What do “forgotten” homework assignments, illegible handwriting and dawdling at the water fountain all have in common? Passive aggressive students master the art of emotional concealment by hiding their anger behind a mask of annoying, but socially acceptable behaviors (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008) such as these examples.
For classroom teachers, tasked not just with curriculum instruction but also with managing the behavioral, social and emotional needs of their students, it can be difficult to see beyond frustrating behaviors and to identify underlying feelings of anger. In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed., we outline specific strategies that educators can use to recognize passive aggressive behavior quickly and manage it effectively:
Know What You are Dealing With
Teachers who are skilled at recognizing the anger that underlies a passive aggressive child’s actions are in the best position to successfully connect with the student and change this self-defeating pattern in the long term. With correct behavioral identification, comes emotional neutrality.
Recognize the Levels of Passive Aggressive Behavior
Children exhibit passive aggressive behavior along a continuum of distinct and increasingly pathological levels. When a teacher has a strong working knowledge of the levels, he becomes well-equipped to confront it quickly and early-on, in its less damaging forms.
1. Temporary Compliance:
A student verbally complies with, but behaviorally delays the completion of a specific task. For example:
Ricky visits the School Nurse, complaining about a jagged wire from his braces. When he returns to class, he has missed a math assignment. His teacher tells him to complete it at home that evening. Ricky nods his head in agreement, but inside, he is angered that he has to spend at-home time making up this schoolwork. The next day, when his teacher asks Ricky to turn in the math worksheet, Ricky tells her that he “forgot all about it.”
2. Intentional Inefficiency:
A student complies with a specific request from a teacher, but carries it out in an unacceptable way. For example:
When Ricky’s teacher tells him that he will need to finish the math worksheet and turn it in before he can participate in recess, Ricky is seething on the inside. He thought he had gotten out of the work and is frustrated by his teacher’s insistence on the assignment. He completes the task quickly and slides it onto her desk before lining up with the other kids to go to recess. When his teacher looks at the assignment, she realizes that he has flippantly answered every question with the number 24.
3. Hidden But Conscious Revenge
A student consciously decides to act out in a hidden way to get revenge against his teacher. Behaviors at this level range from rumor spreading to hiding objects of importance to even criminal behavior. For example:
After having to work at the math assignment for a third time, under his teacher’s strict supervision, Ricky decides to get more covert about expressing his anger over the task. That evening, he uses MySpace to start an anonymous school-wide rumor about his teacher’s sexual orientation. “Cyber-bulling is not just between kids,” he thinks with a satisfied smile.
Stop the Passive Aggressive Cycle
Passive aggressive behavior is exclusively a dance for two. When Ricky’s teacher continued to insist upon completion of the assignment, she ignored the real issue at hand (her student’s anger) and upped the ante for Ricky’s next round of covertly defiant behavior.
A more effective way to confront the situation and stop the passive aggressive cycle in its tracks would have been for the teacher to directly ask Ricky about his hostility. “This assignment is creating a lot of anger for you, Ricky” is a benign statement that could let Ricky know his teacher was aware of his emotions and on to his behavioral cover-up. In this way, the teacher could end the cycle of hidden hostility and role-model direct self-expression.
For more information on recognizing and responding to passive aggressive behavior in the classroom, please check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, 2nd ed. at the Life Space Crisis Institute.
Written by Signe Whitson, LSW. She serves as the the Chief Operations Officer of the LSCI Institute. She is a licensed social worker with over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families. Signe is also a LSCI Master Trainer. Her advice is brought to you by My Baby Clothes Boutique in an effort to help parents deal with the issues in their own families. Pay it forward by checking out their selection of the most adorable baby headbands, newborn hats, and unique baby shower gifts.