Teach By Design
Mar 9, 2021

Respect: Find Out What It Means to Me... Actually Ask Your Students

What's your definition of respectful behavior? How would your students define it? Get on the same page by creating something called a behavior dictionary.

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Late last month, I attended a teach-in focused on equity in education and anti-oppressive pedagogy. (Check out the link to the registration page for resources and recordings from the week-long event!) During Thursday’s sessions, culturally responsive practices were the topic of discussion. The chat window on my Zoom screen was busy that night. Folks shared their own school’s behavioral expectations, asked clarifying questions about PBIS implementation, and engaged in dialog around how existing practices may end up excluding some of our students. One comment stuck with me.

“Respect is an ambiguous term.”

Every school creates its own set of school-wide expectations, but from the day I first learned about PBIS, there have been three expectations that come up time and time again: Respectful, Responsible, and Safe. On top of these expectations, there is a group of three unwanted behaviors that keep coming up as the ones contributing the most to inequitable discipline outcomes: defiance, disruption, and disrespect.[1]

Does this stir up some something for you? It stirred up something for me.

We expect all of our students to be respectful, and yet our Black students are the ones most often referred for disrespect.[2] Black students are not more disrespectful than White students, so to address these referral rates, we ought to look directly at the systems and practices we’ve established in our school. Either we haven’t done a great job of defining what constitutes disrespectful behavior (which is entirely possible)  or our definition of respectful behavior doesn’t match with the definitions found in our students’ homes or in their community. We spend so much time talking about appropriate student behavior. When was the last time we stopped to address what appropriate means? Who was at the table when we decided which behaviors were expected and which were problematic?
Are you ready to dig into this? Let’s start by defining what we mean when we say “appropriate”.

Defining Appropriate

The Center on PBIS’ Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide defines situationally appropriate behaviors as the kinds of behaviors that “will ensure positive outcomes in a given setting.”[3] It goes on to say that expecting those behaviors might mean “altering one’s behaviors when settings, contexts, or companions change.” Essentially, if you’re looking to be successful, there is generally a certain way you want to act. How I act with my friends at brunch versus how I act in a staff meeting are two very different sets of behaviors. I’m not showing up to brunch with a notebook and I’m not walking into a meeting with a mimosa.

GIF of three peoplestanding in a hallway bending down and standing up with their hands raised saying "Brunch"

Ok. Maybe that’s an extreme example. Even subtle behavior differences can lead to big conflict depending on the setting. For example, when I'm comfortable around people and we're talking about something I'm excited about, I can get loud. I like a dynamic conversation. I use my hands. Sometimes, when someone else is talking, I'll start finishing their sentences to show them I'm listening and following their train of thought. What I think of as appropriate behavior to show someone I'm engaged, someone else might say I'm interrupting. They might even call my behavior disrespectful.

Over time, I've learned when, where, and with whom those effervescent conversations work. The same is true for the way you and your students behave at school. There are certain behaviors that make you more successful as an educator and certain behaviors that make students more successful in class. In PBIS, these positive behaviors align with your school-wide expectations. Ideally, your school-wide expectations and the appropriate behaviors you define match with your students’ own expectations and definitions. What happens when they’re different?

“I respect the rules you make for your children at home. I promise not to interfere with those, but I need some help.” Those two simple sentences affirmed the importance of family rules, and invited families to help her find some common ground.

The Mama Rule

Rita Pierson knows all about the rules students follow in their personal lives and the way those rules sometimes don’t match with the school’s rules. The mismatch often landed students in her office – the principal’s office. As she talked with students about what happened, as she tried to understand, their explanations sometimes started with, “Well, my mama said…” At that point she’d listen closely because they were about to share a hidden rule – the Mama Rule.

A mama rule is a rule that overrides nearly every other rule. It’s a rule engraved in stone. Whenever she heard a mama rule as an explanation for breaking a school rule, she knew she needed to make a call home. In that call, Rita would always say, “I respect the rules you make for your children at home. I promise not to interfere with those, but I need some help.” Those two simple sentences affirmed the importance of family rules, and invited families to help her find some common ground. What strikes me about Rita’s method in particular is: She didn’t jump to teaching her students how to dismiss their families’ rules when they’re at school. Instead, she asked them to help her make room for a second set of rules, a set that would align more closely with the rules they have at home.  

There’s a strategy in PBIS that works just like Rita’s invitation. It’s called the Personal Matrix, or Behavior Dictionary, and it’s one way to make those mama rules not so hidden.

The Behavior Dictionary

You won’t know where the mismatches are between your school’s expectations and those from your students’ outside world unless you ask. The Behavior Dictionary can be your ice breaker. Create a table with your school’s expectations listed down the far left-hand column. Across the header row, label three columns: At school it looks like, At home it looks like, In my neighborhood it looks like. ​

At SCHOOL it looks like... At HOME it looks like... In my NEIGHBORHOOD
it looks like...

The purpose of filling out this table is for everyone to check their own knowledge and understand where there might be gaps between home and school. Once it’s completed, the Behavior Dictionary becomes an outline for figuring out where some additional instruction might be needed. It also serves as a brilliant way of finding overlap between these spaces.

But, wait! There’s more!

In a recent study, researchers found classrooms that completed the behavior dictionary saw an increase in respectful behavior, a decrease in disruptive behavior, and overall, teachers and students felt like the matrix was a good way to get everyone on the same page.[4]

Are you ready to create your own Behavior Dictionary? Here’s what you need to do.

Give It Purpose

Before diving into how these expectations play out in their lives, it’s good to start at the very beginning. The first question you should have for your students is: Why? Why do we have school-wide expectations anyway? The goal is to get them thinking about the benefit of establishing ground rules. Talk about how different places have different rules. Think about how you learned about the rules in different places, sometimes by accident, and how much easier it might have been if those rules had been spelled out for you ahead of time.

Make It Local

It’s time to talk about the expectations at school. During the discussion, you could have that first column already filled out, or you could fill it out as you talk through the expectations. The goal here is to review the expectations at school. Get specific about what you hope to see from them. You might even talk about the expectations you have for yourself as a teacher and how those fit into this column.

Make It Personal

Now, it’s your students’ turn to talk about how these expectations come up in their homes and in their communities. How do their friends show each other respect? What would they say if you asked them what respecting their parents looks like? How about respecting their neighborhood? What keeps them safe when they’re not in school? Which responsibilities do they take on in their families? In their jobs? In their homes? Remind your students that they all come from different places and that it’s important to you and to the community you’re all trying to create in your classroom that everyone’s expression of these expectations is valued. Make sure they write them down on their own sheet of paper, or you can write them down as students shout out their answers.

A filled out Behavior Dictionary might look like this:

At SCHOOL it looks like... At HOME it looks like... In my NEIGHBORHOOD
it looks like...
Safe Keep hands and feet to self.

Tell an adult if there’s a problem.
Protect your friends and family.

Don't talk back.
Stick up for your friends.

Don't back down.

Look the other way.
Respectful Treat others how you want to be treated.

Include others.

Listen to adults.
Do exactly what adults tell you to do.

Don't stand out.

Don't bring shame.
Text back within 30 seconds.

Be nice to friends' parents.

Share food.
Responsible Do my own work.

Do my personal best.

Follow directions.

Clean up messes.
Help your family out.

Own your mistakes.

Share credit for your successes.
Have each other's backs.

Own your mistakes.

Check in about what to do.

Make It Collective

Take a step back and look at the table you created. Where do you see the similarities? Where is there a big discrepancy? Can we find ways to close the gap between a school expectation and an expectation from your home or your neighborhood? Remember, the goal is not to force students to assimilate to your school’s culture. Rather, in this step you’re asking for their help the same way Rita asked her students’ families. In the places where there is a mismatch, go back to that definition of situational appropriateness and ask yourself, “Do the school rules ensure positive outcomes in a way that your students’ definition does not?” If the answer is no, that’s a school-level behavior you can expand to include your students’ definition. If the answer is yes, everyone knows this is the place where you’re asking students to take on a second set of rules.

Make It Theirs

Something not included in the instructions for this activity is redefining expectations using your students’ language. This idea comes from Dr. Christopher Emdin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too[5] in his chapter called Code Switching. He encourages us to privilege our students’ language in the classroom as a way to “recognize that there are different worlds, each with their own language codes, that students need to navigate across and between.” The example he gives is a chart highlighting an English word and providing a scientific and slang alternative for that word.

English Science Slang
Light Photon Lyte
Shine Emit Bling
Entire Surface area Whole joint

So, when students described what happened to a leaf during photosynthesis, they could say, “The sun gets lyte and blings on the whole joint” and that is considered equally as valid as if they said “The light shines on the whole leaf.” Asking students to restate the expected behavior in their own words has the effect of:

  • Validating their language in an academic space
  • Making the expectation relevant
  • Imprinting the expectation in their mind as a review

The way you define subjective terms like “respect” and “disrespect” establishes some of the cultural norms in your school. Depending on who is at the table when you define those terms, the norms may not reflect the cultural diversity represented in your building. If it’s been a while since you evaluated your expectations and the behaviors you defined as appropriate, it might be a good time to do it now. Creating a behavior dictionary helps students understand the purpose behind your expectations and it gets them familiar with how you might ask them to behave differently than they would at home or in their neighborhood. Maybe more importantly, the behavior dictionary you create helps you get to know your students and it points out the places where you can make space to include their cultural definitions of appropriate behavior

1. Girvan, E., Gion, C., McIntosh, K., & Smolkowski, K. (2017). The relative contribution of subjective office referrals to racial disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Quarterly, 32(3), 392-404. doi: 10.1037/spq0000178
2. Forsyth, C., Biggar, R., Forsyth, Y., & Howat, H. (2014). The Punishment Gap: Racial/Ethnic Comparisons in School Infractions by Objective and Subjective Definitions. Deviant Behavior, 36(4), 276-287. doi: 10.1080/01639625.2014.935623
3. Leverson, M., Smith, K., McIntosh, K., Rose, J., & Pinkelman, S. (2019). PBIS Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide: Resources for trainers and coaches. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. www.pbis.org.
4. Muldrew, A., & Miller, F. (2020). Examining the effects of the personal matrix activity with diverse students. Psychology In The Schools, 58(3), 515-533. doi: 10.1002/pits.22461
5. Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks who teach in the hood - and the rest of y'all too. Boston: Beacon Press Books.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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