How to Consequence Swearing in Your Classroom

Dear Kid Whisperer,

There has been an outbreak of swearing at my school this year. Teachers in my building are at a loss about how to get students to stop. I have looked on the internet and have not found anything to help. Can you offer a suggestion? -Danicka, New York, New York



I am horrified (though not surprised) that you cannot find any actual answers for your question on the internet. “Experts” have surprisingly few answers for real life problems in classrooms.

I am also horrified and surprised that I have not yet answered this question in this column, especially since I get it often when I train teachers around the country. Thank you for prompting me to correct this important omission.

Here we go.

Swearing in school requires consequences if and when you find that the language is inappropriate for school. The first essential understanding is that when a difficult kid is told not to swear, but no action is taken, that kid hears the following:

“You are allowed to swear, because if you do, I won’t do anything about it.”

Kids are always waiting to see what you will do and will generally ignore what you say. Besides, lectures and threats and warnings are a waste of instructional time and they tell students that a way to get their teacher to stop teaching is to use foul language.

So, here’s what you can do. I have done it with students many times, and if you do it as described, you will usually only have to do it once.

Kid: This is #$%@ing %^%#&*&^ and I am going to lose my %*^$ if the these ^&%$&#*(%^ing &^%*#$%#@$s don’t stop their ^&%$#@% stupid-#$@ &^%#.

Kid Whisperer: Yikes.

Kid: $%#@ you.

Kid Whisperer: Alrighty. You seem very agitated. I will have to do something about this language at some point in the future. Don’t let it ruin your day. (To the rest of the class:) I will be reading from page 326, from the paragraph under the heading, “The Effects of the Printing Press”. Feel free to follow along or just listen.

Kid: Seriously, %^$# you!

Kid Whisperer: The effects of the printing press on European society in the 1500s were many…

The chances that Kid will continue with his experimentation with abusive, colorful language will diminish if this script is followed. They will increase if we engage and/or involve an administrator and/or send this student to the hallway. If Kid continues, though difficult, ignoring is the best option, knowing that him continuing will make his consequence worse. Later, at a non-instructional time, I have this conversation while wearing a broad smile:

Kid Whisperer: Yeesh. That sure was some colorful language the other day.

Kid: Whatever.

Kid Whisperer: Well, I’m not mad at you. We all have bad days. Anywhoo, when kids swear it stresses me out. That situation has had me so stressed out since it happened three days ago that I have been too stressed to do my work. I am going to ask you to do that work for me. This will solve my stress problem. I have all of this work here that I need you to grade and file, I have these boxes of pencils to sharpen, and you may have noticed that I haven’t been vacuuming the floor like I usually do, so I’m going to ask you to take care of that, too. You can do these things in any order you like. Thank you so much.

At this point, Kid will have the choice to either de-stress you, or suffer the consequences of refusing a reasonable request from an authority figure. He can either solve a problem that he caused (stressing out a teacher) or solve a problem that he caused and he can learn that acting like a belligerent jerk doesn’t get him out of things when you tell him that your classroom will be his spot for the rest of the year during lunch (never withhold food), recess, or some other non-instructional time until he de-stresses you. Either way, learning to not act abusively towards authority figures will serve him very well in the future!