How to Deal with Negative Attitudes in the Classroom

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

Have you ever had a child you just couldn't get through to? Negative attitudes towards school, education, and adult relationships can put a damper on teaching and learning. In this lesson, we'll look at examples of these behaviors and ways to address them in the classroom.

Impact of Negative Attitudes on Teaching

Picture the bell for first period ringing as your students saunter into class. Although most are cheerful when they see you, there's always that one student that seems down. Not only is he down, he's resistant to being in school in general. His attendance is terrible, and when he is there, all he seems to do is complain. Over time, this negative attitude towards school can wear you down.

Most teachers have experienced this scenario at some point in their career, even the most successful ones. Students with consistently negative attitudes can bring others students into their emotional funk, disrupt class, and put a serious drain on teacher's emotional health and attention.

Today, we're going to learn some strategies to help these hard to reach students and hopefully turn their attitude about school around. But before we get into how to fix the problem, we need to understand the underlying cause of this behavior.


For students, all negative behaviors serve a purpose. It might be to avoid failure, get attention from adults or peers, or fulfill other unmet emotional needs. These negative attitudes shouldn't be taken personally. This is easier said than done, though. Let's look at an example of one such situation.

Jamaile has come in late every day since the beginning of school. Although sometimes she is willing to work, most days she's resistant, saying she doesn't understand the point of school and that she doesn't want to be a scientist, so she doesn't see the point of science class. When you press her about graduation she says it doesn't matter. She doesn't want to graduate.

Students may opt out of classwork to avoid failure
student head down

As a caring teacher, you try to spend more time with her. But instead of getting into a power struggle over the completion of work, you get to know her as a person. Speaking with her other supports, you find that she is in foster care with her father is in jail and her mother has passed from a drug overdose last year. It turns out that Jamaile isn't trying to be difficult, she is just in a genuinely challenging situation that feels overwhelming.

Other students might have experienced failure in school so many times, they refuse to try. Trying means they might, and in their opinion probably will, fail again. To avoid failure and the negative feelings associated, they opt-out all together.

Strategies for Teachers

As a teacher, how are you to overcome these immense challenges? The best strategy is to build relationships with your students. Often times, students that have a negative attitude towards school and learning have few, if any, positive relationships with adults. However, this won't happen overnight. Students with this type of problem will be resistant at first, and slow to trust you.


One strategy is called two-by-ten. In this strategy, you spend two minutes for ten days in a row talking to one at-risk student. The caveat is that it cannot be about school work. Talk to them about their life, their interests, and really listen. You'll see your relationship improve, and most likely, so will their attitude in your class.

Try taking two minutes each day for ten days to talk to an at-risk student
teacher and student

Socioemotional Surveys

Another option for improving student attitudes is to implement socioemotional surveys. Students who have negative attitudes usually have underlying socioemotional needs that aren't being met. Students love to feel heard and have some level of control in the classroom. At the end of each unit consider implementing a survey that asks students how the class is going for them. You might ask if they feel like they are learning, if they feel like you care, or what you can do better for them. Letting them write down their thoughts can often bring out issues that they don't feel comfortable talking about yet.

Funds of Knowledge

Often times, many of our most challenging students have deep 'funds of knowledge', or knowledge they have acquired outside of school. Let's look at an example.

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