Mutual Respect in the Classroom

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An excerpt from Positive Discipline by Dr. Jane Nelsen

Mutual respect incorporates attitudes of: (1) faith in the abilities of yourself and others; (2) interest in the point of view of others as well as your own; and (3) willingness to take responsibility and ownership for your own contribution to the problem. The best way to teach these attitudes to children is by modeling them. You will see how the concepts of timing and winning cooperation can be merged with the concept of mutual respect.

Emotional Student
Jason, a student in Mr. Bradshaw’s fifth grade class, often lost his temper and would loudly express his hostility to others, including Mr. Bradshaw, during class. Mr. Bradshaw had tried several forms of punishment, which only seemed to intensify Jason’s outbursts. He had tried sending him to the principal’s office. He had tried having Jason stay after school to write five hundred sentences about controlling his temper. He finally tried demanding that Jason leave the room to sit outside the classroom on a bench until he cooled down. Jason would slam the door on his way out. Sometimes he would pop up and down in front of the window, pulling faces. When he came back into the room, his demeanor was one of belligerence, and he would soon have another angry outburst.

Mr. Bradshaw decided to try encouragement, keeping in mind the concepts of timing, winning cooperation, and mutual respect. He began by asking Jason to stay after class, when they could be alone. When Jason came to Mr. Bradshaw after school, he found a much friendlier teacher. First, Mr. Bradshaw thanked Jason for using his valuable time to stay after school. Then he told Jason he would very much like to work out something so they would both feel good about the solution. He owned his part of the problem by sharing with Jason that no matter how much it upset him when the outbursts disrupted the class, he had been disrespectful to use punishment as a mistaken attempt to motivate Jason to do better.

Mr. Bradshaw continued the conversation by telling Jason that he didn’t want to use punishment anymore, and I needed his help. He asked Jason if he would be willing to work on a solution with him.

Jason was not yet willing to cooperate and showed his hostility by claiming he couldn’t help it that the kids made him so mad. (Remember, it may take a while for children to trust us when we change our behavior.) Mr. Bradshaw agreed he could understand that feeling, because sometimes other people made him very angry also. This got Jason’s attention. He glanced up at Mr. Bradshaw with surprise and relief showing in his eyes. Mr. Bradshaw went on to share with Jason that he was aware of certain things happening in his body when he got angry, such as a knot in his stomach and stiffening in his shoulders. He asked Jason if he was aware of things happening to his body when he got angry. Jason couldn’t think of any. He then asked Jason if he would be willing to try an experiment and pay attention to what happened to his body the next time he lost his temper. Jason said he would. They agreed to get together after school the next time it happened so that Jason could share what he discovered.

It was five days before Jason had another angry outburst in class. This was a long time for Jason to go without an outburst. It is possible that he felt belonging and significance just because Mr. Bradshaw had taken the time to work with him in a friendly, respectful manner. He didn’t feel the need to find belonging through misbehavior for a while. However, it didn’t last forever.

The next time Jason had a temper tantrum; Mr. Bradshaw gently put his hand on his should and said, "Jason, did you notice what happened to your body just now?" That question interrupted Jason’s tantrum by inviting him to think. Mr. Bradshaw sounded interested and excited as he added, "Come see me after school and let me know."

When Jason gave his report after school he told Mr. Bradshaw he had noticed that he started clenching his fists and his teeth when he was getting angry. Mr. Bradshaw asked Jason if he would be willing to catch himself next time he started to get angry, and to take responsibility for himself by stepping outside the door for some Positive Time Out until he had cooled off. Mr. Bradshaw added that he wouldn’t have to ask permission, because he would know what Jason was doing and had faith in him to handle it all by himself. Mr. Bradshaw. then asked Jason what he could do while standing outside the door to help himself feel better. Jason said, "I don’t know." Mr. Bradshaw said, "How about counting to ten or a hundred, or thinking happy thoughts, or simply appreciating the beautiful day." Jason said, "Okay."

Again, it was five or six days before Jason had another temper tantrum. Again, he had felt the encouragement of discussing the problem respectfully. Again, the encouragement didn’t last forever. The next week Jason stepped outside the door three times, remaining outside for three to five minutes before coming back into the classroom, noticeably calm. Each time Mr. B. gave give him a thumbs-up sign and a wink in acknowledgment of his responsible behavior. Mr. Bradshaw. was not sure what Jason did to help himself calm down, but he was grateful that Jason wasn’t making faces through the window. Jason continued taking responsibility for his anger and would leave the classroom four or five times a week. It was three weeks before he lost his temper and shouted out at a classmate, forgetting to step outside.

Mr. Bradshaw talked with Jason during lunch recess and commented on how well he had been doing. He added that everyone makes mistakes while learning and asked if he would be willing to keep working for improvement. Jason agreed. Mr. Bradshaw reported that for the rest of the year Jason would occasionally step outside the door, but had very few outbursts. When Jason would come back in the room after cooling off, Mr. Bradshaw continued to wink at him and smile. Jason did not become perfect, but improved significantly. Mr. Bradshaw gave the following report during a faculty meeting. "Jason used to lose his temper several times a day. Now he loses control once or twice a month. I’ll take it." Mr. Bradshaw was especially pleased because rapport between them improved so that their total relationship became more enjoyable.


The above example also illustrates the concept of working for improvement, instead of expecting perfection. Perfection is such an unrealistic expectation, and very discouraging to those who feel they must live up to it. Children would rather not try at all than experience constant discouragement because they don’t live up to an adult’s expectation of perfection—or their own. Recognition of improvement is encouraging and inspires children to continue their efforts.

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Hundreds of schools worldwide use these amazingly effective Positive Discipline strategies for restoring order and civility in today's turbulent classrooms. Now you too can use this philosophy as a foundation for fostering cooperation, problem-solving skills, and mutual respect. Just imagine, instead spending your time energy trying to manage and control misbehavior, you can enjoy teaching. Instead of confronting apathy, you will enjoy motivated, eager, engaged students! Inside you'll discover how to:

  • Create a classroom climate based on community and cooperation that enhances academic learning.
  • Use encouragement to increase students’ intrinsic motivation.
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    And much more!

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