How to Manage Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Your Classroom

February 24, 2016
Open book in a classroom setting

Manage Passive Aggressive Behavior:

to recognize patterns of behavior in someone who expresses anger indirectly, and to then take deliberate action steps such as remaining calm, setting clear expectations, and modeling behavior that shows how to handle anger in more productive, less hurtful ways.

An interview between Dr. Randy Boardman and Signe Whitson on passive-aggressive behavior training

In this interview, Dr. Randy Boardman talks with Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker, school counselor, the chief operating officer at the LSCI Institute, and coauthor of The Angry Smile, an examination of passive aggression in the school setting. The veteran educators discuss why students use passive-aggressive behavior, how it manifests in different levels, and how to handle it at each level.
Randy begins the interview with a succinct description of the problem: “Have you ever had to respond to a student who will move into slow motion when you ask them to complete a task? Or have you ever had that student who kind of smiles to your face but does everything they can to undermine what you're asking them to do as well as your authority behind your back? It feels almost like they're hiding behind a mask. They're purposely trying to really get under your skin, push you to the edge, and they're very, very good at it.” (0:05)

Interview Highlights

Signe Whitson and The Angry Smile

Signe Whitson has spent the better part of the last 18 years working with young people and their families, helping kids manage anger, and all kinds of related mental health issues. So she’s had ample opportunities to see what a destructive force anger can be. Signe points out that when anger is expressed in uncontrolled, expressive ways, it gets our attention right away. But she’s quick to point out that anger can also be highly controlled and hidden in behaviors which are the hallmarks of passive aggression.
Randy asks Signe for a working definition of passive-aggressive behavior, what it looks like in a school setting and generally how to recognize it. To answer, Signe refers to her book, The Angry Smile, a work which examines passive-aggressive behavior in children, adolescents, and adults within families, school settings, and workplaces. The book offers real-world examples and empowering, practical strategies for working with or when confronted with individuals who exhibit any of the five levels of passive aggressiveness.
“In The 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. In other words, the passive-aggressive person really carries a belief that his life is only going to get worse if other people know about his anger. And so, he expresses his anger indirectly. Passive aggression really involves a variety of behaviors that are all designed to get back at another person without the other person recognizing the underlying anger,” explains Signe. (3:30)

Common red flags

Signe goes on to say that passive-aggressive people get genuine pleasure out of hurting and frustrating other people. “And it's for this reason that we call the pattern of behavior ‘the angry smile.’ So, Dr. Boardman, you asked what passive-aggressive behavior looks like and feels like. Well, I'll tell you this, if your interactions with a child, a parent, a teacher, a student, a coworker, your boss, or even a spouse, give you the feeling that you are just on an emotional rollercoaster going up and down all of the time, chances are good, you are dealing with a passive aggressive person,” explains Signe. (4:20)

Rollercoaster hill against blue sky

She then describes some specific but common red flags that indicate we are dealing with a passive-aggressive person. “Some of the most common red flags include things like withdrawing and sulking 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,” says Signe. (4:54)
Signe goes on to explain that the ultimate red flag is that the passive aggressive person causes other people to eventually blow up, and in a sense they act out the anger that the passive-aggressive person has been silently harboring.

The student side

Next, Randy asks Signe to talk about the student side of passive-aggressive behavior, and where it may show up in families or even with coworkers at a later day. Randy says that it sounds like passive-aggressive behavior comes from a place of anger and that young people don't quite know how to display it appropriately, and that’s why students use this strategy to manipulate adults.
Signe responds that there are many reasons why kids display passive-aggressive behavior, “but what they have in common is that 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.” (7:11)
She goes on to make two distinctions: “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 2.3 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.” (7:28)
Signe explains that even though these types of environments seem like opposites, what they have in common is that in either circumstance, kids learn that open, honest, direct expression of anger is unacceptable. The key result to remember is that the emotions don’t disappear, but instead they resurface through patterned if subtle behaviors like not doing household chores, not answering when their name is called, and so on.

The five levels of passive-aggressive behavior

Randy recalls a presentation he saw Signe give at a conference about The Angry Smile. During the presentation, Signe talked about five categories or five characteristics of behavior. He asks Signe to walk through the five, sharing what characterizes the behavior, how to recognize it, and, finally, how to do something practical to deal with the behavior.
Signe agrees and goes on to describe five distinct and increasingly pathological levels of passive aggressive behavior, ranging from the everyday to the truly troublesome.

Level One – Temporary Compliance

She begins: “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, a 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.” (10:34)
Signe gives the example of a student that asks to sharpen their pencil, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, any activity but the one the teacher requested. This can serially distract other students. Every time the teacher redirects, Signe explains, the student comes up with some sort of plausible excuse or rationalization.

Small child sharpening pencil


Eventually, teachers catch on that the student’s excuses are really a chronic way of responding to an unwanted task, but the really important realization for the teacher to make is that this behavior is really a form of level one passive aggression. Signe points out that this early recognition is a basic tool of dealing with passive aggression, and that the real dangers of passive aggressive behavior often sneak up on adults.
To cope with this behavior, Signe makes the point that a critical tool for teachers to use is this early recognition of what they’re dealing with. When teachers can recognize that the student is testing their limits of patience in order to get a response, this understanding provides the basis for the key strategy of not losing their composure in front of the class.

Level Two – Intentional Inefficiency

Level two is called Intentional Inefficiency, and it’s easy to see why it’s a step up in aggravation from level one. Signe explains: “So, as you said, 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.” (14:50)

Signe points out that one of the best ways to cope with level two passive-aggressive behavior is to make it a point to set explicit and clear expectations at the beginning of any assignment or task. When this is done, if a student turns in substandard, sloppy, or intentionally careless work, the teacher can refer to the expectation from the start of the assignment and then redirect the child to improve.

Level Three – Letting a Problem Escalate

Next, Randy asks Signe to talk about level three, which is called Letting a Problem Escalate. Signe explains that what is central to level three is what she terms the crime of omission. “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.” (17:15)
Signe gives an example of this: “I worked with a 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 caused her.” (17:30)
Signe goes on to say that this type and level of passive-aggressive behavior is very frustrating because it’s elusive and difficult to prove. “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,” says Signe. (19:05)

Student with arms raised shoulder shrug
She advises that the adults’ best choice in this kind of situation is to maintain calm and model behavior for students on how to cope with situations that are especially difficult or frustrating. By staying calm, the teacher plays an important role in showing how to handle anger in productive ways.

Level Four – Hidden but Conscious Revenge

Here’s where things start to get serious. No longer content to sit back and let things happen, the fourth level of passive-aggressive behavior involves surreptitious behavior done with the intent to cause hurt, harm, or damage, such as slashing the tires on a hated gym teacher’s car. But examples can be more mild.
In this interview, Signe begins with an almost light-hearted look at this level of passive aggression: “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,” says Signe. (20:28)
But then she comes back to the more serious repercussions of level four, including in the cyberworld. “The truth is that level four passive aggression can also be very serious and very destructive,” says Signe. “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 embarrassing rumors and even Photoshopped images that put his career in real jeopardy.” (21:27)
Signe then gives actionable advice on what adults can do to protect themselves from this sort of behavior. “Let's talk a little about what adults can do. In the example I just gave you where the fake social media account was set up, legal action was actually taken by the school and the teacher against the student in the form of a civil lawsuit. And again, the student's behavior was really at the extreme edge of passive aggression. But nonetheless, I think a keynote for all educators and adults 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 taking away the audience. And second, it's also critical to establish logical and sometimes legal consequences for their behavior,” explains Signe. (23:01)

Level Five – Self-Deprecation

In the fifth level of passive aggressive behavior, the student is so fixated on getting back at a specific person that they are willing to behave in self-destructive ways that lead to their own personal rejection or alienation. Signe shares an example: “I knew a student who was raised in a family who was 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 was 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.” (24:40)
Signe asserts that when young people are willing to do lasting harm to themselves, adults need to recognize this behavior for what it is—serious pain behind destructive behavior that establishes itself as a pattern of pathology that requires professional intervention.

When passive aggression persists into adulthood and the workplace

For listeners who may recognize these patterns of behaviors in members of their family, whether old or young, Signe reassures that there is plenty for them in The Angry Smile. “So, for your listeners who are just looking for more information on passive-aggressive behavior at work or among family members, rest assured; it's provided in the book and it's in the online course. . . . So, as I mentioned earlier there are specific reasons why some young people choose passive-aggressive means of anger expression. And in the families they grew up with, [where there were] these developmental conditions that they were raised in, hiding anger probably was their only safe choice. But as these young people turn into adults, they overgeneralize the style and apply it to most authority figures. Acting out this pattern again and again, whether it's at work or it's with family members.” (26:41)
Randy observes, “So they're no longer kiddos anymore, but the behavior worked for them at one time and it resurfaces.” (27:32)
“You got it,” replies Signe. (27:40)

The benefits of benign confrontation

At the conclusion of the interview, Signe gives a succinct and persuasive rationale for the design and intent of the lessons and approach taken in The Angry Smile: “I'm actually trying to make strategies for coping with passive aggression the worst kept secret in the world. So I'm happy to reveal what I know, especially about changing this behavior in the long term. 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 an 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.” (27:58)

Guest Biographies

Randy Boardman
Randolph M. Boardman, Ed.D. is the senior training advisor for CPI. Dr. Boardman is also a senior trainer of Life Space Crisis Intervention and a national trainer of Time To Teach!® for classroom management and differentiated instruction. Before joining CPI, Randy was a teacher and a principal for 27 years in elementary, middle, and secondary schools. He also has experience in residential care working with adults with developmental delays.

Signe Whitson
Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker, school counselor, and chief operating officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute. She presents training workshops across the US and Canada for parents and professionals on topics related to child and adolescent mental and behavioral health. In her articles, books, and training workshops, Signe provides down-to-earth, practical advice for navigating the daily challenges of living and working with children, tweens, and teens. 

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