Tuesday, February 25, 2020

How to Respond When You Feel Disrespected

Share this article

Once I was working with an entire class of freshmen at the beginning of a school year, and one of the kids made some kind of wise-guy comment in front of the whole group. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I do remember that I felt a little disrespected.

Another time, I remember a large majority of students were talking and being disruptive and generally not paying attention. Again, I felt like the students weren't showing their full respect.

If you work with teenagers long enough, you’re bound to experience some of these behaviors from time to time.

In each case, the student or students, may or may not have intended to be disrespectful, but that's how it made me feel. That's an important distinction. How you feel, or how it comes across, and what was intended may be two entirely different things. 

The behavior is probably more about the student(s) and their struggle(s) than it is about you as the educator.

So never tell a kid they're being disrespectful. It's not helpful, and you don't know what's in their heart. The behavior may have felt disrespectful to you, and it should be addressed, but do it in the right way.

Here are three steps I use when dealing with anything that makes me feel disrespected.

1. Let them know you're committed to always treat them with the greatest dignity and respect. 

So instead of accusing them of being disrespectful, let them know how much you care. 

"I want you to know I will never intentionally disrespect you. And if I do, I want you to let me know, so I can make it right."

Start with your behavior. Let them know how you will treat them...always. This is something you can say in a private conversation or with an entire group of students. 

I say this with my full heart because I mean it. I pledge my respect with humility and kindness. This is important to me. I want to preserve respect and show students I care.

Of course, you should only say this if you mean it. They will see right through this if you're sarcastic to kids or talk down to them or use disrespectful tactics to control them.

And then follow up with...

"Have I ever been disrespectful to you in any way? I want to know if you feel that way, so we can talk about it."

And then listen. Usually, they just tell me I've never made them feel disrespected. Of course, there have been times when my behaviors felt disrespectful to a student and responding to that with care is important.

2. Ask them about their intentions based on their behavior.

One of the most common problems in classrooms is students don't respond to reasonable requests made by the teacher. And that tends to make us feel ignored and disrespected. Even if you don't feel disrespected, this same conversation can be good reflection to address a non-learning behavior.

So, after you share your own intentions from the first step, address the behavior you observed.

"When you were on your phone today, after I asked you a couple of times to put it away, how did you intend for that to make me feel?"

And then wait...and listen.

Usually, they will say they didn't intend to be disrespectful. They might explain they're having a bad day, or something is going on that was upsetting, or they just made a bad choice in the moment.

Sometimes they will even apologize. 

3. Find a path forward and invite them to commit to a different set of behaviors.

This step is very important. I've noticed educators often describe the behavior they want to stop, but they don't always get the student to commit to doing better. That makes a big difference.

Listen with empathy if they have reasons to explain away their behavior. But then remind them of the expectations.

"I hear you. You have a lot going on. Stuff outside of school is pressing down. You still can't let your schoolwork slide. The expectation in this classroom is your phone won't get in the way of learning."

"Next time, can I count on you to keep your phone from being a distraction? And if I have to address it, can I trust that you will cooperate with me on that?"

Most every time, in my experience, the student will commit to doing better. But I don't stop there.

I want it to be crystal clear what my expectations are. And I want to check in with the student to make sure the expectations are clear to them also. So I follow up with this question.

"I want to make sure we're both on the same page with this conversation. What is your understanding of what we are agreeing to do going forward?"

Sometimes, students don't have the words to summarize the conversation at first, but I help coach them through it until they can verbalize exactly what the expectation is. I want them to be able to say it clearly because I've found that helps them to feel the weight of the commitment to the new behavior.

After they summarize what's been discussed, I ask one more question.

"I hear you saying that you will make sure your phone is not a distraction. And I believe you. I can tell you mean it. But if it continues to be a problem, what do you think should happen?"

They may have some ideas for responding to this and they may not. But I will further clarify the boundary.

"In the future, if your phone is a distraction again, then this is going to happen." Maybe it will be a phone call home to notify parents, or a discipline referral, or the phone will be "parked" each day at the beginning of class. The important part here is that a clear boundary is created and enforced as promised.

At the end of the conversation, I thank them for helping me work through the issue. And I try to find some way to encourage them. I may give them a complement or joke with them in some way.

Oh and by the way, this exact process will work in any relationship you have, not just with kids. The phrasing might be a little different if you're not an authority figure in that person's life, but the general framework remains the same.

1. Focus on your behavior first. What are you committing to? (respect, love, care towards the other person)

2. Clarify intentions. How did you intend for me to feel?

3. Establish boundaries. What are the behaviors needed to make this relationship work?

Because in the end, it's all about healthy relationships.

Was this helpful to you? What are your thoughts? Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. This was a great article. I intend to share it with staff. It's not just students or young people who do not know how to navigate these types of conversations, it's grown folks, too. These steps are good for all relationships, as you shared.

    1. I'm glad it was helpful. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Respect is a basic tenant to harmony. It is not abstract. It is the golden rule. We can be respectful of situations, but we should not tiptoe around this concept. It is a part of every culture, all over the world. Understand what each persons difficulties are, then treat others as you should be treated.

  3. The use of Affective Statements is always a good idea! All behavior is communication, even our own. Getting to the heart of what they are communicating is the key to relationship building. Thanks for reinforcing this.

  4. For an educator, I was surprised to see a word use error. "To give a compliment" is spelled with an "i," not an "e." The "e" use of "complement" is to "augment" something; "The hamburger meal was complemented with an order of fries on the side." In this age of the coarsening of society and general devaluing of language, a formal professional article as a piece of journalism should be reviewed for errors before publication. This preserves the integrity of the piece.

  5. One concern I would have (as an educator myself) is that students might object to any confrontation from the educator to the student while in class (maybe you meant only in private conversation?). Because if an educator stopped a lesson to berate a student who was "doing something" perceived as disrespectful, such as playing on their cell phone in class, I, as a student, would be more annoyed and distracted by the educator taking valuable time away from the lesson to admonish the student than I would having the fellow student play on their phone. As a student, I always resented the amount of time teachers took away from those who wanted to learn because they spent so much time and attention on "discipline" instead of focusing on delivering the material to the rest of us. Something to consider.

  6. Yes, I would suggest this type of conversation be in private or as an aside if possible. And the goal is not to admonish but to protect the relationship while also correcting unhelpful behaviors. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I came across this article searching for "What to do when a teacher disrespects students" Not a lot has been written about that. I read this article to my son who is a senior in HS. I told him he can utilize all of these suggestions to help him cope with a teacher who in the first 10 minutes of her on line class, on the first day of school made the entire class sorry they were put in her class. My son turned off the class after 10 minutes because he was so angry and had to walk away.

  8. Great article! I was blessed to watch and learn from you as you utilized these methods many times. Good stuff!!