This post is by. Dr. Méroudjie Denis, Licensed Psychologist and Director of Clinical Program Innovation here at Momentous Institute.

In May 2022 data from The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an astonishing 48 percent of educators reported an increase in acts of disrespect towards teachers and staff during the 2021-22 school year compared to a typical year before the pandemic. When nearly half of teachers are expressing a concern, there is reason to plan accordingly to prevent the issue from becoming a problem.

How do we create an environment of respect in our classrooms and schools?

First, we have to come in with an understanding that respect is a very loaded term and can vary depending on a person’s culture. There is no universal code for respect, and what is respectful in one home or culture may not be seen as respectful in another.

To teach respect, teachers and students may need to rely on the idea of code-switching. Code-switching is when we show up differently in different environments. We all do this every day. We don’t act the same way at work as we do out on a Saturday night with friends, or when visiting our grandparents or when at our places of worship. A child who uses profanity, rolls their eyes or talks back to adults in their home environment needs to be taught the rules of respect in the classroom.

To build a classroom environment of respect, you must be very explicit. We cannot assume that children know our expectations and definition of respect, and it’s unfair to punish a child for not meeting an expectation that wasn’t explained to them.

As a class, establish respect guidelines. Do not write them in the form of “no’s”, as in: “No yelling.” Instead, write what you want students to do, such as, “Use an inside voice.” Then, model what an inside voice sounds like and have students practice. Do this for all of the expectations for respect. Engage students in roleplays as an opportunity to both practice and learn to identify respectful and disrespectful behaviors.

When children contribute to the expectations, they’ll have more ownership over them. Seek their input! Especially for older students, this can look like saying “what do we think everyone in this room needs to feel safe and respected? In this classroom, feeling safe means both physically and emotionally. You can always refer back to the expectations and remind them that they created them. This removes you from the position of judge and jury, and says, “These are your expectations that you agreed upon.” One thing I always do when working with groups of teens is let them know there is nothing they can do to earn my respect. They have my respect, just by being human and by being in this space. All they have to do is keep it. Teens are not used to hearing adults say they respect them. We often demand respect from them, but don’t take the time to show them what it feels like to be respected. That simple statement has made the world of difference with my relationship with them.

Again, respect is dependent upon so many factors, and there will likely be incidents in which you feel disrespected by a student. But being very explicit about the code of respect in your classroom will help students know their limits and will build their capacity to understand how to navigate other settings in a respectful way.

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