Passive-Aggressive Behavior in the Classroom

by Signe Whitson

Gary is a fourth-grade student. Whenever his teacher, Mrs. Blackburn, asks him to do something in class, he readily agrees to do it but then finds ways to avoid making good on his word. One day, Mrs. Blackburn asked Gary to go to the bookshelf at the back of the classroom and bring her the Level M Guided Reading book. Gary nodded his head in agreement but looked irritated. He loudly dragged his feet across the classroom floor as he walked to the bookshelf. Within seconds, he called out, “I don’t see it!” Gary quickly shuffled back to his desk with exaggerated footsteps.

Mrs. Blackburn gently suggested that Gary might be looking on the wrong shelf. “Try the top shelf instead of the middle shelf, please,” she said.  Without moving from his desk, Gary replied, “It’s not there.”

Frustrated, Mrs. Blackburn instructed Gary to find the Level W book, pull it out of the bookcase, and check to see if it was the Level M reader, placed upside down. Gary got up from his desk slowly, walked to the back of the room, and stood in front of the bookshelf for five solid minutes. Finally, he turned to Mrs. Blackburn, who had moved on to teaching a different part of the lesson and loudly interrupted her shouting, “It’s not there!”

At this point, Mrs. Blackburn was so frustrated that she stopped her lesson and walked toward the bookshelf. From no less than eight feet away, she easily spotted the M volume on the top shelf where she had asked Gary to look. With Gary at her side, she pointed to it and said in a disgusted voice, “There it is.” Gary smirked and replied, “Oh yeah, I didn’t see it."

Do you work with a student who chronically procrastinates, sulks, underperforms, tests the spirit of class rules, and undermines your authority? Does this young person have a way of breaking every rule you set but in subtle ways with plausible justification? When interacting with this student, do you typically feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster in your own classroom? If so, you are likely dealing with a passive-aggressive person. 

Passive-aggressive behavior is a deliberate, but covert, way of expressing feelings of anger (Long, Long, & Whitson, 2016). Passive aggression is motivated by a person’s fear of expressing anger directly. The passive-aggressive student believes life will only get worse if adults know of his anger, so he expresses anger indirectly through the types of behaviors previously described. All in all, these behaviors are designed to “get back” at an authority figure without that person immediately recognizing the child’s underlying anger.

In The Angry Smile: The New Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace, and Online, we propose that the passive-aggressive student seems to derive genuine pleasure out of frustrating others. For this reason, we have dubbed this pattern of behavior “the angry smile.”  Read on to learn how to recognize the red flags of passive aggression in the classroom and gain effective strategies for how to change this troubling pattern of behavior.