Respectful Classroom Climate

Teacher-Student Relationships: Establishing a Respectful Classroom Climate

Teacher-student relationships are enhanced by teaching respect, which grows from the root of politeness; “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” go a long way toward establishing a respectful classroom climate. Taking social skills to the next level requires that a tone of respect permeate your classroom.

As with the teaching of all other classroom values, this begins with you. Teacher-student relationships form a foundation for learning respect, and children who learn to act respectfully toward adults will also act more respectfully toward each other.

Classroom routines are built upon repetition. Respect breaks down into three areas of focus:

  • Not interrupting
  • Tone of voice
  • Choice of words


Not Interrupting

This is huge. This can be very difficult for kids to learn, but nothing is more important for establishing a respectful climate.

Think of conversations between many of the adults that you know; what it really boils down to is two people who can’t wait for the other person to stop talking so they can say what is on their own mind.

Little kids and big kids

As noted elsewhere, kids are just small adults in many ways; when it comes to conversations, adults are just big kids who have learned to be polite enough to not interrupt (even though they really want to).

What your students learn from you regarding teaching respect will take them a little step closer to being a respectful adult.

Don’t allow students to interrupt. Based on your teacher-student relationships, handle it differently for each of these scenarios.

If a student interrupts while you are teaching or speaking to the class, say:

Excuse me Diana, I wasn’t asking for input. Please hold your comment until I am done.

If a student interrupts while you are speaking to another adult, say:

This is an adult conversation. Go back to what you were doing until we are finished.

The words, “adult conversation” is their cue to leave and not stand by waiting (and listening). On the other hand, if it is OK for them to stand by, let them know that.

If a student interrupts while you are speaking to another child, say:

I’m helping Andreaz first, please wait.


It’s not polite to interrupt; please wait until I’m done.

If a student interrupts while another student is speaking to the class, say:

Let’s respectfully listen to Kristina. You can have a turn when she’s done.

The exception to these scenarios is the “bathroom emergency.” Let your kids know up front that if they have a true emergency and need to interrupt, they can say, “I’m sorry, it’s an emergency.” Still interrupting, but at least it is done politely.

Classroom meetings are a good place for kids to practice not interrupting each other. When each student has a turn to speak, other children can begin to appreciate the value of listening to another person’s input and ideas from start to finish. This enhances more than teacher-student relationships; it reinforces student-to-student relationships as well.

Tone of Voice

Tone of voice can be a tricky area, for what sounds fine to one person can sound a little testy to someone more sensitive. We are not looking to create meek children who never speak…so for our purposes, it is enough to focus on loudness of voice rather than the nuances of tone when teaching respect.

Model how to speak, even speak with emotion and intensity, without shouting. Raising the voice a little is fine (as you can certainly bet I did in some of the bullying case studies on the classroom team building page ) but a teacher should never truly shout at her kids unless it is a safety issue…as in:

Stop! That will burn you!

…projected across the room during a classroom cooking session. If you save your “loud voice” for those situations, you can bet that you’ll get immediate attention when it really matters.

But 99% of the time, use your “inside voice” and insist that the kids do as well. When making a correction to loudness, it is usually most effective to do more than remind; ask the offending student to repeat what was said in at an appropriate level to reinforce your expectations.

TIP: Simply focusing on how loud a child is speaking will go a long way toward moderating their tone of voice and create a more-respectful classroom climate.

Choice of Words

Elementary kids are pretty straightforward in their speech and not generally capable of disrespect based on a turn of phrase, so word choice comes down to use of inappropriate words.

Words like, “stupid,” “dumb,” or “retarded” have no place in your classroom.

These words can be very hurtful. Use of them should result in an apology to an individual and/or the entire class by the offending student.

“I’m sorry I shoved you, Mr. Desk!”

You can have some fun with teaching respect while reinforcing appropriate responses. When I see a student “disrespect” an inanimate object, either intentionally or unintentionally, I’ll ask them to apologize to it…pat it and ask if it is OK.

Even the toughest kid will sometimes get a grin when she is talking to the chair she tipped over…and in the process practice how to apologize to a person the next time she bumps someone. It’s a fun way to reinforce teacher-student relationships while making a point.

Cultural influences

A word about cultural expectations regarding word choices. Different ethnic groups and regions have differing expectations, particularly regarding honorifics. For example, if the norm in your area is the use of “sir” and “ma’am,” then you should enforce this custom when teaching respect.

Teacher-student relationships…When it comes to social skills, respect demonstrates that a person really “means it.”

Communication in the Classroom: Teaching Social Skills of Politeness

Effective communication in the classroom often relies on social cues between teacher and students, and between individual students as well.

Teaching politeness is the first step in teaching social skills that can have a dramatic impact on a student’s ability to “play nice” and otherwise function in a close-knit classroom community.

Politeness is King

Anyone can learn to be polite.

Even the most cranky person, either child or adult, can learn to be polite. Why? It’s simple…politeness can be a habit that relies on just a few key words and actions. I cover the actions in teaching respect. So let’s talk about the words here. And I’d bet you can guess which ones we are talking about:

  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Excuse me

teaching-respect-highway-thank-you-signNo surprises there, huh? But the most effective types of communication in the classroom often start with such simple phrases.

As I said, anyone can learn to be polite…just picture the meanest person you can, such as your uptight neighbor who hates your cat or the “you’re not getting a refund” person on the customer assistance line…if they use “please” and “thank you” (and maybe a couple “have a nice day’s”), you’ll end up complaining bitterly about them but will also say:

Well, they were polite, but they were still mean!

If a few magic words can paint a veneer of civility on the meanest people you can think of, then imagine what they can do for those sweet kids in your class!

Cultural challenges to teaching social skills

Here are two of the challenges you will face:

  • Home life.
  • Families place varying degrees of importance on teaching social skills of politeness and working together. Frankly, some parents don’t even insist on “please” and “thank you” from their children, let alone some of the other niceties. (And “please” and “thank you” are the basics of social skills worldwide, no matter your nationality or culture.)

    This can certainly challenge a teacher’s classroom management philosophy of polite interaction.

  • Culture.
  • Some children arrive at school completely well-trained in social skills…based upon the expectations in their parents’ home country. Many of these kids are speaking English as a second language and have difficulty appreciating nuances of American phrases and idioms (e.g. “getting your ducks in a row” = “getting organized.”)

These, of course, are not show-stoppers. As noted above, politeness is a habit an anyone can learn it. Just be aware that it may not be reinforced at home, so for some kids it may take a bit longer.

Communication in the classroom: setting the example

As with any skill taught at school, politeness and other social skills are modeled and reinforced at the group level and tailored at the individual level as needed. Enough cannot be said of the importance of your example when reinforcing skill that affect communication in the classroom.

TIP: Act the way you want the kids to act and you will be half way there.

Sticky Note with textAlways thank a student who fulfills a request; use “please” and “excuse me” repeatedly throughout the day. To make your point obvious, ratchet up your politeness about one notch above everyday normal. Try for a touch more formal than you’d be around regular family – maybe the level you’d use around strangers…or meeting your in-laws for the first time!

The next step is to insist on polite behavior from the kids. Pause and point out missing “pleases,” etc. whether they are in conversation with you or with each other.

Teaching social skills takes practice, practice, practice

When guests are expected in your room, have the kids practice how to ask questions. If they are receiving gifts, such as free books from a local charity, give them the exact words and behaviors to use to express their thanks:

Thank you so much for the book. I really like to read about _______.

Praise them lavishly afterward for their stellar performances. Asking to use the restroom is one area where I insist on proper form:

May I use the restroom please?

…is the way they must ask; if I hear:

Can I go to the bathroom?

…I let them know that I’m sure they can go there, but that isn’t how we ask!

Thanking lunch helpers that serve their food is a great way for kids to practice being gracious. I also make sure they thank classroom workers for doing their jobs, especially paper-passers, even when they hand out worksheets – I love it when kids learn to thank each other for giving them work to do!

The handshake seals the deal

I think that a good, firm handshake while looking someone in the eye puts the absolute stamp of sincerity on “thank you.” Look at the “thanks for the book” scenario above. Now, picture it with a small child saying it while reaching up to firmly shake the hand of the adult.

This simply knocks adults over…no extra words, just one extra action. They are not accustomed to a child behaving with such sincerity.

Practicing the habit of sincerity can lead to real sincerity in the end. And the handshake is the go-to move for this.

  • Firm grip (not crushing, not wimpy)
  • Look ’em in the eyes
  • Two pumps and release

TIP: Kids love practicing handshakes with each other. They feel so grown up!

Politeness, which enables effective communication in the classroom, is so important in many ways; it greases the wheels of civilized society and orderly classrooms. It’s simple to instill, very effective at establishing a foundation for the ideal classroom climate and goes a long way toward teaching respect.