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Respecting our Young People

As a teacher, new teacher coach, and parent, I've heard over and over comments like, "These kids just don't respect us" or "Kids these days, they just don't know how to act". In fact, the dictionary definition bolsters this idea with this sentence for "respect": due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others: "young people's lack of respect for their parents". I've seen parents (and I've done this too) straight up ignore a child who is so clearly trying to communicate. I've been surprised over and over at what choices kids will make if I clearly share expectations versus expect them to know better. And, I've so frequently seen adults escalate situations with young people by not slowing down to listen and by not accepting that all humans have autonomy to make choices, even when we don't agree with them and even when we'd prefer something else. If we don't model respect, we cannot reasonably expect to help kiddos develop it or to expect it shown to us. And, ya'll, sure, you can say "Respect your elders" as much as you want, but if those elders treat kiddos as less than human, WHY SHOULD THEY SHOW RESPECT BACK? Remember, youth are the ones with underdeveloped prefrontal cortices and biologically less able to make rational decisions in heated moments, NOT us adults. We've got to be the ones to act our age.

Today, I want to shift the discussion of respect and share with readers some ways that we can show respect to the young people in our lives. Actions speak louder than words. When we model respect, when we truly respect the children, young adults, and peers in our lives, we give the children in our lives a working model to use. I started this post off by making a table of what respect looks like to toddlers and to teens (the two age groups I've worked with most) and realized they are the same list. You can see that list in the image to the right and I'll unpack it a bit below. Huge thank you to Brittni Delmaine for help on this post. I encourage you to use the discussion points at the end of the blog post with your family or classes. Take the feedback to heart. Young people are immensely capable, and we are much more likely to see that if we slow down, watch, and listen.


1. Respond when a young person communicates with you. What this looks like: I'll be at the sink washing dishes. HG will come over and say "sheeesh, sheeesh, sheeesh, shoezzzz on". Sometimes, I keep doing what I'm doing and don't respond and that often leads to hurt feelings and weird follow up choices (throwing all the shoes across the room). Instead, I can pause, get down on HG's level, and say, "Oh! You want to put Freda's leash on and go for a walk? Yes! Once mommy is done with dishes." In my classroom, this would obviously look different. All the students are talking loudly, working on group projects. A student stops working and puts their head down. I might say, "Sam, get to work" from across the room OR I could move next to Sam and say, "Hey, what's going on?". Often, I found that students stopped working because the environment that worked for most students didn't work for them in the moment or they'd had an awful start to the day, etc. Some great options are to let students use headphones so they can tune out ambient noise, move into the hallway, go to the library, sit in another classroom, or just put their heads down and come in at lunch to catch up. We might also discuss as a class that we all have different needs in group work, etc and develop areas of the room for quieter or louder work or times to talk and times to be quiet. I don't know any adult who can work at 100% efficiency and productivity every day. It is not kind or respectful to expect that from children.

2. Model and expect respectful choices, like choosing to be kind, greeting people, playing

safely, cleaning up, maintaining relationships, dealing with conflict appropriately, compromising when needed, etc. The younger we start this one, the better. One of our daily musts is to make a mess and clean it up - to ensure age-appropriate sensory rich messy play AND to ensure that HG cleans up at least part of her own messes each day. She is learning in this small way to respect our space. And, what is truly humbling, is that this has already bloomed into care for our planet. She'll find trash that doesn't belong outside on our walks and pick it up and carry it to the trashcan, even if it means delaying her time on the swings :). Another example of this is that I am not a hugger. Sometimes, when Will hugs me for too long, I push his arms off. HG then did this to a friend. Our actions speak so much louder than our words. If I model pushing, I can expect HG to do the same.

Expert mess maker learning to clean up :).

3. Establish routines and stick to them so young people know what to expect. From security and stability, children and youth feel safe enough to explore, question, and learn. Routines also mean we aren't recreating the wheel every day, so it helps us as adults too - it reduces the cognitive load of planning so we can focus on the present moment. Our morning routine is that HG gets up and has breakfast with daddy while I snooze or run. We go outside and watch daddy's car drive away. We get ready for the day by walking the dog and changing. We head out to play or go on an adventure/to a class. We head home for lunch and then we water the plants, read a story, and take a nap. After nap, we might watch a show or head out for more play, followed by dinner, play or bath, stories, and bedtime. HG can expect the same pattern each day and week. She knows she'll have plenty of time to play and after much discussion, she knows what it means when I say, "We'll swing more tomorrow" sow e can go home more calmly. In the classroom, this was warm up, sharing, literacy time (reading a science article and unpacking it), a short dose of new content and discussion, project work or lab, and an exit ticket.

4. When routines change, expect, accept, and plan for different behavior. When we have established routines, we have created a safe enough environment so that we can change things up. And yet, I always find behavior goes a little wonky when things change and I plan for that. For example, lab days in a science classroom are always messy, chatty, and fun. This is what kids remember and learn the most from. What I started doing was making videos of the pre-lab information and students watched that the day or night before the lab so they knew what to expect. That meant students could dig deeper into the lab and random things that happened wouldn't throw us off as much. With HG, we have an art class we love to go to but it means shortening nap time to get in the car to make it there. I expect that after her art class, she's going to be a bit wild so we head out of the museum to play in a nearby fountain or swing from trees :).

5. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Be clear, concise, and calm. There's this great quote from Brené Brown that kind of annoyed me the first time I read it, "Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind". I am soooo guilty of saying a lot of words to say "No, thank you" or saying "10 o'clockish maybe" when I mean, "11 at the earliest, but also it's my day off, so really, don't rely on me", and with our kiddos we've got to be clear. If we leave space for guesswork, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and we then cannot blame the person we were unclear to. So, what if we are 100% crystal clear and someone chooses to do what we didn't want them to? You stick to your consequences. We talk often about how sticks need space at Tinkergarten, this is nothing new to HG. Today, she hit me with a stick and then threw it. I had her go pick up the stick and put it away for the day. Then I held her and said, "I am hurt and angry that you did that. We don't hit. We don't use sticks like that", once we both settled down, we moved on. A small consequence, because that's all she needs right now, but she saw how sad I was and had to choose a different way to play and that's enough for an almost two year old.

6. Front-load transitions and give ample time. I was our school's AVID site coordinator. In this role, I worked with our faculty to ensure that we began helping students keep more organized binders and I was responsible for checking in to see how teachers were doing with implementing strategies suggested. So often I saw teachers say, "Put blah, blah, blah away and then get out your book". Within five seconds, they'd be moving on to the next direction and half the class would've crammed their un-hole-punched papers into anywhere other than logical and findable. Instead, trying something like, "Okay, in three minutes, we are wrapping up this task", "Okay, put this in the classwork part of your notebook behind your blah blah" (wait until everyone has done this), "Now, stand up, find a partner, and tell them one thing you learned from that task" (wait two to three minutes), "5 seconds to find your seat", "Okay, books out!". Is this slightly regimented? Yes, and going back to routines, doing this about 85% of the time meant that I could actually afford to give my students most of 90-minute block on Fridays to work on creative independent projects; they had scheduled breaks to socialize, decompress, and reflect throughout the week; and they could find assignments when we needed them, saving us time. With HG, we set timers when we are ready to wind down on the playground. We'll say, "Two more minutes, then you'll hear a song, and we'll go in for snack/coloring/stories/bath". Then, we do what we say when we go back inside.

Student annotations from our seminar on fairness

7. Remember to be fair, and that fair doesn't look identical. My first administrator suspended pretty much every student who we referred to him. This consequence was so blatantly unfair that I did not refer a single student to him (well, except one who pretended to pull down his pants and pee on a wall, and in shocking news, because this happened the day before winter break, nothing happened...). Learning to deal with almost every issue in my classroom on my own was a challenge, but one I'm happy I took on. I had students who struggled to stay in their seats, they were allowed to sit on the floor and work. If other students also asked to sit on the floor and work, I invited them to sit where they could get their best work done. If students became distracting, it was back to their seats. I had a student who did not have a quiet, safe place to sleep at home temporarily, so they slept in a corner on a yoga mat. If other students asked to sleep, I reminded them that it meant more to do later. We also spent time doing a Socratic Seminar (as rich a discussion as a debate, but geared toward deeper understanding of an issue and not winning) on this idea that fair doesn't always appear equal which made it easier for students to accept that things looked different for each student in class.

8. Treat all emotions as valid. Discuss the appropriateness of reactions chosen. HG loses her mind over cheese sticks, to the point that if we say no she'll avoid eating anything else because she's so angry. We'll say, "We know you are angry, and, you have already had x cheese sticks today, so you need to eat what is in front of you or you can have a ____. You can sit in our high chair or sit in mommy's/daddy's lap to calm down or you can color." After a few minutes of tantrum behavior, HG calms down, usually sits on one of our laps, and eats what we prepared. HG is also scared of some things unnecessarily, like the workers fixing our street lamps. When we walk our dog and HG asks to be carried because she's scared, I pick her up. Then, as we we walk, I'll remind her that those workers are doing their job, their job is to fix things, and my job is to keep her safe, so she doesn't need to feel scared next time, but that it is okay that she is scared. Teens have all sorts of crazy complex things going on: making future life choices; maintaining friendships; starting dating relationships, etc etc. So often what they hear from us is that, "What you're feeling now doesn't matter and isn't real". Feelings are REAL, if a teenager respects and trusts us enough to tell us a real feeling, we definitely are doing nothing to maintain their respect if we throw it back in their faces. Instead, we can listen and point them to resources. One thing I would say to students I knew very well is that what seems like a big deal now is a big deal, yet the longer we live, the more big experiences we have and it gives us a new perspective that makes big things easier to handle. I would only ever say something like this to a student who knew I meant it and not one who might think I was just saying "You'll get over it, it's not a big deal" in a different way.

9. Give young people real choices and accept their choices. The idea of giving three choices has been one of the things that most positively impacted my relationships with students; I learned it from a Helping Relationships class in grad school. Let's look at an example with two choices or three to get the importance of the third choice. A student is about to throw a chair at another student. In a loud and commanding voice, you say, "Put the chair down or I'm writing you up". Students know they can only put the chair down and be safe from unwanted consequences, they don't really have a choice. Instead, in a loud, commanding voice you say, "Sit down in your chair, walk to the water fountain, or walk to the guidance office". I've seen this deescalate a variety of situations. I think in part, this catches students off guard. They are not used to getting real choices when they're about to do something they know they really cannot do in a classroom. And, it is also respectful. It respects that in every situation there are multiple options and it shows kids that we trust them enough to make a good choice, and often they do. Is it scary for a moment, heck yes, but often with better results that are safer for everyone than the "Put down the chair or I'm writing you up" since that often results in either the chair being thrown, an absurd yelling match, or an SRO being called or all of the above. With HG, the choices might be "You can get off the swing and slide for 2 minutes, you can swing for two more minutes, or we can go in and read a story before nap time" - all will end up with us inside, we just take different ways to get there that let HG make some choices.

10. Talk to young people like you would a peer, but using age appropriate topics, tone, etc. Avoid talking down to young people. When we talk down to anyone we are not modeling respect. When we use a sweet, "Well, bless your heart" kind of tone with kids they can smell our phoniness a mile away. By talking to children kindly and politely, even when we are angry or sad, we show them how to talk to their peers and to other adults. Sometimes that means we need to step out of the room before we can engage, and that is an important skill to model. So instead of, "Why would you do something like that, what are you thinking?" or "Well, you just showed me you can't handle the task" when we say, "Can you tell me why you made that choice?" or "I feel disappointed because I thought you could do ____. Next time, I need you to..." we show that we are curious about what happened and willing to help our kiddos learn to try again.

11. Say sorry when you are ready to mean it. There are times when we don't interact with kiddos in our life in the way we later wish we had. In those times it is valuable to be transparent, to say we are sorry and mean it. Apologies are hard, so take some time and wait until you actually want to apologize and then do it. In my classroom, this might be as simple as a sticky note saying, "I am SO sorry I used the wrong gender pronoun, thank you for correcting me" or pausing mid-lesson and saying, "You don't seem to be getting this so I think I'm explaining it in a wonky way. Turn and talk to your neighbor and let me know if that helps" (not an apology, but an acknowledgement of my imperfection, and 99% of the times a turn-and-talk gets things clarified). Recently, when I was working with young kids, one kiddo had a stick and was trying to use it to stir, but it had too many twigs, so I showed that you could snap some off without pausing to ask if that was okay, and it wasn't because now the stick wasn't whole and the kiddo was rightfully sad. So, I got down on the kiddo's level and said, "I didn't realize what you were doing and should have asked, I'm sorry. Would it be okay if we taped it back together?". I think too often we think toddlers and babies are simply being irrational and crying or throwing fits for no reason but they are being very reasonable, we are just not stepping into their world and understanding what the big deal is. And, we have to remember that one second of patience to them is like a few hours of patience to us since we've been around much longer :).


I will never forget the day a student was SO excited to share with me that they'd learned you were not supposed to call out a person who had made you angry during a class presentation on a totally different topic. The excitement this student showed was so honest. We so often say students and young people are disrespectful, yet how often are we truly defining and modeling respect? So, take what works from the ideas above, leave what you don't need now, yet please, try the following with kiddos in your life:

  • Ask, "Who is someone you want to be like? Why?". With older kids, try "Who is someone you really respect? Why?". Throughout the discussion, you may realize you need to look up definitions of respect together.

  • Grab scrap paper and each write a list, without peeking, of how people show you respect OR show they don't respect you. Read these and notice what surprises you. With younger kiddos, you might instead have them draw themselves and things that they like for other people to do to and with them, like give hugs, push them higher on the swing, read stories, etc. If you want to, you could say, "When people kindly do these things with you when you ask, they are showing respect" (but you don't have to with really little kids, the word is not super important yet). Then, ask how the feel if someone pushes them, if you are too busy to play, etc. Draw a sad stick figure on the back and add these things we'd prefer for people not do to us to show what respect doesn't look and feel like.

  • Try some sentence starters like, "I wish people would say sorry when...", "I know my friends and teachers are listening when...", "The emotion that is hardest for me to handle is...", "I am worthy of respect because...", "I lost respect for ___ when ____", "I treat all people kindly, but people really earn my respect when they..."

If you try these at home and take pictures of drawings, share them using #watchwonderbloom. Have other ways we can show young people respect? Share those in the comments or via social media. I can't wait to add to my tool box!

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