Disruptive Students

Quelling Disruption

For students to learn, there must be some order in the class. Beginning teachers often are not sure how to set limits on student behavior without getting into unproductive classroom battles. It is important for new teachers to set clear boundaries in the beginning, confront disruptive behavior in a constructive way, and avoid becoming defensive and losing objectivity.

Establish clear, explicit ground rules from the beginning.
Announce and clearly state in the syllabus expectations on side conversations, interruptions while others are talking, tardiness, and other student behaviors. In order to help motivate students to follow ground rules, explain the reasoning behind the rules.
If you have not taught before, you might want to read guidelines established by experienced TAs or faculty members. Also, you might reflect on your own classroom experiences to determine behaviors you find disruptive.

Avoid becoming defensive.
The more defensive and hostile the teacher becomes when confronted with a disruptive student, the more likely it is that the hostility will escalate. Students often recognize faculty members’ “hot” buttons and make comments that trigger an automatic emotional reaction. Effective teachers learn to respond calmly and to defuse rather than increase conflict.
Before you begin teaching, consider what kinds of comments in particular make you defensive. Self-analysis of your pet peeves can help prepare you to keep your composure during confrontational classroom situations.

Confront disruptive dynamics.
You can deal with inappropriate behavior by:
** Referring to the established ground rules.
** Subtly calling attention to the behavior (e.g., stand next to the students who are talking).
** Redirecting the interaction (e.g., “Do you have something to add, John?”).
** Confronting the behavior in general (e.g., “Let’s call a halt to interruptions. Give her a chance to finish”).
** Confronting an individual student outside of class (e.g., “Mary, when you come in late and make a great deal of noise getting settled, it distracts the whole class. Could you try to get here on time?”).
If a student makes you so angry that you lose your sense of objectivity, tell that student that you will discuss the problem outside of class at a later time. You should not use valuable class time to reprimand a student with whom you need to speak individually. Simply ask the student to see you after class to make an appointment to discuss the problem. Make sure you do not confront the student in a sarcastic tone. Remember, you should model appropriate, professional behavior for the student. If your disagreement with the student is not resolved with this strategy, consider meeting the student again with a faculty member present.

Observe student nonverbal behavior.
Disruptive or inattentive behavior can be a clue to some problem in the class that needs to be addressed. For example, students might start talking to each other when the material presented is over their heads, is repetitive, or they cannot hear or see the teacher. An alert teacher, sensitive to clues that students may have difficulties, will ask students about their behavior and will shift gears to eliminate the problem.
Always watch and listen to how classmates react to a disruptive peer. Students often will comment on a peer’s behavior (e.g., “Did you see how sarcastic he was? He’s really out of line.”). Students’ reactions can help you gage your own reaction.

Do not discuss an individual student’s progress during class.
While it can be helpful to offer positive feedback about student progress in general (e.g., “As a whole, the class did much better on the exam than I anticipated”) or to discuss areas for improvement (e.g., “Many people had problems with section three”), it is not appropriate to discuss one student’s performance during class. Sometimes, students become hostile when they receive unfavorable feedback.
To avoid disruptive behavior due to disappointment over a grade, you should return graded work at the end of the class period. In your syllabus, include a statement that you will not discuss a student’s grade until at least twenty-four hours after you return the work. Explain to your students that a twenty-four waiting period allows everyone involved to assess the situation more objectively. Providing adequate written explanation for the grade and detailed feedback on class performance can help to prevent confusion.

Examine your teaching style.
If persistent disruptions plague the classroom, then TAs and faculty members should consider examining their teaching styles. An instructor’s attitude or manner of teaching might inadvertently spark a reaction from students. For example, overly strict standards might result in defiant behavior, while lax standards might encourage disrespectful behavior. Teachers should consider classroom practices that create an active learning environment which increases student engagement and interest.

Locate individuals in your department who can help you handle disruptive students.
TAs and faculty members should be aware of resources designed to make their teaching easier. For example, many departments designate a faculty member to supervise, assist, and mentor the graduate students.
Before you begin teaching, introduce yourself to the person(s) in your department who can help you decide how to handle difficult classroom situations. Also, refer to the resources distributed by campus offices such as the Counseling Center, Office of Women’s Affairs, Office of Minority Affairs, Office of Student Conduct, Graduate Studies Office, Public Safety, and Affirmative Action. These campus resources can help you determine how to react to students who behave inappropriately. If a student poses a threat to your safety, the safety of others in your classroom or office, or his or her own well-being, contact campus security immediately. Never assume full responsibility for a student who disrupts your classroom. Since you probably are not trained to deal with extremely disruptive students, seek help from trained professionals rather than assume full responsibility for the student’s actions.

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