The basic mission of school is to teach children the three R's, however a fourth R merits teachers' attention as well. That R stands for respect. Just as students need to master reading, writing, and arithmetic, they also need to learn the importance of acting respectfully toward their teachers and classmates.
Children can be cruel. We only need witness the unkind things they do to one another -- name-calling, pulling a chair out from under a classmate, making a snide comment, excluding another child from a game, and so on -- to appreciate a child's capacity for cruelty. But if children have a capacity for cruelty, they also have a capacity for caring. An important part of helping students learn to act in a respectful manner is to stimulate their innate potential for kindness.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Establish a class signal to alert students to disrespectful behavior. Develop a non-verbal signal -- such as a thumbs-down sign -- to let a student know he is saying or doing something rude or disrespectful. (You may need to say the student's name first to get his attention.) In that way, you can nip in the bud disrespectful behavior with minimal disruption to the rest of the class. You might even start seeing your students give the signal to one another.
Catch students being kind. Acknowledge students when you see them acting in a kind or helpful manner. Describe the specific behavior you observed. Do it publicly (unless you think it would embarrass him) in order to spur other children to engage in acts of kindness as well. As an example, you might say to a student: "Jesse, it was so nice of you to sit with Julio after he hurt himself on the playground. That was a very caring thing to do." Make a special effort to find something positive to say about students who are prone to unkind behavior.
Teach the vocabulary of kindness. Make it easy for students to talk kindly to one another by giving them the words and phrases they need. On the bulletin board, post a list of "Terms of Respect," phrases that can be used to convey courtesy and caring. The list might include such phrases as "please;" "thank you;" "excuse me;" "I like the way you ...;" "Do you want to play with us?;" "You did a great job;" and so on. Encourage students to suggest additional phrases.
Role-play social situations with students. Pose some common school scenarios (for example, a student calling a classmate a name or cutting in front of him in line). Ask students how they might handle the situation in a respectful manner. In this way, students can hear what their classmates might say and do, and also have a chance to try out their own responses.
Have a courtesy display on the bulletin board. When you observe an act of kindness performed by one of your students, describe the act on a 3 x 5 card or a heart-shaped piece of paper, write the student's name on it, and tack it to a bulletin board display. Encourage students to nominate classmates for inclusion on the display, or have students create cards for their classmates and submit them to you. That might lead to a chain reaction of compliments, one that has a contagious effect on your students.