Classroom Management Strategies for Students Who Answer Back

Students who can’t stand not having the ‘last word’ can be some of the most testing; they have an answer for everything.  Often it doesn’t even need to be a verbal retort, as a defiant roll of the eyes can get right under your skin.  Here are a few of my strategies for dealing with students who always feel that they need to be the last person to speak. 

1. Smile 

Sometimes when a student is rude to me and says the wrong thing, I’ll do something that they don’t see coming – I’ll just smile back at them.  I won’t say, ‘What did you just say to me?’ because that just gives them the permission to repeat the transgression, probably with more of their classmates listening.  If you return a simple smile they are immediately disarmed.  At worst, they won’t bother trying it on again because they got no reaction from you, and at best, they’ll go silent and really think about what it is that they just said to you, and why.  

Speaking of silence, that’s another strategy you can try.  Sometimes the best reaction is to have no reaction at all and to meet them with pure silence – that can be quite unnerving for them and can really make them reflect on what they’re doing and what the point of it all is. 

The most important thing is not to counter their rudeness with more rudeness of your own.  Being young, they are rebellious, and rudeness from you will be seen as a challenge.  If you answer their rude comment with one of your own – or anything that is combative – then you’re just stoking the fire and they’re more likely to keep the game going. 

2. Be proactive – don’t give them the chance 

If we’re proactive about reinforcing the ‘right’ behaviour at every turn, then we can build up an atmosphere where we’re focusing on the positive rather than waiting for kids to answer back or do one of a hundred other ‘wrong’ things.  So, thanking students when they raise their hand to ask a question, speak politely, have a positive interaction with their peers, hold a door open, complete their work on time and so on.  These are the things that we want to be focusing on and praising in class – we want to show the kids that these things are appreciated.  Then we reduce the risk of any student wanting to go against the grain and against all their peers. 

3. Take the student aside 

I think that sometimes certain students just don’t know any better, and I’ll try the kind or silent treatment first.  But let’s be honest, not every strategy works for every student and it might continue – or the comments might escalate if the student feels like there are no repercussions.  At this point I might take a student aside to talk to them privately after the class: ‘How could you have said that differently? What you said really got to me and hurt my feelings. If you really wanted to speak out, could you have said it in a better way?’  

We don’t want to make our students feel guilty, but it’s important to get them thinking about their interactions and the ‘why’ behind their outbursts.  Sometimes a student doesn’t mean to be disrespectful or intentionally hurtful and will just blurt something out; we’ve all spoken without thinking.  If they understand that their comments are hurtful, this can be enough for them to stop.  But this is a little different to those kids who want to provoke you and it’s important to separate the two.  This is where you need a final step – consequences.  It never hurts to have that quiet chat with them to explain that you really need them on-side; often, this achieves more than you might expect and can be much more effective than jumping straight in with punishment. 

4. Consequences 

Okay, you’ve tried several different things to address the problem, but you’ll still – unless you’re extremely lucky – find yourself up against one of those students who wants to be hurtful at some point or another.  In this case you need to have a final action plan – consequences.  Before you get to this point, it can be good to ask yourself: ‘Why is this student answering back? What reason do they have for being disrespectful?’ 

You must accept that it isn’t always personal. Some rebels are like this because they’re motivated by a need for attention or by a subconscious need to have power in the room.  They might even have the same issues at home and act out in their family life to grab attention from those around them.  What I’m saying is that you can’t always just assume they’re doing it because they want to needle you – there may be other factors at play. 

But we can try to meet these subconscious needs in a more appropriate way so that the students feel satisfied and don’t need to try and grab it themselves through negative outbursts. Try a group activity in which the power-hungry student gets to lead the team, or a kinaesthetic one where there’s lots of movement and acting to satisfy a need for attention.  

Of course, the last resort is that you must have a plan in place for punishment if there’s persistent bad behaviour.  In a perfect world, we’d never need to get to that stage, but let’s face it, this isn’t a perfect world and we’re teachers – it does happen. Still, there are right ways and wrong ways to administer punishment.  Some teachers will leap straight in with it and risk inflaming the situation even more.  In my extensive experience I have found it is better to employ a system of stepped, fair consequences. 

So, the idea here is that you don’t want to get to the stage of using punishments, but if you do need to lay down the law, then you do it in a way that becomes gradually more serious each time you are forced to do it.  Traditionally, the system might look something like this: 

All is explained in the following video.  If you’re reading this in electronic form you should be able to click the link below.  If not, simply type ‘How to Use Consequences, Rob Plevin’ in the YouTube search bar and it will pop up for you.  

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