Dealing With Put-Downs In Middle and Jr. High School

Whether it’s known as name-calling, putting people down, mouthing off, or “dissing” or roasting, this skill is practiced and honed by students at middle schools and high schools across the country. These students don’t need knives to slash each other to ribbons; they do it with their tongues.

For some students, disparaging others is a social survival skill. It is a misguided way to fit in and find belonging and significance. Students may use put-downs to receive attention. They may put people down to experience power or to get revenge. In some cases, mouthing off is a form of protection keeping people at a distance.

Our society has a tremendous need for leaders who know how to find the best in others, who don’t try to tear people down. Many individuals are losing their jobs not because they don’t have the skills for the position itself but because they don’t have the skills for working cooperatively with others. People will work together well only if they feel a sense of connection and involvement. When an individual’s choice is to disparage coworkers rather than to support them, no sense of connection will develop and functioning smoothly together becomes nearly impossible. The ability to identify other people’s strengths and to name those strengths is a valuable one. Students who develop this skill have a real advantage. With training (primarily through class meetings) students learn to be good encouragers, instead of using put-downs.

Suggestions for Dealing with Put-Downs

Most put-downs can soon be prevented by following the suggestions in “Planning Ahead.” However, until then, try the following suggestions for dealing with put-downs:

  1. Ask students involved (both the “put-downer” and the “put-downee”) if one of them would be willing to put the problem on the class meeting agenda for later discussion and problem-solving.
  2. Ask both students whether some positive time-out would help them calm down until they feel better and can work on doing better.
  3. Suggest that the student who has been put down use “emotional honesty” to tell the other person how the put-down made her feel-without a return put-down.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Begin to hold regular class meetings with time for appreciation. Activities for teaching this skill are in the book Positive Discipline in the Classroom.
  2. Ask your students to do a research project on how many put-downs they hear on a typical school day. They can share the results at a class meeting.
  3. Ask the students their opinions on why they hear so many put-downs. Record their answers where everyone can see them. Information gathering, without trying to fix the problem or lecture about it, often produces a heightened awareness that lessens the problem.
  4. Discuss the long-range value of becoming good at putting others down. Ask the students whether any of them plan to have a job, a marriage, or children someday. How likely is it that their future coworkers, spouses, or children will say, “Gee, I just can’t wait for you to put me down today”? If the students recognize that they may need to replace their skill at disparaging others with another skill, ask them whether they are willing to devote thirty minutes a week to practice the skills of appreciation and encouragement. This can be an effective introduction to class meetings for dealing with put-downs in students in middle school and high school.
  5. Make time daily for students to practice appreciating one another. Some teachers have an appreciation box; students drop written appreciations into it, and the teacher reads them aloud each day.
  6. Demonstrate being an encourager by giving your students encouragement and appreciation. If you have thirty-five students per period, single out seven students per period to receive encouragement or appreciation from you and their peers. Keep a pad of paper handy, and write down your discoveries about students to share them later. Teachers who do this are amazed at how much more respectful and cooperative their students become.
  7. Make sure your own actions aren’t modeling put-downs. Imitating students’ behavior to increase rapport doesn’t set the example that students need.