Handling Disruptive Students

by John McIntosh

All behaviors that interfere with teaching and learning in the classroom can be considered to be disruptive. Disruptive behavior can be repeated small actions or a single major event. Here are some strategies for minimizing and coping with behavior that may make instructors feel uneasy, annoyed, or threatened:

Know your own students.

Get to know your students’ names as quickly as possible—by the end of the first or second week of class. Getting to know your students quickly not only decreases the likelihood of disruption by reducing anonymity, but often students are appreciative that you have taken the time to do so. You can get to know students’ name by using a roster (if you have a very big class) or by having an “ice–breaker” activity in the first class. You can ask your students to complete an index card with their name, e-mail address, their interest in the class, or have them pair up, tell each other their names, major, interest in this class and then have one student of the pair introduce the other to the class. And don’t forget to ask that students with special needs talk to you individually after the first class.

Decide ahead of time what classroom behavior is acceptable to you.

Is it okay for students to: Eat in class? Sleep in class? Talk out of turn? Have cell phones on in class? Bring children to class? Leave early? Arrive late? And how late is late—5 minutes? 15 minutes?

Think ahead of time about how you are going to enforce your expectations.

If someone’s cell phone rings too often what will you do? Take the cell phone? Ask them to turn it off? If someone comes late frequently what will you do? Ignore the lateness? Speak to her/him individually? Lock the door 5 minutes after the beginning of class? How will you document the lateness, and whose watch will you be using?

Discuss your expectations on the first day of class.

Expect to spend time on this. Some instructors cut short their first class, but that class could also be spent having a class discussion about the ground rules. Most of the time you and your students will agree on what constitutes disruptive behavior and the consequences of non-compliance. If students hesitate to talk, have them write their suggestions on index cards and submit them anonymously. Provide prompts such as: What kind of behavior do you find disruptive? Is it okay to eat in class? Incorporate the suggestions you and your students have agreed to and distribute them in the next class, as an addendum to your syllabus.

Model what you expect.

If you do not want lateness, then you should not be late. If you expect politeness, then always be polite.

Use de-escalating strategies to interrupt any disruption.

• Keep your sense of humor.
• If two students are chatting while you are lecturing, keep talking as you walk up to them, stand beside them and simply wait for them to stop.
• If you think students seem to be inattentive, call them by name (without making any reference to your suspicion that they are inattentive) and engage them in the discussion: “Jen, do you agree with Anna?” or “Carlos, what do you think of what we have been discussing?”
• Focus on what you want them to do rather than on their negative behavior. Instead of “Please stop talking,” say “May I have your attention, please?” or “Please open your books to the example on page 64.”
• Change your teaching style. If students are inattentive to or disruptive of a lecture, move to group work.

Have various strategies to match the severity of the disruption.

If a student is doing something irritating, but not actually disruptive (e.g. cracking gum), it is best to speak to the student privately rather than in front of the whole class. Some students may not be aware that their behavior is irritating.

• Politely interrupt people who are speaking out of turn: “I’m sorry Marcus, I need you to wait for me to call on you before you speak,” or “Thank you Jamie, but please hold on a moment for me to call on you.”
• If many students are doing something disruptive, (e.g. talking out of turn, raising voices), you can give a general direction to the whole class: “Let’s have only one person speaking at a time,” or “Please wait for me to call on you before you speak.” Enforce it. Be consistent.
• If students are disrespectful, politely but firmly remind the class of the ground rules for discussion and the need to express themselves in a civil manner.

Have a plan in case disruption persists.

If an individual’s behavior continues to be seriously disruptive, you may ask the him/her to leave the classroom for the remainder of the period. Ask to speak to the student individually after class. Always be clear and courteous (e.g. “Please come to my office after class at 10.30.”). When you speak to the student individually, explain the reasons the behavior is disruptive. Acknowledge emotions if he or she seems upset, angry, frustrated, or otherwise emotional. Allow the student to respond, and listen to what he or she has to say. Ask politely for clarification. (“I’m not sure that I understand this. Can you tell me more?”). If the student does not want to respond, let the student know that your door is open and you are available to talk at another time. Clearly state your what you want the student to do and what you want the student to stop doing. Clearly state the consequences: “If you continue to do ‘x’ I will have to do ‘y’.” Document the meeting.


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