The secret of learning new character-building behaviors is that such behaviors are "caught" by watching others do them well. The secret of teaching new character-building behaviors is to tune up the behavior you want to be caught and accentuate it. Included: Ten tips for accentuating respect and eliminating disrespect in your classroom.
Many of today's students lack an understanding of respect because their experiences with that 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 those might be the only places where appropriate character building traits can be taught. If you recognize that premise, you'll also recognize the power of educators. Tune up the behavior you want to be caught and accentuate it. Here's how:
Model respectful statements. Never forget how you impact your students -- you might very well be their only model of respect. You might wish to say respectful statements so the class can 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, that might be the only time they hear what respect sounds like.
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.
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 with them lists of statements that show respect, and post the list as a reminder that choices exist other than disrespect. "Thank you for sharing." "What is opinion?" "Are you okay?" "Thank you."
Label appropriate respectful language. Many students need help distinguishing between appropriate language and destructive language. They might have made 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 such terms 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 hear the same key phrases, encouragement, vocabulary and tone.
Reinforce respectful statements. Reinforce what you want to be repeated. Try to key in on students' respectful statements and forget the disrespectful ones for a while. 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; they'll almost provoke you to put them down. If you remember that you're only hooking into their game if you do, it'll be easier to stay focused on the respectful.
Practice respectful behavior skills. Listing respectful statements on a poster, although 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 students; they might not have been exposed to the skills frequently enough for mastery, or they might never have been exposed to them all. We can no longer assume that students have acquired any of the essential character-building skills and habits.
Keep in mind that many students might not be comfortable making respectful statements. Those students should be allowed to choose the kinds of statements 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.
We all know that changing habits takes time and effort. Many students have been locked into saying disrespectful words and displaying disrespectful behaviors for years. We certainly can't expect overnight success. So do expect backsliding for a while -- in which a child will start to demonstrate the new skill, and then -- just when you think they have moved up a notch on the respect ladder -- they're right back to where they had been, or even worse off than they were before. Those are normal patterns to expect. Human behavior tends to revert to what we're most comfortable with -- that's why habits are so difficult to break. Don't despair and never give up! You can help students learn more respectful behavior by slowly replacing their disrespectful habits. The techniques below show ways to replace old habits with newer, more appropriate ones. The most important rule for success is this: "Be Consistent."
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 a student makes 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're making. One way to bring them to that awareness is to use a simple tally system. On paper, designate one column for respectful statements, the other for disrespectful ones. Each time a student makes either a respectful or disrespectful comment, add a stamp or mark to the appropriate side. The key to the activity is to keep the tallying private. It never should 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 or her left pocket, and whenever the student makes a disrespectful statement, a token is transferred to the right pocket. Often just one reminder will get the message across.
Label disrespect. 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 they recognize it. Words such as "disrespectful putdown," "prickly," "zinger" or such sounds as "ouch" or "buzzz" will help students recognize that a statement was inappropriate.
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, the rule is even more stringent: For every put-down, there must be three put-ups. Whatever the number, to be effective, the rule must be consistently enforced.
Teach skills to replace negativity. Many 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. Those skills need to be taught. Keep in mind, however, that new behaviors take a tremendous amount of repetition and commitment before they can replace 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.