How To Handle Students Who Give You Attitude

Smart Classroom Management: How To Handle Students Who Give You AttitudeEye rolls, deep sighs, melodramatic body language . . .

They’re responses to teacher requests or reminders (i.e. “Please put your backpack away.”) that aren’t quite disrespectful.

But darn close.

Sometimes they’re accompanied by a sarcastic “Sorry!” or “Oh my gosh!”

They’re delivered indirectly and out of frustration and are usually not malicious.

They do, however, have a way of getting under the teacher’s skin.

So much so that here at SCM we’ve heard from dozens of teachers wondering how best to handle it.

There is something about student “attitude” that drives teachers up the wall. At the very least it can put you in a bad mood, especially because you’re just trying to be helpful.

You’re just trying to save the student from trouble or help them avoid a mistake. (“And the thanks I get is an eye roll?”)

It’s hard to bite your tongue. It’s hard not to be pulled into an argument or respond with a rip-roaring lecture.

So what’s the solution?

Well, this may surprise you, but following your classroom management plan isn’t the best response to a single act of student attitude.

For one, I don’t believe it rises to the level of disrespect. Although it often feels like it, it isn’t directed at you.

Rather, it’s an act of personal frustration.

Enforcing a consequence, then, often makes things worse, deepening the student’s frustration and discontent. There is also a far better way of eliminating it from your classroom.

Before we get there, however, it helps to remember that all of us have experienced similar frustrations, which is my second point.

Whether trying to renew your driver’s license at the DMV or waiting for food at a restaurant, we all know how easy it is to roll your eyes at the clerk or server or let out a long sigh—despite knowing deep down that they’re just trying to help.

Yes, “attitude” comes far too easy with some of our students, no doubt about it.

But understanding that they’re having a bad moment is the first step to turning their attitude around and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.

It’s a very simple strategy, but extremely effective. The way it works is when a student rolls their eyes or gives attitude about something you’ve said, you’re going to smile at them.

Not a mocking smile, by any measure, but a lighthearted gesture of understanding. An accompanying chuckle may also fit the moment. It should only last a second or two, and then you’ll move on without a word.

It’s such a small thing, but it has an amazing way of breaking tension, diffusing escalating emotions, and allowing the student to recognize their overreaction.

It communicates that you don’t give directions because you like bossing people around—which, based on their experience in the past, is how many students view teachers.

You do it because it’s helpful. You do it because it’s right. You do it because it’s best for them and for maintaining a learning environment where they and their classmates can thrive.

The very first time you try it some students will smile right back at you or even laugh at themselves. But the real power of the strategy is when you make it your default response to all acts of attitude and personal frustration.

You’ll begin noticing a greater acceptance of your requests, reminders, and commands and an eagerness to follow them without complaint. There will be less tension in your classroom and more joyfulness.

The only danger is to be sure you’re clear on the difference between a student having a bad moment and blatant disrespect, which must always be followed by a consequence.

Student attitude (as opposed to disrespect) is a display of frustration that has nothing to do with you.

The most effective response is one that shows that you’ve been there, you get it, and it’s okay to laugh at yourself and the minor annoyances that follow us every day of our lives.

In time, you’ll eliminate virtually all “attitude” from your classroom.

And replace it with acceptance, eagerness, and smiles.

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36 thoughts on “How To Handle Students Who Give You Attitude”

  1. Just what I needed. I am a substitute in middle and high schools. I am finding classroom management more difficult every year. I come into the classroom happy and prepared, and leave later with a heavy heart. I see that I need to smile more. That works for one student, but what about several who arrive ready to torture the substitute?

    • Hi Jeannine,

      I’ve written about this topic in the past, and the site itself (i.e. the totality of effective classroom management) addresses this problem, but I’ll be sure to revisit it in the future. Also, an e-guide for substitutes is on the list of future projects.


  2. Great advice. Left unsaid, but I think implied, is that some teachers shouldn’t be so easily offended. Even outright disrespect, which deserves a consequence as you said, should be treated as a teaching moment and not an excuse to lash out at or lecture a kid publicly. Even if it is about you, why are you letting a thirteen-year-old (or whatever age) affect your mood so much? You give that much control of your emotions to others?

  3. Yes! Your advice is meaningful and fits my classroom. I appreciate your sharing from a position of sincerity and respect both ways – for the teacher and also for the student.

  4. The concept is great, but do we allow the student to not do what we ask? Like letting the backpack stay on the floor?

    • Hi Fran,

      No, definitely not. Please reread the article. Totally different situation altogether. In the case above, the student is frustrated at having to do it. When you get a chance, please look through the Rules & Consequences and Classroom Management Plan categories of the archive.


  5. So if you give the same directive several times to a student, and they ignore it, is that attitude or defiance?

  6. Hi Michael,
    I read your articles each week when they come to my inbox and I have found them very useful to keep me thinking about effective classroom management. They help me to picture the kind of class I want and the kind of teacher I want to be.
    I have a couple of questions that I’ve been mulling over for a while.
    In my class last year, I was happy overall with the way the plan worked and I enjoyed teaching my class immensely. However, whereas most students never got a letter and a warning was unusual, there were 3 students who repeatedly got letters home. The result of this was that both the student and parents became desensitised to the effect of a letter home.
    I am still thinking this through as I have 2 of these students again this year. I wondered if you had any thoughts on this.
    The other question is a need for clarification. First there is a warning, then a timeout, then a letter home. Do you also use timeout with the letter home? I don’t and I just wanted to check that was your practice too.
    And following from that, what do you suggest if a child continues to break rules? Do you just repeat the process? I haven’t had that situation arise, but I can see the potential and wondered what I would do.

    • Hi Tina,

      I’ll address your first question in a future article because it takes more explanation than I have time for here. In the meantime, the solutions can be found in the Difficult Student category of the archive. As for your second question, yes and yes, you continue to repeat time-out for every subsequent misbehavior.


  7. I have a lot of growth to do, I can see–smiling when I feel disrespected is just so hard! But I can give it a try…

  8. Interesting article with some great ideas but I feel the eye-rolling, dramatic behavior and sarcastic comments are not close to being disrespectful–that is all disrespectful and we need to raise our expectations of students as they will rise to them.

  9. You always know what I need to read on a Sunday evening when I check my emails before lesson preparation begins! Thank you.

  10. Thank you Michael! I sometimes have a hard time finding the line between “unkind” facial expressions/body language, which I’ve explicitly said is included in rule #1 (be kind to each other), and this kind of self expression that is not directed outward at anyone, but still can feel demoralizing. I sometimes don’t know exactly when to enforce a consequence, and when to simply show understanding and empathy- that is, what is the line between unkindness, and just expressing frustration. I’m sure there will still be borderline situations, but it really helps to spell out these cases, that are annoying to me but a rule has not actually been broken (and therefore also not a time for me to get mad at myself for being inconsistent).

    • Just that, Diana. When a rule has not been broken but the student shows personal frustration that is not maliciously directed at anyone in particular over having to do something they don’t want to do or having forgotten something or just having a bad day.

      With experience, you’ll know.


      • The difficulty, then, may lie in the ability to determine what is personal and what is not. I remember a time when I (insincerely) treated a student’s rude behavior as if it were an expression of his frustration with himself only to find… that it was! I was utterly shocked because I really did not read it that way. Perhaps a lot of troubles come from an inability to read peoples’ emotions accurately. And what you are suggesting then, is that we give the other person the benefit of the doubt and, more often than not, we will be right to have done so.

        • Hi Linda,

          Yes, but I’ve found that the clearer you are about defining your classroom rules for yourself and your students, it’s easier to make such a call. Now, after years of using this strategy, I don’t have any trouble distinguishing the difference between disrespect and personal frustration. I hope to write and article in the future further defining the stark difference between the two.


  11. I tried this out in my head and it made sense. I now plan on applying it from today.

    Thanks for the article.

  12. Thanks Michael. Again. I often am in class and a student does something that could set a teacher off since they’d think “this kid did that AGAIN?” but when you swallow your pride and think of the long term impact on your class what is the BEST long term way to get all your kids on the same page and it is going to be kindness and one on one discussions about behavior…in my experience at least.

    Keep up the great work!

  13. Thank you for this. I’m finding that as the end of the year, and all its stressors, approaches, I am becoming more sensitive to student behaviors. This was a great reminder to refocus my perspective.

  14. I am really going to try this with the small little attitudes that really get under my skin. All students can be really focused and engaged, but when they eye roll, it is like I become a mini-monster. I don’t want to be like that at all. Thank YOu!

  15. I just have to say I’m really glad I found this site today. As a teacher of 39 years (mostly high school) as of late I’ve really been struggling with classroom management issues. Maybe it’s me, I’m 60 (but not a dinosaur…yet lol) but I know I have 2 to 3 years left and I want them to be good ones. I’m learning a lot from reading the articles AND replies from all here and it’s really great! I know I’m not alone and am on the right track, but need some fresh ideas about classroom management. Thank you!


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