How should teachers respond to verbally abusive students?

Buffalo Public Schools are faced with the dilemma of verbally abusive students. Teachers are at their wits end on how to respond to students who use poor communication skills during anger outbursts. Schools can use several techniques to minimize the impact of verbally abusive students.

Black students understand that racism in schools has a long history that does not benefit them or the previous generation. The previous generation plays a major role in how Black students view the educational system. Imagine coming home every day and looking at how your parent is struggling financially due to the lack of education and economic opportunities. This daily remainder can make a Black student resentful of their teacher and the educational system.

Teachers must understand the reasons that Black students may become verbally abusive. Black students use several verbal techniques to discover a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses in order to evaluate a teacher’s racial attitudes and locate teachers’ breaking points to help the students empower themselves in the situation between them and the teacher.

Abrahams and Gay (1972) reported:

If a [Black student] expects to rise to the position of a leader, he must know how to keep his cool. If he cannot respond to a [teachers challenge] without becoming frustrated and unnerved, he is not likely to have the respect of others or remain a leader for long. (p. 205).

Black students have different debating techniques which can lead to a student becoming verbally abusive.  Blacks not only debate the idea; they also debate the person while Whites debate the idea rather than the person debating the idea. “Blacks often probe beyond a given statement to find out where a person is “coming from,” in order to clarify the meaning and value of a particular behavior or attitude. Black students will move a verbal interaction from a global perspective to a personal perspective. This becomes offensive to the teacher and results in continued fueling of the debate which leads the student becoming verbally abusive.

Teachers must not allow debate regarding behaviors to become personal. Instead teacher can prompt all conversations by using praise instead of resorting to an authoritarian position. Praise is an effective reinforcement that provides encouragement to students and is reinforcement for behavior performance improvement (Hughes, 1973; O’Leary & O’Leary, 1977; Rosenshine, 1976). Praise is an effective reinforcement that helps to build student self-esteem (Brophy, 1981) which will eliminate a necessity for a student to become verbally abusive.

Teachers must also minimize the Black students attempt to become and maintain leadership amongst their peers by becoming verbally abusive towards their teacher. Teachers must minimize the impact by low key responses. Most teachers respond to verbally abusive students by becoming abusive themselves. This response sends students two messages. The first message is that they have discovered your pressure point.  They now know how to push your buttons. The have also showed them that anger needs to be responded with anger. It is a terrible example to set for a young person. Finally, you have set an example for other students who are not verbally abusive to follow. In essence, responding to verbally abusive students with anger sets the tone for the culture of the entire school.

Schools and teachers should employ three specific strategies for verbally abusive students. The first is to teach verbally abusive students to control their anger. The second is to place them in a leadership role. Approximately 12% percent of the student population particulates in some sort of leadership role. The other 78% must find alternative strategies to become school leaders which include becoming verbally abusive towards their teachers. The final strategy is to provide students with professional development using the left-handed activity developed by Argyris and Shon.

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All the best,

Dr. Derrick L. Campbell, Ed.D.