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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Backtalking in Class

Few behaviors are more infuriating to teachers than backtalk. Having a student tell you "I don't have to do what you say," or "You don't know how to teach," can try anyone's patience, and strain even the calmest teacher's temper. A student who speaks to her teacher in a disrespectful manner, moreover, makes it difficult for the teacher to conduct his lesson, and undermines his authority in the eyes of the other students. The disrespect becomes a much more serious problem if other students begin to emulate the behavior of the student who talks back.

If you have a student who talks back to you, it's important to bear in mind that her insolent comments often are unrelated to anything you've said or done. In some cases, she might be venting frustration about other events in her life; you just serve as a convenient outlet for her distress. Keeping your composure in the face of a verbal assault isn't easy, but it is the most effective reaction in the long run. Scolding the student, or threatening or lecturing her, might only give her what she wants and make her more likely to repeat the disrespectful behavior.


Don't take it personally. Listening to a student attack you without reacting emotionally can be difficult. Try to remind yourself that her offensive comments probably have little to do with anything you've said or done. She might be upset or hurt about other concerns and simply taking out her frustrations on you. Appreciating that fact might encourage you to look beyond the student's expression of anger and identify the source of her distress.

Calmly inform the student that her language is inappropriate. Remaining calm in the face of a verbal barrage isn't easy, but yelling at the student or lecturing her might give her the attention she wants and strengthen her impulse to act disrespectfully. If you feel as though you are about to lose your temper, take a few deep breaths and then tell the student in a low-key but firm manner that you expect her to speak respectfully to you. Do not give in to her demands for attention. You want the student to realize that her backtalk is making it harder for her to get what she wants. After briefly giving the student that message, return to what you were doing without engaging her in debate or argument.

Have a one-on-one talk with the student. The student who talks back probably expects a stern reprimand from you; surprise her by talking with her in a supportive manner. Tell her that although her words came across as disrespectful, you don't think she meant them that way. Let her know that you're aware that students sometimes use a disrespectful tone when they are upset about something. Ask her if she is upset about something or if you did something to frustrate her. Find out what you can do to lessen her frustration. Tell her you expect her to treat you in a respectful manner and that you will treat her the same way. If the student is agreeable, shake on it.

Let the student know when her behavior is disrespectful. She might talk back so often that she doesn't realize when she's doing it. If you suspect that's the case, establish with her a private signal you can use to cue her when she's acting in a belligerent manner. The signal might be as simple as calling her name and raising your eyebrows.

Write down the student's comments. Make sure she sees you writing. If she asks what you're writing down (or even if she doesn't ask), tell her you're recording what she's saying so you'll have an accurate record to keep in your files and show her parents. That alone might deter her from using offensive language.

If the student continues to talk back, take action. If her persistent backtalk disrupts your lessons and undermines your authority, a consequence probably is called for. You might give a younger student in "time out" or keep an older student after school or in for recess. She might argue with you about your decision to discipline her, but resolve to stay the course and to not engage her in debate.


Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

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