How to Deal with Kids Being Disrespectful to Adults

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am a middle school principal. I had a situation in the lunch room where one of our eighth graders was making fun of a custodian by calling him “baldy”. Both the custodian and I reacted by yelling at the kid. As he and his friends started to laugh, I realized that it wasn’t the best move. My idle threats of suspending kids who were laughing stopped most of the laughing, and me physically intimidating the remaining two laughers by getting in their faces quieted the rest. I realized that what I did was not effective, but I’m not sure what to do next time to not put myself in that position. – Malik, Los Angeles, California


Good for you for recognizing that when you have to rely on intimidation and threats, especially idle ones, you are doing something wrong.

OK, you messed up by reacting with anger. No judgment here, middle schoolers are good at making people angry. However, adults get angry when they don’t know what to do with kids. Once I answer your question, you will know what to do, making it easier to stay cool next time.

Since you messed up, there will be a next time.

Here is how I would handle this the next time it happens in the lunchroom:

Kid: (to custodian) Hey, baldy! You missed a spot!!!!!

Kid Whisperer slowly walks up alongside of Kid while smiling.

Kid Whisperer (whispering and smiling): Oh, man. That was a bad move. Let’s talk later. Have a good day.

Kid (not whispering): What are we going to talk about anyway?

Kid Whisperer (walking away, not looking back): You’ll see. Don’t worry about it.

The next day, at a (non-instructional) time of my choosing, I talk to Kid.

Kid Whisperer (shaking hands with Kid): Hello sir. Good to see you. Listen, you caused a pretty big problem yesterday by being rude to Mr. Johnson and I’m going to ask you to solve it.

Kid: I didn’t cause a problem!

Kid Whisperer: Probably so. The problem that you caused was that your rudeness and disrespect made it hard for Mr. Johnson to do his job. Now it’s part of my job to make sure that people who work here can do their jobs and do them well. Since you are stopping that from happening, I have a special place for you next to Mr. Johnson’s custodial office where you can eat so Mr. Johnson doesn’t have to worry about you making fun of him during your lunch.

Kid: That’s %*$%#^@%!!!!

Kid Whisperer: Fair enough. In addition, after school you will have a chance to show Mr. Johnson that you aren’t such a bad guy after all and that he doesn’t have to worry about you trying to embarrass him at lunch. I have you scheduled to work with him every night after school from 3:30 to 5:00 until he feels comfortable with you being around him at lunch. He’ll let you and me know when he feels comfortable with you being in the lunchroom and then you can eat again with your friends for as many seconds as you can be pleasant.

Kid: No can do. I have basketball practice every night this week and a game Friday night.

Kid Whisperer: I talked to Coach Humphries and he knows to not expect you until Mr. Johnson says that you are good to go.

Kid: My mom is going to expect to pick me up after practice!! This is such ^&%$#@$%!!!

Kid Whisperer: Could be. Don’t worry. I already called her this morning. Thanks for talking to me. I think class is starting up. Maybe next time I see you we can go ahead and talk about the consequences for you using those words in my office. Thanks. Have a good day.