by Allen Mendler

Teaching Students How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable

two businesswoman are arguing on the street

Disagreeing without being disagreeable is a skill that is lacking among many students.  A common manifestation of this problem is the choice of words to express a different point of view.  Some school-age students lack overall awareness and/or practice in knowing and using better social skills: listening while someone is speaking; interrupting; using eye contact and other non-verbal subtleties when communicating.  Some lack self-control, saying or doing whatever hurtful thing comes to mind without thinking ahead when they see or hear something that doesn’t fit their reality.  Others haven’t learned how to express another point of view by simply saying it calmly rather than by shouting and name-calling because that is what they see at home, in the media, between their sports heroes or elsewhere.  More than a few are purposely disagreeable because of the power they feel when they attack with words or actions.  While it is impossible to know all of the reasons, there is no doubt that learning to listen to someone with a different point of view and then responding in a manner that respects the person is an important life skill for students to learn, as well as a vital element in having a well-managed classroom.   There are some important keys to having a lively classroom that includes disagreement with respect and dignity.

Teach students how to appropriately disagree with you and each otherWhat do you want your students to say or do when they have a different point of view?  Do you want them to keep it to themselves – tell you privately – offer their opinion at a specified time?  Do they know the difference between giving an opinion that offers a different point of view and one that does little more than criticize?  Teach them to paraphrase before sharing: “So, as you see it____,” “What you’re saying is____.”  As well, let them know how you plan to handle putdowns or comments that are not helpful and what you will do if and when they occur.  Two examples,

“It is not helpful to call each other stupid, laugh or roll your eyes when you don’t agree with what someone says or does.  You can either not comment or offer your opinion and explain why you see things differently without attacking the other person.”

“If you disagree with me about an assignment, a consequence or how I treat you, see me after class and tell me how you think I can be a better teacher for you.”

Cheerful smiling funny boy on a green background.

Model how to carry oneself in the face of disagreeable commentsHold yourself to at least the same standard that you expect of your students.  Avoid using your positional power through sarcasm, threats, put-downs and the need to win when students challenge you.  When untoward comments or actions are directed your way (i.e. That’s a stupid rule; You’re always picking on me; That’s not fair; When are we ever going to use this!) use these moments to show students how disagreeable behaviors can often be stopped in a dignified way.  Good ‘in the moment’ responses include:

I’m sorry you feel that way.

That’s your opinion and you are allowed to disagree.

If that’s really how you feel, see me later and tell me what you think would work better for you.

Challenge put-downs and then ask questions when opinions are offered.  It is extremely important that students learn how to disagree with a value or an idea without attacking a person.  Encourage disagreement with a controversial idea as long as there is no intention to hurt someone by attack through name-calling, put-downs (“Are you gay?”; “Do you always get your stuff at the Goodwill?”) physical aggression. Let students know that the way to disagree is to say, “I don’t see it that way,”  “I disagree,” or “My opinion is” followed by whatever the reason might be.

If you hear inappropriate comments challenge and correct (“That was a put-down. Let’s say that again by telling him what he said or did that made you feel sad or mad (i.e. I didn’t like it when___________).  Depending on what happens next, ask questions like “What happened to make you feel that way?”  “How would you have handled things differently?”  “Do you think there is only one right answer or could there be more?”

Praise students when they share a different point of view in a respectful wayLet your students know when you see or hear them respectfully disagree.  For example, “I am really impressed!  That was a fantastic discussion especially when Morgan and Sue who have very different beliefs about legalizing marijuana were able to calmly present these views without attacking each other.  I think politicians could learn a lot from you!”

Two boys in the park, having fun with colored eggs for Easter

Teach coping strategies Unfortunately, some students purposely say hurtful things for the attention they get and the power they feel.  Naturally, this often creates resentment, disruption and conflict.  Nobody wants to be at the receiving end of put-downs, whether intentional or not.  It is entirely normal to feel upset, hurt and angry.  When stressed, fight or flight are the instinctive reactions.  Yet neither is appropriate at school.  If you fight, there are consequences.  And you can’t usually run away because there aren’t many places to hide. Yet the best way to get them to stop is by staying calm and not showing emotion.  This is not easy to do and requires considerable teaching, practice and reminders.  Appearing calm on the outside is possible when students learn how to gain greater control over their thoughts and feelings.  The next few activities are designed to teach students how to do that, followed by assertive things to say that can be very effective but require practice.

1. Change things in your mind – Teach kids that before they react, it can help to imagine that somebody said or did something that wouldn’t bother them at all.

Ask your students one, both or a variation of these questions: “

If somebody called you a book, cup or chair, how would you react?

If someone who laughed or smirked at you when you made a mistake had his shoes on the wrong feet, how would you feel?

Discussion that follows usually includes thoughts that the recipient would probably think there was something wrong with that person and would likely not get mad or feel upset.  Teach your students that when they hear hurtful words or gestures, before they say or do anything, pretend that the speaker said one or more of these ridiculous things instead.  Ask them to picture someone calling them a name they don’t like but with the attacker dressed like a clown with a big bug crawling on his head?  Point out that we all have power to control our feelings by adjusting our thoughts and images.

2. Take a few deep breaths – Teach your students to take a few deep breaths when they feel angry or scared.  Have them practice counting silently to five or ten with their eyes closed while inhaling and the same as they exhale.  Suggest they breathe in calm, relaxing fresh air and they breathe out any anger or fear they may feel.  Little kids can breathe in big breaths like “Barney” and breathe out fire like an angry dragon.  Repeat this at least a few times.

3. Focus on Positive Thoughts – It has been known for some time that what we think strongly affects how we feel. Most adults are fully aware of this connection.  Children are not.  Use their experiences to teach them this connection.  For example, you might ask them to think about a TV show they really like watching.  Then ask them how they feel while they are thinking about the show.   How do they feel when they think about their favorite toy…….place to visit…….tastiest food?   Then connect how positive thoughts can help when bad things happen like somebody saying something mean.  Share and explore specific positive thoughts like those that follow that they can use to remind themselves of their good qualities when somebody is trying to get them upset:

Some kids used to tease my teacher when they were kids and look at my teacher now.

I am a good person and I won’t let ______ make me feel bad.

I am smart.

I am able to do lots of things.

I will not allow anyone to make me feel bad.

I don’t have to agree with the bad things some other kids say about me.  Nobody is perfect.  I can remind myself of the good things.

If someone bugs me, I will let it bounce off me like I bounce on a trampoline.

Use a “quick unexpected comeback” – Calmly ignoring a putdown becomes more possible after learning one or more of the above strategies, and should be encouraged.  However, a more assertive way for a “victim” to stand up for herself and gain respect without things escalating is to say something unexpected in a controlled manner.  For example:

That’s your opinion.

I don’t agree but if you want to believe that, go ahead.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful, I welcome additional ideas and comments.  Please use the comments section below to write any comments you may have about what I wrote or if you have something to share.

Children raising hands knowing the answer to the question

About the author:

Allen Mendler, Ph.D. is an educator, school psychologist and the author or co-author of numerous articles and several books including When Teaching Gets Tough, Power Struggles, Motivating Students Who Don’t Care and Connecting with Students. As one of the internationally acclaimed authors of the original and revised editions of Discipline with Dignity, Dr. Mendler is a highly acclaimed motivational speaker with a wealth of practical strategies on what it takes to successfully motivate and manage difficult students.