Dealing with Backtalk

Dealing with Backtalk

Dealing with Students Who Talk Back to the Teacher

In an idyllic teaching world, every teacher and student would be happy and smiley and eager to completely dive into each assignment or activity. 

Unfortunately, the teaching world is not idyllic.  Every person in the classroom both the teacher and students bring baggage with them. This baggage contains everything from not getting enough sleep the previous night to very serious situations going on in a person’s home life. 

Why do children backtalk?

It is important to remember backtalking children may be: 
  • Seeking individual/undivided attention and will take it in any form possible.  Even negative attention is better than no attention. 
  • Venting frustrations from the baggage in their life. Most likely a child who becomes a discipline problem is facing difficult personal problems. Remember these personal problems are outside of the child's control and may involve family members, coping mechanisms, and/or a learning disability. 
  • Seeking some control over their individual life and choices. Always doing what you are told, makes you a puppet. Remember you like to have decisions for yourself, too.
  • Battling boredom. If the child is not regularly challenged by current classroom assignments and activities, they may backtalk to express frustration. Doing things you have already mastered is busy work. Remember busy work doesn't promote engaged learning.

Managing Backtalk

Backtalk from disrespectful students may take many forms including hurling such insults as ‘You are not a good teacher,’ or ‘You are not the boss of me, I don’t have to do what you say.’ 

Our instinct is to take such negative words personally. However, Dr. Ken Shore, a psychologist in the New Jersey public school system, reminds us it is important to remember a child’s insolent comments are often unrelated to anything we've said or done as the teacher.

That being said, nothing can derail a lesson like a child firing backtalk at you.  As the adult in the room, classroom management is in your hands.

Taking charge includes doing things in the moment of the backtalk, but it also includes preemptive measures so you are in the best place possible to move yourself and the class beyond the negative moment.  

Preemptive Measures: 

    • Take care of your physical, mental, and emotional health, so you are in complete control of yourself and your own tiredness, hunger, or baggage.  When you are not in control of these things, it is too easy to lash out at a backtalking child.
    • (I once gave a tongue lashing to a very talkative, uncooperative class once because I had not eaten breakfast that morning. I recognized my mistake in the middle of my tirade. Unfortunately, the harsh words I said in a 'hangry' moment could never be unsaid. Like an unseen ghost, I felt those words haunted our classroom for the rest of the year.)
    • Are you getting enough sleep, eating healthy meals, going outside regularly, and doing something to allow yourself to completely relax each day?
    • With the class, discuss clear student/teacher expectations and behavior management policies. 
    • Nationally recognized parenting expert, Amy McCready, tells us that backtalk can simply be a pushback from not clearly outlining or enforcing an expectation.
    • Be willing to discuss with the class what they can expect from you as a teacher. Allow them to determine reasonable consequences if you don't meet these expectations. Giving the class authority to check your actions will give you an edge in obtaining positive student behaviors. 
    • Find ways for the children in your classroom to assume some control over their experience in your classroom. 
    • Think of ways to involve them in seating arrangements, art mediums, reading choices, and more.  McCready confirms the more positive power you can proactively give them, the less negative power struggles you will have.
    • Seek to learn about and know each child.  You already do this in so many amazing ways! 
    • Take a few seconds to pay attention to a child’s favorite color, food, or animal. What things do you have common with each child? Do you like the same sports, food, music, or colors?
    • A child receives individual attention when you make a connection with them and regularly re-enforce that connection. The reinforcement of this connection is as simple as saying, "Hey, we are both wearing our favorite color today! I like it."
    • Receiving individual attention will deter a child who is seeking any form of attention, from using negative means to acquire it. 
    • Determine where a child is in their learning development.
    • Give any child who is ahead of the class meaningful opportunities to actively learn. This could include extra time in the media center or advanced math and science concepts.

    In the Backtalking Moment: 

      • If you are not in control of your emotions, breathe and then breathe again.  Settle yourself.  Remember children can read your body language.
      • Dr. Shore informs us that yelling at a student or giving him/her a hard lecture can fuel attention seeking students and make it more likely for them to act blatantly disrespectful in the future.
      Calmly inform the student you expect him/her to speak respectfully to you and then move on with what you were doing. 
      • Do not enter a debate or argument.  Doing so reinforces the child’s negative behavior and sets it as an example for the rest of the class to follow.
      Within a short time, have a private conversation with the child. 
      • Ask the child what is going on in his or her life to cause them to lash out at you with disrespectful behavior. 
      • Be honest with the child.  Tell the child they hurt your feelings, but you don’t think they meant to. 
      • Let the child know you want to help.  Your real concern will do wonders.
      If backtalk continues, enforce the pre-set consequences your class has already established whether it be putting the child in time out, keeping the child inside during recess, and/or writing down what the child is saying to you and sharing it with the child’s parents. 
      • Do not engage in a debate with the child. By remaining calm, you stay in control of the situation. 
      • One of my greatest lessons, as a parent, was hearing a school psychiatrist remind me I was the adult.  When one of my children backtalked, I didn’t have to have the last word because whatever I had said was what would be.
      • Engaging a child just escalates the situation.  It takes two to argue.  If you as the adult refuse to argue, then there is no argument, just the consequence for the child. 

        Most likely you decided to become a teacher because you love children, and you love watching them learn. What a joy it is to see a child’s eyes light up when they make a connection or grasp a new concept. 

        You desire to love, support, and encourage each child’s growth into a responsible, capable, and productive member of society. Helping children show respect for your position as a teacher and increasing their awareness of their personal responsibility for their actions and feelings is an important part of their learning process. 

        Take a deep breath!  You got this! 


        Article by Miss Jae




        Shores, Ken. “Backtalking in Class.” Education World.

        McCready, Amy. “5 Steps to Put the Brakes on Backtalk.” Positive Parenting Solutions.

        Young, Karen. “Dealing with Big Feelings – Teaching Kids How to Self-Regulate.” Hey Sigmund. 


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