The Passive Aggressive Student
One of the most difficult disruptive behaviour teachers have to deal with is that of the child with a passive aggressive personality Disorder (PAPD). This behaviour is described in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV. If four of the following personality descriptions for Passive Aggressive Behaviour Disorder are present, then a formal diagnosis can be made by a specialist. But each of these behaviours is passive and annoys all teachers. These are:
- Passively resists fulfilling routine social and occupational tasks
- Complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated by others
- Is sullen and argumentative
- Unreasonably criticizes and scorns authority
- Expresses envy and resentment toward those apparently more fortunate
- Voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune
- Alternates between hostile defiance and contrition
The Goal of PAPD
These students take great delight in making others angry while seeing themselves as the victim in any resulting dispute. Their behaviour infuriates his teachers in many ways. For example, when given a task they appear to start work but would soon employ one or more of the following gambits:
- Procrastinate, asking detailed inane questions, looking for equipment, complaining of working conditions or others interfering with their space.
- Work extremely slowly, infuriating the teacher. Complaints would be met with statements like “I’m going as fast as I can” or “I want to get it just right”.
- Working quickly with no real effort, answering teacher’s complaints “That is the best I can do” or “You (the teacher) didn’t explain it properly”.
- Ruining his, or others work ‘by accident.' He would cut wood wrongly, spill ink, etc. then declare his bad luck.
The goal seems to be to make the teacher angry in a way that allows the student to stay out of reach of any negative consequences that may imposed. If the teacher did try to deliver any consequence, they would declare that the teacher was unfair and picking on them for no reason. The goal is to passively resist the teacher while appearing to stay within the rules.
The Cause of PAPD
The underlying cause of this behaviour is rooted in the child’s upbringing. Primarily it is the fear of expressing his anger overtly. There are four possible circumstances in childhood that cause children to adopt passive aggressive behaviours. These are:
- As a child, any angry outburst was met with a much-amplified angry response from those (the parents) at whom the anger was directed. It became dangerous to express anger.
- Parents operate their social interactions in a passive aggressive manner.
- If the child was in dispute with a peer, in a social setting that included their parent, regardless of the rights or wrongs of the situation, their parent always took the side of the other child. This parent’s fear of rejection caused them to make their child the scapegoat. The parent was more interested in their social connection and dismissed their own child’s legitimate claim for fairness.
- The child has a passive aggressive parent and a mother who did not support the child in the father’s presence. The mother spoils their child when the father is not present. The child feels betrayed in the father’s presence but the mother’s covert support leads the child to believe mum is supportive.
How to Deal With this Behaviour
First, it is important to explain to the student that you know what they are doing and why they do it. At this time it is good to provide examples of their behaviour and the outcomes that followed, both short and long term.
This 'interview' should be carried out in private with plenty of ‘I' statements. Don't use statements that are inclusive. For example, if the student’s name was Rob and I said to him “Rob we have a problem," it is better to explain that ‘I have a problem." Passive aggressive students need to be independent of any authority figures. Further, never say things like "You always do this." The student will soon find examples to disprove this statement and use this as a deflection from the real issue. ‘Always’ statements are gold for the passive aggressive student.
This intervention should be conducted in a flat, matter of fact manner without any hint of the teacher taking control or acting in a ‘superior’ manner. However, within the message, you should reflect a genuine concern for the situation the student finds them self in.
Next set clear, defined boundaries, make statements like "If you do this, this will happen." The student will test these limits and complain that they are a waste of time.
The goal of the intervention is to show the student that they can take control of the situation by giving up the desire to control the teacher. Point out the short and long term benefits of their change of behaviour. Also, point out the certainty of negative consequences that follow if they continue their existing behaviour. Do this in a quiet, clinical manner reinforcing that it is impersonal. Finally, strengthening the fact that they are in total control.
It is challenging to make a complete change in the passive aggressive student's behaviour. While they remain in their family situation, this behaviour will be reinforced. However, at school, they may come to understand that the authority of teachers is thoughtful and designed to assist learning. In the final analysis, there is no real control that can be forced on anyone except self-control. This reality check is important for both students and teachers.