Do you work with a student who consistently performs at a level that is beneath his ability? Is there a child in your classroom who habitually procrastinates, predictably “forgets,” and inevitably dawdles the whole day long? Are you acquainted with a young person who harbors hostile feelings toward you or a classmate, but never expresses this anger in words?
Passive aggressive students master the art of emotional concealment by hiding their anger behind a mask of annoying and confusing behaviors (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009). While schools usually have long lists of policies and procedures for managing overtly aggressive behavior and educators receive hours of in-service training each year on minimizing classroom disruptions, far less time and attention is given to helping teachers recognize and effectively manage the indirect expression of anger that is the hallmark of passive aggression.
Yet, we know that hidden hostility is a significant problem in schools. Teachers often report their irritation and confusion over how a non-aggressive student can cause them to experience such feelings of anger over time. They describe again and again how they have “had it” with students such as these and how they can no longer even look at them without feeling animosity.
It is certain that without awareness and understanding of the dynamics of passive aggressive behavior, it can be very difﬁcult for authority figures in the classroom to see beyond a student’s frustrating behaviors and to identify his/her underlying feelings of anger. Once a teacher becomes aware of these troubling dynamics, however, he becomes well-equipped to maintain emotional neutrality and manage his responses in such a way as to skillfully connect with the passive aggressive student.
This article describes typical school-based passive aggressive patterns through which students succeed in frustrating their teachers (winning the battle) but ultimately damaging their own school experience (losing the war.) In a follow-up article, I will outline strategies educators can use to stop the dynamics of passive aggressive interactions with kids in their classrooms.
Pattern 1: Temporary Compliance
In this pattern of passive aggressive behavior, students verbally comply with an authority figure's directive, but behaviorally delay carrying out the request.
Lily is a second grader who loves Art but dislikes her regular classroom lessons. When her teacher instructs the class to begin putting away their art supplies in order to begin Social Studies, Lily acknowledges her teacher with a nod, but continues to work on her collage. Even when all of her classmates are lined up and ready to move on to the next class period, Lily is still slowly putting the cap on her glue bottle and painstakingly placing her scissors in their case. She dilly-dallies through her teacher's multiple prompts to clean up and insists, "I'm coming" so many times that her classmates begin to giggle. Finally, her exasperated teacher loses control and lashes out against Lily in front of the whole class. "Ha!" Lily thinks to herself. "Now you know how I feel about having to stop my art project before I am finished with it."
Pattern 2: Intentional Inefficiency
Students acting out this pattern of passive aggressive behavior behaviorally comply with an unwanted task, but carry it out at a purposefully substandard level.
James is a high school sophomore who exceled in Science and Math but strongly disliked anything to do with writing. During his Creative Writing class, he took pleasure in finding new ways to violate the spirit of his teacher's assignments, while still following the letter of her law. When his teacher assigned a 10-page, typed, double-spaced essay on time travel, James handed in a paper with exactly 20 words on it--two per page, typed, with a blank line between each of the words on the page. For the next assignment, the teacher added a word count to her specifications. James met the word count, filling his essay with wild vocabulary words and long strings of adjectives to meet the 1000-word standard exactly. Each time his teacher would confront James about his under-performance, he would insist, "What? I followed the rules exactly. You're just picking on me. Beside, this IS Creative Writing class and I WAS being creative."
Pattern 3: Letting a Problem Escalate
In this pattern, a young person expresses anger at an authority figure in the school by making a conscious decision not to act, even when his action could prevent a problem from occurring. I often call this pattern of passive aggressive behavior a crime of omission, for it is what a student consciously chooses not to do that creates a problem.
Thirteen-year-old Silas is angry at his Spanish teacher, Mrs. Robinson, for confiscating his cell phone during class. At the end of the period, Silas is walking behind Mrs. Robinson in the hall when he sees his teacher's phone fall out of his briefcase. "Mrs. Robinson!" he calls out impulsively. When his teacher turns around, Silas stops short, smiles, and says, "Ummm, I was just wondering when I could my phone back." He continues to engage Mrs. Robinson until they are both all the way down the hall, far away from the scene of the crime of omission.
Pattern 4: Hidden but Conscious Revenge
This pattern of passive aggressive behavior occurs when a student has hostile feelings toward a teacher and makes a very deliberate decision to get back at him/her at a later time.
Mandy loved computers, but hated her Computer teacher. She perceived him as rude when he directed her to stay on task with her classmates instead of moving ahead at her own pace. After studying the basics of website design in class, Mandy decided on a perfect way to show her teacher how much she actually could stay on a task. She built a small website dedicated to him. Using a real photo from the yearbook and tons of false, embarrassing information, she published the site online and anonymously publicized it around the school. Her teacher was humiliated in front of the student body and had to defend against the untrue postings when confronted by school administrators. Mandy enjoyed the drama from her safe distance. Recognizing the impact of this first website, she realized the potential for building others related to classmates she did not favor. (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009).
Pattern 5: Self-Depreciation
This pattern of passive aggressive behavior is considered the most pathological, in that a young person conveys her covert anger in ways that hurt others, but also have long-term, negative consequences for herself.
Pippa was a bright, artistic high school senior. She was the youngest of three children and the daughter of two medical doctors. Everyone else in her family had an Ivy League college education and this was the path her family assumed she would travel on as well. Pippa wanted to attend Art School rather than a traditional university, but her parents said they would not pay for anything other than a traditional academic education. Pippa was furious, but felt she had no power to verbally dissent. She consented to her parents' wishes and applied to all of the Ivy League universities. Little did her parents realize, however, that Pippa sabotaged each and every application, describing in her essays how much she despised each school and was only applying because her parents forced her to do so. Sure enough, Spring came and Pippa found herself with eight rejection letters from the Ivy Leagues and no feasible plan for attending any university in the Fall. Suddenly, Art School seemed like a good plan to her parents…
Passive aggressive behavior is often a response to a young person feeling as though his life will only get worse if he expresses his anger directly. While the choice to behave with sugarcoated hostility often feels satisfying to the young person in the moment, in the long-term this indirect style of communication isolates the child from sources of adult support.
This article is designed to help educators recognize the red flags of passive aggressive behavior. When teachers are willing and able to look beyond behavior and recognize the anger that drives students, they are in the best position to meaningfully connect with young people and eventually re-direct their passive aggressive behaviors to more emotionally honest, assertive anger expression. In the next article, I will outline strategies for how teachers can confront and change the passive aggressive behaviors of students.
Signe Whitson, LSW is a licensed social worker, school counselor, and COO of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute. For more information on understanding and managing passive aggressive behavior, please visit www.signewhitson.com