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What qualifies as passive aggressive behavior?

By June 2, 2008 - 8:49pm
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I have a friend who thinks she's dealing with a passive-agressive student in one of her classes. Does anyone know what 'qualifies' as passive aggressive bahavior and what she can do about it?

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This is great information. And you're right, there may be something else going on here besides passive-aggressive behavior. Will pass this on to my friend and see if she has any more questions. Thanks again!

June 3, 2008 - 3:24pm

Here are many random thoughts from my experience, the blunt ones first. (These could also be generalized to teacher = boss and student = self or co-worker:

You mentioned that he is a "…very bright student but shows up late, turns in assignments late".

Possible Reason:
1.) Student may simply not enjoy the class or course subject, and this is his way of "voicing" this against the assignment or class

If he does not like the class or course or assignments, can she be flexible for his to create his own assignments? Could he possibly be bored and not stimulated enough?

2.) Student may feel overwhelmed and other classes have been prioritized first. He may also be working full-time, commuting, have health-problems, be taking care of sick family member...has she asked him?

I found students feel they have no other choice then to "let one class go" if they are overwhelmed, especially if it is not for their particular major. If it is a small enough class, can she talk with the student to see what his other competing activities are?

Student Development: Consequences
3.) There is also a part of his young adult development where he can learn more from this class than what the subject is: consequences of not meeting expectations, being late, etc. (there are obvious real-world implications for these!)

Is she consistent with the consequences of his lateness and not meeting expectations, as outlined in the syllabus (is “being late” accounted for on syllabus)? In a job situation, this would be reflected on a performed review or demotion; similar to classroom with poor grade.

Student Development: Different Learning Styles
4.) Since he is bright, he may be learning in other ways...he is actually doing well on tests? If so, the goal of learning the subject is being met. Maybe the assignments are not so important to him and feel like "busy work"? If that is the case, acknowledging that he feels this way, but in all classes/jobs there is stuff we consider "busy work" and we still need to do it to reach the bigger goal. Also…there are social nuances in the classroom that teachers don’t see: ex-girlfriend, for instance, that showing up late may be seen as “cool” or a “not caring attitude”.

Student Development: Freedom!
5.) Some students are so excited about their new-found freedoms of being in college: a note from parents is not required if they miss a class and parents aren't notified that homework was not turned in. The student may be "rebelling" against all forms of "adult" at this stage, because he does not know how to handle these new freedoms!

Student Development: Working with Others (and no more High School Handholding)
6.) As for group projects, it sounds like the student is more concerned about impressing others (his peers; obviously not his teacher!)) and receiving their approval, as demonstrated by him taking on more work and not capable of saying “no”.

The teacher can really help facilitate the group process with the students; (many adults have problems working in groups as well)! There are some classroom activities for helping individuals take on equal work loads in a group, and/or dividing tasks by their talents. The group also can hold each other accountable, where each member writes (their opinion, so take with a grain of salt) what they contributed to the group, as well as what they perceive the others contributed. If one person is continuously, and in different groups, showing that they are not taking an equal share (from their peers' perspective), it may have some credibility and is worth exploring with the student. Same with the student taking on too much work.
This alone could help the "passive aggressive" student feel like the group work is more "fair".

Lastly, about him complaining about taking on too much---classic "martyr" stuff, and he will need to learn to say "no", and if something doesn't get done, it is okay (or discussed with the teacher) and not a reflection of him.

He is old enough to start learning some of these basic principles, and their consequences. It is his choice to show up to class -or not-, to turn assignments in -or not-, and his grade will reflect HIS choices.

If the teacher feels bad about giving him a poor grade, she can give the class monthly reviews or evaluations of "your grade as of today:", so they know where they stand in the class, with clear expectations.

If the student has a problem, the teacher is not a mind-reader and this is his time to learn that teachers (and bosses) are there to help him be successful, they are flexible and willing to help, but he needs to put forth the efforts to talk and suggest alternative arrangements. The teacher needs to be accessible and approachable.

Students also help each other learn, and I have also used student self-evaluations, as well as students evaluating each other on a project. It is great feedback for them!

Anyways, he might just be testing his boundaries, which is appropriate at his age and development!

OK---I could go on and on (I already have!). I do have some book recommendations for group work in the college setting, as well as College Student Development and syllabus writing, if that would help!

June 3, 2008 - 3:19pm

The student is in community college -- I guess it's nice to know she's not alone. But apparently the student (a male) seems very bright but turns in assignments late, shows up late for lab and meetings. Also, when it comes to group projects, he tends to take on way too much work, but complains about it later. To my knowledge, he hasn't 'acted out' ... yet.

June 3, 2008 - 2:21pm

Try working at a university...college students are notorious for passive-aggressive behavior! (so are adults post-college, so as not to pick on one group...). :-) Anyways, I say this in a teasing manner, as I have had experience working with and teaching students, similar to what you describe.

My question is: is the student passive-aggressive, or does s/he display passive-aggressive behavior? Not just semantics, but there is quite a difference in how you would handle the situation, whether it is the person or the behavior.

When I see adults acting "passively-aggressively", it often looks like two extremes: the person is upset by something, and shuts down, gives the silent treatment, acts like a martyr...all the "passive" types of behavior. Then, when this hasn't resulted in the response they needed, the "aggressive" behavior comes out, which is when others really notice: any type of "acting out" whether it is verbally yelling, physically throwing objects, tantrum, refusing to listen or look at the other person, etc.

I assume the "aggressive" part of the equation is more troublesome than the "passive" part in the classroom (maybe not?).

I would think part of the solution is to help the student learn to notice when they are getting into their "passive" behavior (define that for them with specific examples of their behavior), which means knowing when they start to FEEL the emotions that lead up to the passive behavior. If successful, this could stop the cycle before the aggressive behavior kicks in. The student may have been taught that it is not OK to be angry, frustrated, sad or mad...so they hold it in...until it comes out aggressively. If this is the case, perhaps teaching the student that when s/he notices the negative emotions and feelings, there are healthy ways to acknowledge, accept and share them. All feelings and emotions are normal, they are fleeting, and they change all the time. Many adults have trouble with emotions and feelings, too!!

Could you share more details about what your friend is specifically seeing in the student? How old is the student, BTW? I realize teaching a student about emotions one-on-one in a classroom would be difficult (impossible?), but if you give us more examples, we could brainstorm with you on some ways to help you and the student (and the rest of the classroom!). Oh---and what subject are you teaching that this student (in which this student is in your class)?

June 3, 2008 - 2:01pm

That's a tough one. Your friend may be dealing with a passive-aggressive student if he or she exhibits any of these signs:

Intentional inefficiency
Avoiding responsibility by claiming forgetfulness
Blaming others
Fear of authority
Resistance to suggestions from others
Unexpressed anger or hostility

Psychiatrists no longer recognize this condition as an official diagnosis. However, the symptoms are problematic to many people and may be helped by professional attention, the National Institutes of Health report.

Associates in Child Counseling and Guidance say that it may be helpful to compliment appropriate behavior rather than criticizing inappropriate behavior.

Therapy could help the child get to the root of the problem which means addressing feelings of anger and hostility and unresolved childhood issues such as a disturbance in the child's relationship with his or her parent.

Has your friend talked with the student yet?

June 2, 2008 - 8:59pm
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