Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Classroom

How teachers can put an end to compliant defiance

Posted Aug 04, 2016

Do you have a student who chronically procrastinates, sulks, underperforms, tests the spirit of class rules, and undermines your authority?  Does this young person have a way of breaking every rule you set, but always in subtle ways and with a plausible justification?  When interacting with this student, do you typically feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster in your own classroom? 

Chances are good, you may be dealing with a passive-aggressive student.  Passive-aggressive behavior is a deliberate, but covert way of expressing feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009).  Passive aggression is motivated by a young person’s fear of expressing anger directly. The passive-aggressive student believes life will only get worse if adults know of his anger, so he expresses anger indirectly, through the types of behaviors described above.  All in all, these behaviors are designed to “get back” at an authority figure without that person immediately recognizing the child’s underlying anger.   

In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, 2nd ed., we propose that the passive-aggressive student seems to derive genuine pleasure out of frustrating others; for this reason, we have dubbed this pattern of behavior “the angry smile.”  Read on to learn how to recognize the red flags of passive aggression in the classroom and gain effective strategies for how to change this troubling pattern of behavior.

Level 1: Temporary Compliance

Passive aggression, like most troubling aspects of behavior, occurs on a continuum.  We have identified five distinct and increasingly pathological levels of passive-aggressive behavior that tend to occur in classrooms and schools (and beyond!)   We call the first level temporary compliance because at this level, the passive aggressive student verbally agrees to a request from an authority figure—but behaviorally delays completing it. 

For example, in a classroom setting, a teacher may ask students to work quietly at their seats on an assignment.  For most students, this is an ordinary request, but for a passive aggressive student who feels angry and resentful at having to complete the assigned task, his response is to nod affirmatively when the teacher makes eye contact with him, yet find every excuse in the book—from sharpening his pencil to getting up to go to the bathroom, asking to get a drink of water, asking the teacher a thousand questions, or distracting the students around him.  Every time he is re-directed by the teacher, he has a plausible excuse—he was thirsty, he didn’t understand, his pencil wouldn’t write—whatever.  But when the teacher begins to notice that this is not just a bad day for the student, but rather a chronic way of responding to unwanted tasks, she should understand this behavior as a form of passive aggression.

So, what can the teacher do about this behavior? That’s the important part, right?  Teachers have many options for dealing with passive aggressive behaviors in their classroom, starting with early recognition of what they are dealing with.  The real danger of passive aggressive behavior is that it often sneaks up on adults, quietly accumulating as a series of minor but irritating behaviors.  Then, suddenly, the student makes one more excuse, one more delay—and teacher finds herself suddenly at the limit of her patience.  She raises her voice, she starts handing out punishments left and right, and basically reveals in front of the whole class that she has lost control of her emotions.  The passive aggressive student, on the other hand, sits there cool as a cucumber, having succeeded in frustrating his teachers and getting her to act out the anger he had been hiding.  Therefore, becoming adept at recognizing the telltale signs of passive aggressive behavior before getting caught up in them is a key strategy for any adult.

Level 2: Intentional Inefficiency

At this level, the passive aggressive young person verbally complies with a request—and unlike in Level 1, they actually carry it out—but they do so in a way that is purposefully below expected standards.  For example, in a classroom setting, that same student we talked about before may decide to get started on his assignment right away, but this time he uses completely illegible handwriting or turns in such nonsense responses, that it is clear he is defiant in his compliance. 

One of the best ways teachers can cope with Level 2 passive aggressive behavior is to make it a point to set crystal clear expectations at the start of any assignment.  Then, when a student turns in sloppy, careless, intentionally sub-standard work, the teacher can refer back to the expectations stated at the beginning of the assignment and re-direct the child to better their work. Teachers must be especially careful to manage their emotions in response to a passive aggressive student, as one of the most common (and most relationship-damaging) responses to a child’s passive aggressive behavior is to lash out verbally—in a sense acting out all of the child’s anger for them—in degrading and unprofessional ways.

Level 3:  Letting a Problem Escalate

At this third level of passive aggressive behavior, what we have what I call crimes of omission.  In other words, it’s not what the student does, but what the student doesn’t do, that creates a problem.  For example, 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.  Feeling unable to talk to him about her feelings, she decided to show him.  The next day, as his class was being observed by the school Principal, the teacher began having trouble with his technology.  First, he couldn’t find the remote to advance the slides on his PowerPoint presentation, then he couldn’t get the speakers to work so that he could play a brief video for the class.  The student knew very well that the remote had fallen into the teacher’s briefcase earlier in the day and that the outlet he was using for the speakers had burned out.  Instead of telling the teacher what she knew, however, she sat in her seat—silently satisfied and feeling like his embarrassment was quid pro quo for the humiliation he had caused her.

Level 3 passive aggression can be especially frustrating for adults to cope with, as a student can legitimately say, “I didn’t do anything.”  Often, it is very hard to prove otherwise.  In this kind of situation, the adult’s best recourse is to maintain calm and really be a role model for his students on how to cope with difficult, frustrating situations.  By not losing his cool and blaming others and by staying calm and looking for solutions, the teacher plays a very important role in showing students how to be angry—productively.

Level 4:  Hidden but Conscious Revenge

At level four, the passive aggressive student is no longer withholding behavior, but rather they are quite actively seeking ways to get hidden but conscious revenge on the object of their anger.  Technology and social media have opened up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to anonymous ways to cause viral pain to others.  In one particular instance, a student’s simmering 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 photos that put his career in real jeopardy.  This case was an extreme example—but also too common among tech-savvy kids who have found new ways to act out their anger in hidden, yet very public, ways.

So, what can a teacher do when a student is using Level 4 passive aggressive behaviors?  In the example I just gave you, legal action was taken by the school and the teacher against the student, in the form of a civil suit.  This student’s behavior was at the extreme edge of passive aggression, but nonetheless the key to putting an end to passive aggression at this level is to take away any gratification that a student gets from her passive aggressive behavior.  Secondly, it is critical to establish logical consequences for the behavior. When these things can be done in a professional way—where the educator conveys intolerance for the behavior while still showing acceptance and understanding of the student’s emotional state, we start to see the beginnings of the end of the need for anger to be expressed in destructive, passive aggressive ways.

Level 5:  Self-Depreciation

The final level—Level 5—is identified as “Self-Depreciation” because the passive-aggressive student is so fixated on getting back at a specific person that she is willing to behave in self-destructive ways that lead to her own personal rejection and alienation.   For example, I knew a student who was raised in a family that was very authoritarian. As part of their ethnicity and culture, in this family, young people were never permitted to openly argue with their elders.  Respect for a male’s authority was regarded as particularly important. 

The parents of the family had deemed that their daughter would go to medical school and become a doctor.  The teen girl, however, was very creative and wanted to go to Art School. Rather than dare openly assert her wants to her parents, she purposefully failed all of her science and math classes in her junior year of high school and sabotaged her own college applications, so as to be certainly rejected from all of the universities her parents preferred. 

Young people who are willing to cause serious, lasting harm to themselves through passive aggressive acts of self-depreciation need adults to recognize their behavior for what it is.   The ability to discern their true emotions from amidst the noise of their destructive behavior is critical in preventing further, riskier self-depreciation from occurring.  At Level 5, we are often witnessing a pattern of pathology that merits professional intervention.  Teachers do students an incredible service by looking beyond their surface behavior and recognizing the depth of the young person’s distress.  When caring educators can connect the student (and their parents as needed) to sources of help and support, they become true champions for passive-aggressive children.

For more information on strategies to confront and change passive-aggressive behavior in the classroom, please visit www.signewhitson.com or check out The Angry Smile online course, offered through the LSCI Institute.