How to Manage Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Your Classroom

How to Manage Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Your Classroom

An interview with Signe Whitson

Do you have a student who steers your classroom off the rails with passive-aggressive behavior?

In this interview, Dr. Randy Boardman talks with Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker, school counselor, the Chief Operating Officer at LSCI, and coauthor of The Angry Smile.

The veteran educators discuss why students use passive-aggressive behavior, how it manifests in different levels, and how to handle it at each level.


Download Full Transcript


Interview Highlights

[3:31] Passive-Aggressive Behavior Definition
Signe: In Angry Smile text, we define passive-aggressive behavior as a deliberate but covert way of expressing feelings of anger. And we say that passive aggression is really motivated by a person's fear of expressing their anger directly.

[4:54] Red Flags
Signe:… some of the most common red flags include things like withdrawing and insulting rather than honestly stating opinions or needs. Passive-aggressive people tend to use words like “fine” or “whatever” to shut down any type of disagreement. Another hallmark is that passive-aggressive people love to procrastinate or carry out tasks inefficiently or ineffectively. They give lip service to doing things differently in the future, while knowing that they really don't plan to ever change their behavior. And really the ultimate red flag of passive-aggressive behavior is that the passive-aggressive person really causes other people to eventually blow up, and in a sense act out the anger that the passive-aggressive person has been finally harboring.

[7:13] Why Students Are Passive Aggressive
Singe: … these young people grow up with a set of developmental conditions that make the hidden expression of anger really feel like their only tenable choice. So I think for the purposes of this discussion, let me lay out two distinctions for you. First, we know that some young people are raised in families where they know they will be met with harsh physical punishment or retribution if they express any type of dissatisfaction or unhappiness or disagreement or anger of any type at authority figures.

So these are the kids that walk on eggshells around angry, aggressive, authoritarian adults. And they learn very quickly that their only safe option is to hide their true feelings of anger. Lest they put themselves literally in harm's way. At an entirely different extreme, there are kids who grow up in families in which social status means everything. So I'm talking about the new house with the white picket fence and the two point three children and the dog and everything is perfect. And these families put a lot of stock in making it seem that way. So in this type of environment the normal natural human emotion of anger ends up being subordinated to appearances and kids in these types of families are socialized to believe that anger equals bad and that good kids would never show their anger.

So even though these two types of environments seem very opposite, what they have in common is that both types of kids learn that open, honest, direct expression of anger is completely unacceptable. But the key thing that we all know is that these feelings don't just disappear. Because someone told kids that these feelings were bad or unacceptable. Instead, they tend to resurface through patterned but subtle misbehaviors or passive-aggressive behavior such as carrying out chores incorrectly, pretending not to hear their name when they're called. All kinds of minor but chronic frustrations for the authority figures in their lives.

[10:34] Level One of Passive Aggressive Behavior: Temporary Compliance
Signe: … we call the first level temporary compliance, because at this level the passive-aggressive person verbally agrees to a request from an authority figure. But they behaviorally delay completing it. So, for example in a classroom setting, a teacher may ask students to work quietly at their seats on an assignment, typical request. And for most students this is very ordinary, not met with any particular emotion. But for the passive-aggressive students, they may feel angry and resentful at having to complete the assigned task for whatever reason. And their response instead of to express their anger openly is to nod affirmatively when the teacher makes eye contact. But find every excuse in the book not to actually complete it.

[13:48] Strategy
Signe: … recognizing the telltale signs of passive-aggressive behavioral before getting caught up in them is really a key strategy for any adult.

[14:53] Level Two of Passive Aggressive Behavior: Intentional Inefficiency
Signe:we call Level Two, Intentional Inefficiency. Because in this level, the passive-aggressive person verbally complies with the request. But unlike in level one, they actually do carry it out but they do it in such a way that is purposefully below expected standards. So, if we take this same classroom example again and the student we talked about before, this time he or she may decide to get started on the assignment right away. But this time they use completely, illegible handwriting or they turn in an assignment and it's ripped and torn or they turn in such nonsensical responses that it is clear that they are defying the teacher's authority. So, it's very frustrating as you mentioned in your history, it's frustrating to most teachers, most adults. But one of the best ways that we can cope with level two passive-aggressive behavior is to make it a point to set crystal clear expectations at the start of any assignment or chore. That way, if a student turns in sloppy, careless, ripped, intentionally substandard work, the teacher can refer back to the expectations that were stated at the beginning of the assignment and then redirect the child to better their work.


[17:15] Level Three of Passive Aggressive Behavior: Letting a Problem Escalate
Signe: So at this third level of passive-aggressive behavior, what we find are really crimes of omission. So in other words, it's not so much what the student does. But what the student doesn't do that creates a problem. So for example, I worked with the student who shared with me that she had been angry at her teacher because she felt like he had embarrassed her in front of the class by calling on her when she didn't know an answer. And she felt like she wasn't able to talk to him directly about her feelings but she made a conscious decision that she was going to show him. So that afternoon, this particular teacher's class was being observed by the school principal. And the teacher started to have trouble with this technology. First, he couldn't find the remote control to advance the slides in his PowerPoint and then he couldn't get the speakers to work so that he could play a video for the class.

The student told me that she could clearly see him becoming flustered and humiliated in front of the principal. And part of her was really enjoying sort of watching him squirm. The student told me that she had seen his PowerPoint remote fall into his briefcase earlier in the day. But she made a choice not to say anything. And she also knew that the outlet he was using for his speakers had burned out. But again, she decided not to tell him what she knew. But rather to sit in her seat and be silently satisfied, feeling like his embarrassment was really sort of a quid pro quo for the humiliation he had got her.

So what can adults at this level with this kind of behavior that's particularly hard to identify. I always say that level three passive aggression is particularly frustrating. It's like trying to nail jello to a wall. Because the student can legitimately say, "I didn't do anything." And often it's very difficult for an adult to prove otherwise. But in this kind of situation, what I say is that the adults' best choice is to maintain calm and to be role models for his students on how to cope with situations that are difficult or frustrating or anger-inducing. By not losing their cool, by not blaming other people or panicking. But staying calm and looking for solution. The teacher plays a really important role in showing young people how to be angry in productive ways.

[20:28] Level Four of Passive Aggressive Behavior: Hidden But Conscious Revenge
Signe: At level four, the passive-aggressive student is no longer withholding behavior. But they are really quite actively seeking ways to get this hidden but conscious revenge on the object of their anger. There are really a lot of funny examples of level four passive-aggressive behavior. My favorite little story to tell is the one about the wife who was so angry at her husband for refusing to help her with the house project. Because he really wanted to spend his day watching football on TV. That she left their home for the day to go shopping with the TV remote control in her purse. And she said that that was the best way that she could get back at him in a legal manner.

If anyone cared to try the internet literally abounds with means that show funny instances of hidden revenge. And it's true that the lengths that some people go to to hide their anger really can be quite funny. But the truth is that level four passive aggression can also be very serious and very destructive. This year, we are coming out with the third edition of The Angry Smile text. And one of the new areas we're exploring is the role that technology plays in passive-aggressive behavior. Especially at this level, because we're looking at how young people are extremely savvy at covertly lashing out at others from behind the cover of a screen or a keyboard. And in the book, I share several real life examples of passive-aggressive behavior online. Including a student whose anger toward her high school science teacher motivated her to set up a fake social media account in his name and post in there saying rumors and even Photoshopped images that put his career in real jeopardy. So yes, this case was an extreme example. But it's also too common among tech savvy kids who have found new ways to act out their anger with these hidden methods.

[23:20] Strategy
Signe: … I think a keynote for all educators and adult is that, first it's important to take away any gratification that a student gets from his passive-aggressive behavior. And in many ways that ends up being taken away the audience. And second, it's also critical to establish logical and sometimes legal consequences for their behavior.

I think when these things can be done in a professional way where the adult conveys intolerance for the behavior while still showing acceptance and understanding of the student's emotions that were underlying the behavior. We start to see the beginning of the end of the need for anger to be expressed in these destructive but hidden ways.

[24:21] Level Five of Passive Aggressive Behavior: Self Deprecation
Signe: So the final level is labeled self-deprecation because of passive-aggressive student is so fixated on getting back to a specific person that he or she is actually willing to behave in self-destructive ways that lead to their own personal rejection or alienation. As an example, I knew a student who was raised in a family, who is very authoritarian. And as part of their ethnicity and their culture, in this family, young people were never permitted to openly argue with their elders. And respect in particular for a father's authority with absolute. So, the parents of this family had deemed that their daughter would go to medical school and become a doctor. But this girl was very creative and wanted to go to art school.

So, rather than dare, openly assert her wants, her future dreams to her parents, she purposefully failed all of her science and math classes in high school and sabotaged her own college applications. So as to be certainly rejected from all of the universities that her parents preferred.

So, young people who are willing to cause this kind of serious lasting harm to themselves through passive-aggressive acts need adults to recognize their behavior for what it is. And that ability to really see that there's pain behind all these destructive behaviors is critical in preventing further riskier self-deprecation from occurring. At Level five, really we're talking about a pattern of pathology that requires professional intervention.

[28:11] Benign Confrontation
Signe: In The Angry Smile, we really guide readers through a six-step process that we call benign confrontation. And this is sort of an ordered way of approaching passive-aggressive behavior and helping adults unmask the hidden anger of a passive-aggressive person. And then help that person begin to understand how destructive this pattern of anger expression can be.

One of the things I really like is that instead of this being sort of in your face, authoritarian type of approach that breaks a person down. Benign confrontation really builds a person up by strengthening the relationship, by increasing self-awareness, by modeling skills for assertive anger expression. And by helping kids find areas of competence. So, I can tell you with all honesty, it's a strategy I use regularly with my students. And it's one that I think is really invaluable.

Want more passive aggressive behavior training and strategies?


You might also be interested in