespectful put-downs by saying a code word or making a sound immediately back to the sender. The code should be agreed upon by all students so that they recognize it. Words such as “disrespectful putdown,” “pricklie,” “zinger” or sounds such as “ouch,” “Buz-z-z-“ will help the send recognize that the statement was inappropriate.

3. Teach skills to defuse disrespect. If the objective is to squelch disrespect on campus, then it is critical to teach everyone (peers and staff) to take the same steps in handling disrespectful actions. “Defuser” skills can calm disrespectful behaviors before they detonate into a full explosion (usually physical or verbal retaliation). Make it a campus rule that disrespectful statements are not allowed. Whenever a put-down is said, teach the rule that the sender must then change the put-down into a “put-up.” The rule is: One Put-Down = One Put-Up or One Disrespectful Statement = One Respectful Statement. In some schools this rule is even more stringer: For every put-down there must be three put-ups. Whatever the number, the rule must be consistently enforced to be effective.

Teach skills to replace negativity. Many of our students are locked into disrespectful, inappropriate behavior patterns simply because they don’t know what to do instead. Asking them to “Be more respectful” or “Act nicer” has no value if the student does not know how to demonstrate the skills of respect or kindness. These skills need to be taught. Keep in mind, however, that new behaviors take a tremendous amount of repetition and commitment before they can replace the older, more comfortable habits. Students will slip back easily into older disrespectful behavior patterns unless the newer skills of respect are continually reinforced and practiced. Consistency and reinforcement are critical. Don’t give up, though! Respectful attitudes are contagious.





Dr. Michele Borba is an internationally-recognized educational psychologist who has presented workshops to well over a million parents and teachers. She is an honorary board member for Parents and frequent guest on TV and NPR talk shows including Today, The Early Show, The View and Fox & Friends. Author of 20 books, this article is adapted from Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, selected by Publishers’ Weekly list of “among the most noteworthy of 2001.” Her latest book is 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids. To find out more about her work check out: http://www.moralintelligence.com.

© 2006 by Michele Borba www.moralintelligence.com. Permission to reprint if left intact.




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