Interrupting Oppressive Behavior

Eight tips on what to do when students make hurtful remarks.

What to do when students make hurtful remarks - or worse?  The appropriate adult response depends on the behavior and its intent.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Don't let offensive behavior go by. No one deserves to be insulted, threatened or mistreated for any reason, including his ethnic or cultural background, religion, or beliefs. 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. Whenever possible, try to give the impression that you are going about business as usual.
  • 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 (and any other classmates who might have observed the interchange).
  • No shame, no blame. We all have misinformation and uninformed attitudes about people from other cultural backgrounds. None of us were 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 and others so that our views correspond as closely as possible to reality.
  • Maintain a positive and non-judgmental tone. A student who has made an offending remark will be most likely to learn from your intervention and change his or her behavior in the future if you don't appear overly serious or agitated.
  • 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.
  • Listen actively. To help a student who is acting inappropriately toward other students because of their background, you need to establish rapport with the student and find out where he or she is coming from. To do this, you need to open up communication. This may involve acknowledging the student's feelings ("I can see you're angry"); asking the student to share more ("Please tell me more about what you're feeling"); probing gently ("Why are you angry at your classmate _______?") 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.
  • Be firm in asserting that students must treat each other with respect. By listening actively, you will communicate that you care about the student and his feelings. You will understand better why the student acted as he did. But understanding where someone is coming from doesn't mean you accept the behavior.
  • 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.