Many of today's students lack an understanding of respect because their experiences with that essential character trait have been minimal. Think about it: If you are rarely around people who display respect, and if you aren't treated as though you are a valued and worthwhile individual, how can you possible "catch the behavior?" That's the secret of learning new character-building behaviors -- they're "caught" by watching others do them well. Today's schools and classrooms are enormously significant institutions because for many students those might be the only places where appropriate character building traits can be taught. If you recognize that premise, you'll also recognize the power of educators. Tune up the behavior you want to be caught and accentuate it. Here's how:
Model respectful statements. Never forget how you impact your students -- you might very well be their only model of respect. You might wish to say respectful statements so the class can hear you: "Thank you, Aisha, for sharing your slides with us. We really appreciated them." Or, "Excuse me, Ibrahim, I didn't mean to interrupt you." For many students, that might be the only time they hear what respect sounds like.
Accentuate respect. In any environment, establish a firm commandment: "You may not talk hurtfully about yourself or others." Put it in your own words if you like, but post it in a highly visible location, such as on the door, along the length of the chalkboard, or on a bulletin board.
Build awareness of respectful language. Like it or not, we have become a negative, disrespectful society that too often emphasizes sarcasm, put-downs, and disrespect. Listen to the popular sit-coms on television and count the frequency of statements based on negativity, ridicule, and sarcasm. Why not brainstorm with them lists of statements that show respect, and post the list as a reminder that choices exist other than disrespect. "Thank you for sharing." "Are you okay?" "Thank you."
Reinforce respectful statements. Reinforce what you want to be repeated. Try to key in on students' respectful statements and forget the disrespectful ones for a while. It's easier to change behavior by focusing on the positive aspects instead of the negative. Some students, however, make that very tough to do; they'll almost provoke you to put them down. If you remember that you're only hooking into their game if you do, it'll be easier to stay focused on the respectful.
STEPS TO ELIMINATE DISRESPECT
We all know that changing habits takes time and effort. Many students have been locked into saying disrespectful words and displaying disrespectful behaviors for years. We certainly can't expect overnight success. So do expect backsliding for a while -- in which a child will start to demonstrate the new skill, and then -- just when you think they have moved up a notch on the respect ladder -- they're right back to where they had been, or even worse off than they were before. Those are normal patterns to expect. Human behavior tends to revert to what we're most comfortable with -- that's why habits are so difficult to break. Don't despair and never give up! You can help students learn more respectful behavior by slowly replacing their disrespectful habits. The techniques below show ways to replace old habits with newer, more appropriate ones. The most important rule for success is this: "Be Consistent."
Draw awareness to disrespect. Whenever students go against your classroom "respect commandment," be careful not to be negative toward their already disrespectful disposition. Disrespect quickly breeds disrespect. Casually mention, "Remember, we only say respectful words." Some teachers use a private code or signal between themselves and certain students. Each time a student makes a disrespectful comment, the teacher uses a quiet signal -- such as raising one finger -- as a reminder to stop.
Often students are not aware of how many disrespectful statements they're making. One way to bring them to that awareness is to use a simple tally system. On paper, designate one column for respectful statements, the other for disrespectful ones. Each time a student makes either a respectful or disrespectful comment, add a stamp or mark to the appropriate side. The key to the activity is to keep the tallying private. It never should be published for other students to see.
Teach skills to defuse disrespect. "Defuser" skills can calm disrespectful behaviors before they detonate into a full explosion (usually physical or verbal retaliation). Make it a rule that disrespectful statements are not allowed. Whenever a put-down is said, teach the rule that the sender must then change the put-down into a "put-up." The rule is: One Put-Down = One Put-Up, or One Disrespectful Statement = One Respectful Statement.
Teach skills to replace negativity. Many students are locked into disrespectful, inappropriate behavior patterns simply because they don't know what to do instead. Asking them to "Be more respectful" or "Act nicer" has no value if the student does not know how to demonstrate the skills of respect or kindness. Those skills need to be taught. Keep in mind, however, that new behaviors take a tremendous amount of repetition and commitment before they can replace older, more comfortable habits. Students will slip back easily into older disrespectful behavior patterns unless the newer skills of respect are continually reinforced and practiced. Consistency and reinforcement are critical. Don't give up, though! Respectful attitudes are contagious.