How rudeness impacts on learning

As research reveals how rudeness can affect the culture of an organisation, behaviour expert Jarlath O'Brien reflects on what this means for schools
7th January 2022, 12:00pm
Research: Why rudeness impacts learning
Jarlath O'Brien


How rudeness impacts on learning

I like to think that I am a polite person. I certainly value courtesy. One of the reasons why I enjoy the time I spend in secondary schools is that the teenagers I work with are often very well-mannered. 

However, there is another, less-appealing side to me: when interacting with adults, I tend to respond in kind. If they are polite then I will reciprocate, but if they are brusque or rude then my own politeness falls away, to be replaced with a desire to match their tone.

This brings to mind a public service announcement I heard on the New York City subway a couple of years ago: "Remember, ladies and gentlemen, courtesy is contagious."

For this reason, it is so important for us to continually model the behaviour we want from our students. They arrive in our classrooms at different stages in their cognitive and emotional development - and Covid-19 has undoubtedly exacerbated those differences. We have to remember that the basics of politeness, which many of us take for granted, are not automatic for some children. 

Welcoming them on arrival; saying goodbye on dismissal; saying "please" and "thank you"; demonstrating concern for their welfare; showing an interest in their weekend, their hobbies and clubs: all of these things contribute to a climate of courtesy and mutual respect that becomes the norm.

Rudeness harms learning in schools

I recall a quiet teacher I worked with in a secondary school for children with behavioural difficulties, who had the most impeccable manners. They never slipped, no matter the situation - and some hairy things happened in that school. She was sure that the only way to develop the same manners in the children we worked with was to relentlessly show them the right way, and because the children respected her enormously, most of the time they responded in kind. 

Another colleague, who I was visiting in a young offender institution, had the same approach. I observed this person being on the receiving end of some impeccable manners from a teenager who then, without pausing for breath, was shockingly rude to a very uncivil prison officer.   

These colleagues came to mind when I recently read some interesting research by Christine Porath and Amir Erez into how rudeness can affect the culture of an organisation. After exposing participants to rude behaviour, the researchers measured their performance on cognitive tasks, their creativity and their level of helping behaviours. They found that performance and creativity both suffered after being exposed to rudeness, and that people also became less helpful as a result. 

However, the effects didn't end there. The researchers also found that witnesses to the rude behaviour were affected in similar ways, and that a lack of civility led to dysfunctional behaviour and aggressive thoughts in others. 

This is how the culture in a classroom, or in an entire school, can deteriorate. Let's remind ourselves, though, that we include adults' behaviour in this, too.

The researchers found that acts of rudeness delivered by an authority figure had the same effect as rudeness delivered by a peer. They note that: "When individuals do not feel respected, they tend to either shut down or use up valuable cognitive assets trying to make sense of the environment. Whether they are considering responses, trying to 'explain away' the rude behaviour or just ruminating about the perpetrator behaviour, it is clear that these processes rob cognitive resources from the task at hand. Incivility drains emotional and cognitive resources necessary for learning and performance."

Of course, the last thing we want in schools, particularly as students and teachers are still coping with the effects of the pandemic, is for rudeness to undermine learning and performance.

Courtesy is contagious, but so, too, it turns out, is incivility. That's why I'm going to recommit to politeness in 2022, regardless of who I'm responding to.

Jarlath O'Brien works for a local authority and is the author of Better Behaviour - A Guide for Teachers, published by Corwin Press

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