Guidelines for Stopping Oppressive Behavior

Eleven suggestions to help adults address oppressive behavior by students.

Oppressive behavior can take many forms, ranging from hurtful remarks made in ignorance to insults, threats, and physical violence. The appropriate adult response depends on the behavior and its intent. Below are some things to keep in mind:

1.  Don't let offensive behavior go by. No one deserves to be insulted, threatened or mistreated for any reason.  

2.  Interrupt inappropriate behavior in a positive, matter-of-fact way. If you make a big deal out of a minor incident, you may further embarrass the targeted student and induce guilt and defensiveness in the student responsible for the offending behavior. Neither of those outcomes will be helpful long-term. Normal school policies and practices (for example, rules against put-downs or fighting) apply to most of the situations that will arise, and should be invoked as appropriate.

3.  Maintain a positive and non-judgmental tone. See the incident as a teaching opportunity. Your first responsibility is to protect the targeted student by stopping the behavior or supporting the student in standing up for herself. Your second task, equally important, is to educate the student who made the offending remark or action.

4.  No shame, no blame. We all have misinformation and uninformed attitudes about people who are different from us. None of us was born with these attitudes. We've learned them from growing up in our society. It isn't our fault that we have these biases. But it's our responsibility to educate ourselves so that our views do not harm others.

5.  Use strategies to reduce defensiveness. If it seems appropriate to have a discussion with a student who has made an offensive remark, try to have the talk at a time and in a setting where the student will feel most comfortable. For example, a one-on-one chat in a private setting at a later time may be more productive than a confrontation in the heat of the moment where the student may feel the need to save face in front of his peers.

6.  Listen actively. To help a student who is acting inappropriately toward other students because of their background or identity, you need to establish rapport with the student and find out where she is coming from. To do this, you need to open up communication. This may involve acknowledging the student's feelings; asking the student to share more; and probing gently. If the student is willing to open up and give you insight into what motivated the behavior, you'll be in a better position to give her a hand and ensure that the behavior doesn't occur again in the future. 

7.  Use I-Messages. Avoid name-calling and put-downs. I-Messages describe the impact the oppressive behavior has had on you; they are not intended to attack or blame the other person.

8.  Be firm in asserting that students must treat each other with respect. By listening actively and using I-Messages, you will communicate that you care about the student and his feelings. That will increase your chances of opening up communication with the student.  But opening up a dialogue and understanding where someone is coming from doesn't mean you accept the behavior. 

9.  Recognize your own need for support. When dealing with issues of diversity, feelings are likely to come up in your students and in yourself. By reaching out for support to family, friends, and colleagues, you'll be better able to deal well with students’ feelings and behavior.

10.  Don't be paralyzed by fear of making mistakes. In working on issues of diversity and developing relationships with people different from ourselves, we will inevitably make errors. We'll say things that we wish we could retract. But most people are eager to look beyond our mistakes and give us the benefit of the doubt if our interest in them is genuine and our minds and hearts are open to understanding another culture.

11.  Share experiences with colleagues. Don't work in isolation. The work is too challenging to go it alone. Let your colleagues know about what's happening in your classroom.  Share your feelings. Brainstorm effective solutions to problems.