What teacher does not want a more respectful classroom? Days are packed full with new content to teach, tests to give and grade, and unexpected demands on teachers’ time and attention. Students’ respect for teachers can go a long way toward reminding teachers why they went into teaching in the first place. 

Yet rude seems to be in style—we see unruly passengers on airlines, hurtful comments online, and impasses among legislators. Can the pendulum swing in the other direction for this next generation? We think so, and we see educators making this happen.

We partnered with EL Education, an organization focused on the development of ethical character in youth, including respect, for a two-year study of their school-wide model. Conducting interviews and focus groups with 58 fifth, sixth, and seventh graders at nine middle schools in the U.S., we asked students, “What do you think respect means?”

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We chose respect in middle school for an important reason. By age 13, most youth have experienced a surge of pubertal hormones that lead to intense sensitivity to hierarchy and status. They know if adults respect them. Given this sensitivity, middle schoolers can teach us a lot about what respect means to them. Here we share insights from culturally, ethnically, and racially diverse students, and we offer research-based recommendations to cultivate deep, authentic respect in your students.

What do youth say about respect?

Most youth defined respect as caring actions and showing kindness. For example, one student described respect as “showing courtesy and that you will help them along, make sure they’re OK.” Another said, “to be able to care for one another,” and yet another said, “helping someone . . . and making their day.” Just a few students described respect as showing honor: “Having respect is admiring someone” or “If someone was in the military and they fought in the war, then we’ve got to show respect for them and you honor them because they helped you out.” 

Some students took a different approach by focusing on compliance with authority. For instance, one student said, “Just listening to people who are older than you.” Another said, “​​When you obey them, and like when they tell you something you just do it that first time. They shouldn’t have to ask you again.” 

Still other youth described respect in very exciting ways that gave us great hope for the future. One theme present was reciprocal respect. Some youth understood that respect goes both ways—if they respect others, they know that others will respect them back. For instance, one student said, “My friends do deserve my respect because they’re really good friends, they show me respect.” Another theme matched the Golden Rule: “Respect is treating others the way that you think they should treat you.”

The most powerful responses were those that talked about respecting people who were different from them. One student shared, “Respect means to respect other people’s culture and don’t judge them by their food, their clothes, what they wear.” Another explained, “Respect is respecting somebody for their culture, or race, their beliefs, and their traditions, and without respecting somebody, I don’t think anyone would really feel good about themselves.” Yet another said that respect means that “everyone has different rights and traditions and just still be fond of that.”

As we think about our goals for youth and our desire to create a better future, we target reciprocal respect and respecting those who are different from us as what we hope to teach.

The science of respect

The students’ responses illustrate two types of respect identified in research: “ought-respect” and “affective-respect.” Ought-respect comes from a way of thinking, not feeling—it’s what we think we ought to do to show respect. Ought-respect is a general idea about showing regard to others. Youth often learn ought-respect from parents or teachers. In contrast, affective-respect comes from how someone feels toward another person. With affective respect, a person is noticing a behavior or trait of another person and expressing esteem for them.

Put simply—respect involves both head and heart; ought-respect is mostly head and affective respect is mostly heart.

The most basic ought-respect is compliance, meaning that someone knows they should listen and follow the rules. Youth show ought-respect by tuning into someone who is speaking because they know they ought to do so, not because they feel an emotion that leads them to stop and listen.

More advanced ought-respect stems from the reality that all humans share a common humanity and, for that reason, everyone has a right to be respected. In this way, ought-respect has elements of justice, equity, and fairness—all themes that become more prevalent in youth in the middle school years. 

Affective-respect is positive regard for other people based on an emotional state from within. When a teenager sees a best friend stand up for herself against someone acting mean, she may experience affective-respect toward that friend. When a teacher has a conversation with a struggling middle schooler, listens carefully, offers encouragement, and shows high yet realistic expectations, that teacher is showing affective-respect, which, in turn, may support students’ development of reciprocal respect.

We talk about these two types of respect to anchor our recommendations for teachers. Healthy development in youth needs to incorporate both types of respect, and here’s why. Most people naturally show homophily in their choice of friends: We tend to befriend people who are similar to us. In friendships, youth find it easy to show respect to friends who share many attributes with them—like age, gender identity, race, ethnicity, and religion. The motivation for this type of respect emanates from the feelings that youth experience toward these people around them.

But what kind of world will we have if youth only respect the people who are similar to them? Not a very good one. We need to help stretch students so that they care about others outside of their immediate circle of friends. In doing so, we can help them learn and practice being respectful to people when the initial feeling they have toward them may be judgment, questioning their choices, or even opposition.

How do we do this? We start by teaching students that all people deserve respect and that there are good reasons to appreciate and understand the people with different worldviews. Then, in supportive environments, as a result of ought-respect and the respectful relationships that follow, youth will start to experience positive feelings toward those people, resulting in affective-respect.

Five ideas to cultivate respect

Among the middle schools we studied, five were using the EL Education school-wide model and the other four were not. During analysis, we discovered that EL Education students were more likely to talk about reciprocal respect and respecting people who were different from them than students at comparison schools. This finding led us to ask what unique strategies EL Education teachers were using to teach these special types of respect.

Here are recommendations from the respect research literature and EL Education on what teachers can do to create more respectful classrooms. In these efforts, keep in mind that the goal of respect is not compliance. The goal is to support youth’s healthy development of reciprocal respect and respect of people who are different from them.

Create a culture of respect. All schools have a school culture. Truly great schools spend time and energy, especially in the beginning of the year, to explicitly plan what the school culture will look like. Spend time with your students talking about how you want your classrooms to look and feel, and integrate respect into those norms. Next step: Keep those norms alive during the year.

To do that, in elementary school, teachers can remind students about ways to show respect in their day-to-day behavior, notice situations that have gone well, and point out how mutual respect was important in those situations. When things do not go well, you can unpack these situations, explore what emotions interfere with respect for others, and identify ways that showing respect could have made the situation better.

In middle school, you can co-create classroom norms and embed regular opportunities for self-reflection. EL Education teachers often ask students to complete a short survey offering them an opportunity to self-reflect on their academic performance. If the assignment included group work, the survey includes questions that ask students if they were respectful of the other members of their team, even if disagreements came up.

  • I See You. Everyone Matters

    Members of the classroom or meeting stand and respectfully acknowledge each person in the group.

    Try It Now

Model respectful behavior and hold yourself accountable when things don’t go as planned. Every interaction with a student or teacher creates an opportunity to enhance (or detract from) the development of respect. Students, as we know, are watching us constantly. Yet we know we are far from perfect. So, if situations arise where we didn’t show respectful behavior—perhaps because of the heat of the moment or frayed nerves—acknowledge that aloud, be vulnerable, and use that as an opportunity to teach.

For example, if that moment of disrespect occurred with an individual student, it is OK to have a brief one-on-one with that student and say, “I wish I had handled that situation with more respect.” Keep in mind that youth learn respect from our moments of glory as well as those “oops” situations that we’d rather sweep under the rug. 

Leadership matters. We discovered that school leaders at the EL Education schools created a unique experience for teachers and other school staff. School leaders were friendly and approachable but also were treating teachers as their equals and demonstrating a willingness to make changes based on teachers’ suggestions. The adults at these schools were treating each other with respect and promoting equity by showing care and respect for every single student at the school. Yet again, we are reminded that teachers can do so much more in their classrooms if they feel respected and listened to by their school leaders.

Integrate examples of other cultures, races, and ethnicities into instruction in ways that lead to perspective-taking and respect. Take a strengths-based approach to discussing culture, race, and ethnicity, especially when discussing cultures that may be different from your own or those of your students. Instill curiosity, not judgment.

Middle school students thrive from opportunities for meaning-making narratives as they discuss these topics because it increases relevance. For instance, in a conversation about xenophobia toward immigrants, teachers can lead students to think beyond the “here and now” about what national issues and broader contextual factors (e.g., perceived threats to their livelihood) led to harmful discrimination toward specific ethnic groups. This type of narrative helps students understand aspects of a situation that may not be directly observable, like the contribution of societal systems and historical or cultural context. These lessons help students develop a deeper understanding of the world around them, exercise their perspective-taking skills, and be inspires to create a better, and more respectful, future.

Show students respect. Adolescents are keenly attuned to whether or not adults are showing them respect. How adults respond to middle schoolers is crucial. Youth need to feel like they matter and need more voice and choice in their day-to-day experiences.

One way to show respect is to use alternative approaches to assess student learning. For instance, the New York Performance Standards Consortium offers performance-based approaches that are more likely to lead to reciprocal respect between students and teachers. Likewise, EL Education recommends student-led conferences instead of traditional approaches to parent-teacher conferences.

Each and every generation faces new challenges. Improving racial equity, protecting the environment, and preserving democracy are just a few of the projects that lie ahead for today’s youth. Success on these thorny problems rests on youth’s ability to develop mutual respect with people who are different from them. We believe that respect is essential for children and youth to contribute to society now and in the future. 

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