Stop Your Attitude!

Cole’s yawn from the back row is loud enough for everyone to hear, but Audrey ignores it for now. She’s got to choose her battles, and this disruption isn’t worth a showdown.

After a moment, Cole leans back and rests his feet on the desk. Students nearby smile, eager to watch the situation play out.

“Cole, feet back on the floor, please.”

“Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen.” Surprised by Cole’s audacity, students nearby try to stifle their laughter. A snort escapes from Emma, who can’t hold it in.

“Out into the hall, Cole; right now. Class, read the next section until I get back.”  When the two are outside the classroom door, Audrey stands tall and looks him in the eye.  “Cole, stop the attitude!”

“Why should I?”

Sensing she’s not going to win, Audrey folds her arms and exhales. “I don’t have time to deal with you right now. Go see the principal.”

Have you ever told difficult students to stop or to change their attitudes? My attempts at addressing behavior in this way rarely lead to the change I am looking for. What is it about negativity and defiance that resists overpowerment?

The answer to this question lies in a couple of realities about human nature. For one, even though God could have designed us as robots, and programmed us to behave exactly as he pleased, he didn’t. Instead, he gave us minds and hearts–the capacity to think, to feel, and to love. Our attitudes exhibit our humanity. Unfortunately, sin turns the focus of our thoughts and emotions inward, to ourselves: we tend to form positive attitudes about things that secure pleasure or power, and we resist what would deprive us of our desires.

Attitudes are also personal, so we instinctively protect them–as we do when physical threats arise. If you caught me off guard with a flying snowball, I’d probably cover my head and turn to the side. If you criticized my opinion about something, without seeking to understand my point of view, I would look for a way to defend myself–and spare my image.

So what is an effective approach for students who “give you attitude”?

First, resist the urge to think of the situation as a battle that must be won. An overpowerment view of discipline exacerbates that sinful tendency to focus inward and defend one’s ego, instead of fostering the more Christ-like inclination to look outward and consider the perspectives of others. One way Audrey could avoid the clash–and retain her authority–is to respond to Cole on her own terms. Instead of viewing the behavior as an affront to her authority, for instance, she might recast it as an obstacle to learning. In doing so, she would diminish Cole’s need to maintain his image, and shift his focus to the business of the classroom and the needs of others.

Remember, too, that you cannot force others to transform their attitudes–the perceptions, feelings, and opinions that lie beneath their behavior. So respond to misdeeds in ways that encourage a shift in perspective, and allow attitudes to change when hearts are ready. In her conversation with Cole, for example, Audrey should try to determine the nature of his resistance–boredom, frustration, or a desire for attention, perhaps. This information will help her to respond to Cole’s behavior in a manner that ultimately fosters a change of heart.

To illustrate this framework, here are a couple of alternative statements that Audrey might have tried in the hallway conversation:

“Cole, you’re making it really hard for me to teach today.  What’s going on?”

“If you’re feeling restless, you can quietly stand in the back of the room or ask to get a drink. But if you do things that cause others to pay attention to you–instead of to the lesson–you’ll have to work by yourself, away from your classmates.”

To sum it up, don’t presume to know why students resist learning or discipline; try to uncover what lies beneath before responding. And focus your statements on the outward effects of the behavior, rather than attack the underlying motivations. Finally, remember that just one conversation–or consequence–is unlikely to transform a person’s behavior pattern; only God’s Spirit can generate a change of heart, and he is often more patient than we are. So take your time with the students who give you attitude.

This is the first of four blog posts on Classroom Climate and Discipline. Stay tuned for the following blogs posts in this series:

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