top of page

Responding to Backtalk: When In Doubt, Do Nothing

Eliminating the Element of Surprise

In our previous segment we learned the Cardinal Error of dealing with backtalk. The Cardinal Error of dealing with backtalk is backtalk – your backtalk. Becoming involved with backtalk only makes the problem worse – which produces our first rule of backtalk:

It takes one fool to backtalk.

It takes two fools to make a conversation out of it.

In this segment we will look at specific types of backtalk. Few things trigger a fight-flight reflex more predictably than surprise. If we become familiar with the more common types of backtalk, we can reduce the element of surprise. This will help us remain calm rather than becoming upset when a student “mouths off.”

Fortunately for us, backtalk is one of the least creative endeavors of the disruptive student. Mouthy students have been saying the same things since little Babylonian kids went to school.

Rather than conjuring up your worst student, think of a typical kid as we examine common forms of backtalk. I will refer to this level of backtalk collectively as “whiny backtalk.” With adequate preparation, you can respond to whiny backtalk with emotional nonchalance – a level of relaxation and lack of facial expression described by trainees as “withering boredom.”

Whiny Backtalk

Whiny backtalk is the common, unremarkable, everyday self-justification that students most often employ when trying to get off the hook. The main types are as follows:


“I wasn’t doin’ anything.”

“We weren’t talking.”

“I’m not chewing gum.”

As you can see, this is a very simple strategy. There is nothing to debate. Take two relaxing breaths, kill some time, and keep your mouth shut. This too shall pass.

Blaming Your Neighbor

“She was talking, not me.”

“They started it.”

“He was just asking me a question.”

Blaming, also known as “ratting on your neighbor,” is where students go when denial is not working. You can hear the absurdity of a lame excuse if you paraphrase.

“Gee, teacher, we weren’t goofing off when we were talking. We were operating a peer tutoring program to further our education.”

Seeing the humor in backtalk is a wonderful defense against having a fight-flight reflex.

Blaming the Teacher

If you can’t blame the person sitting next to you, blame the teacher. After all, the teacher is handy.

“I had to ask him because you went over it so fast.”

“I had to ask her because I can’t read your handwriting.”

“I had to ask him because you didn’t make it clear.”

The student always blames the teacher for the same shortcoming – professional incompetence. Now, the absurdity of the excuse is even more palpable.

“Gee, teacher, we weren’t goofing off back here. We were operating a peer tutoring program in order to compensate for your methodological deficiencies in the area of instruction.”

Beware! An accusation of incompetence can make a person defensive. I have seen teachers bite on this bait.

“I went over this material step by step not ten minutes ago. It is written right up there on the board if you would care to read it. Now, I am sick and tired...”

The hook is firmly set. Reel ‘em in.

Excusing You to Leave

With this version of whiny backtalk, the student is telling you, in effect, to go take a hike. Of course, only a high-roller would say, “Hey, teacher, go take a hike.” With whiny backtalkers, the message takes the following variations:

  • Short Form: “All right, I’ll do it.”

  • Long Form: “All right, I’ll do it if you just leave me alone.”

  • Nasty Form: “All right, I’ll do it if you just get out of my face! I can’t work with you standing over me like that!”

As always, relax, be quiet, and wait. Do not allow yourself to be suckered into the Cardinal Error. If you succeed in the short-term, you can do anything you want in the long-term.


Sometimes a student will give the teacher a “goodie-two-shoes compliment.” This student is attempting to get off the hook while scoring a few brownie points by diverting the teacher’s attention. Think of it as just another flavor of baloney.

I have seen teachers thrown off by this tactic. I remember one fourth grade girl who said,

“Oh, Mrs. Johnson, what a beautiful pin.”

Mrs. Johnson stood up, looked at the pin and said,

“Why, thank you, dear. I got that for my birthday. Now, you get some work done.”

Mrs. Johnson wandered off with a contented smile on her face. Before long the student was talking again.

Nonverbal Backtalk

This may sound like an oxymoron, but it is an apt title for control tactics that function like backtalk without the risk of “mouthing off.” Here are some common variants:


If all else fails, try blubbering. If crying gets kids off the hook at home, they may try it at school. Some parents start apologizing as soon as the tears flow.

Stay down, relax, and wait. If you hang in there, blubbering students will eventually dry up. Then they will look up to see if you are still there. When they realize that the gambit did not work, the cheapest way for them to cut their losses is to get back to work.

While the whole process may take some time, consider it a good investment. If the tears are interminable, however, you can always cut your losses. Similar to cutting your losses when a student plays the motivation card, lean over and whisper gently,

“We can talk about your crying later. For right now, the least I will expect from you is that you get your work done.”

Leave, but return soon after the student’s head comes up. Rather than getting rid of you, the student who used crying to get off the hook receives some follow through and “instructional supervision” from close range.

Push You Aside

Occasionally a student will push your arm away if you lean on the desk. Is this a big deal or not?

You could, of course, make a big deal out of it. It was, after all, a rather impudent thing to do. But, chances are, it was more reflex than strategy on the part of the student. No point in making a mountain out of a molehill.

Try “rubber arm.” Relax the arm that has been pushed aside. Hang in there and wait without backing off.

The student, confronted by an immovable object, must now finally deal with your presence. At this point he or she usually realizes that getting back to work is the cheapest way out. You can always talk to the student later if you wish.

A Kiss on the Nose

This has only happened once in my experience, but it is a good story for highlighting the power of doing nothing. It comes from a first-rate female junior high teacher in a suburb of Minneapolis who was a trainer for me in her school district.

She had the original “Joe Cool” in her classroom – three sport letterman, good looking, liked by the girls and a bit of an imp. He was talking to his buddy to the extent that the teacher finally leaned down on his desk. He looked up at the teacher, leaned forward, and gave her a kiss on the nose.

We had not practiced this move during training, of course. But, she remembered to take two relaxing breaths, stay down and do nothing. Joe obviously expected to get a “rise” out of the teacher. All eyes were on him. It came as a surprise when nothing happened. It became embarrassing when nothing at all happened.

Some classmates giggled. Joe blushed. The teacher just looked at him and waited, but her lack of emotion came across as nonchalance, as though to say, “This happens to me all of the time.”

Joe wilted. He looked for a place to hide but had to settle for getting back to work. I am told that he never tried anything like that again.

This story highlights our general strategy for dealing with the unexpected:

When in doubt, do nothing.

This may not seem like much of a strategy, but, in the heat of the moment, it can be a life-saver. Would you rather respond impulsively or have some time to think?

Featured Posts
Search By Tags
bottom of page