Addressing Students' Needs: Dealing with Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom

Reprinted with permission from Kathleen McKinney, Cross Chair in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and Professor of Sociology, Illinois State University.

Prevention

The best place to start when seeking to develop a positive learning environment, of course, is to try to prevent disruptive behavior in the first place; however, this is only partially under your control. Here are some suggestions:

  • Include course and behavior norms and expectations for students and instructors in your syllabi.
  • Discuss these norms and expectations on the first day of class. Tell students you expect that they will act appropriately, but that you want to remind students of these norms.
  • Share control and responsibility with students in the class by asking them on the first day what the norms for classroom behavior should be, and adding their ideas to your list.
  • Draw up a "contract" for classroom behavior and ask students to read and sign it the first week of class (this can include that they agree to attend class, participate, be prepared, etc.).
  • Be extra tough on all matters the first day and week to set the "tone." You can always be flexible and nurturing later.

 

Intervention

If disruptive behaviors occur despite your efforts at prevention, you must act as early/quickly as possible. Otherwise, you can "lose control" of the classroom, frustrate other students, and create a hostile learning environment.

Mild Classroom Interventions

  • Walk over to talkative students and conduct class standing right next to them.
  • Direct firm, but not derogatory, comments to the disruptive students during class. Ask if they have a comment or question. Ask them to be quiet. Let them know they are being unfair to their peers.
  • On a given day when this behavior occurs, change what you are doing. Break students into groups for some work. Call on these and other students to come forward and lead discussion.
  • Stop whatever you are doing and wait (as long as it takes) for students to quiet down while you look at the disruptive students. Then begin again.

More Extreme Classroom Interventions

  • Spend some time in class discussing the whole situation openly and honestly with all the students. What do they think? Tell them how you feel. Ask how they think things should be handled. You may feel you cannot "waste" class time doing this. But, if class time is disrupted by students and this affects your ability to work, learning is being harmed and the class time is already being wasted.
  • Ask the disruptive student(s) to leave the classroom for that class period.
  • Consider changing the structure of the whole class. Is it all lecture? Do students need to be more active and involved? Rethink if/how what you do fits the students and the course. Use more diverse techniques to reach the disruptive student(s).

Out-of-Class Interventions

  • Talk with colleagues in your department (including your chair). How would they handle these situations? What do they see as normative? This gives you ideas for handling the situation and lets your chairperson know what is happening early on, and that you are trying to deal with it.
  • Note who the disruptive students are and speak to them after class or ask them to come to your office hours. Explain why/how you find them disruptive, find out why they are acting that way, ask them what they would be comfortable doing. Tell them what you want to do.
  • Discuss the disruptive behavior in private outside of class with some of the concerned and non-disruptive students. Ask for their assistance in maintaining a positive classroom environment.
  • Inform the student outside of class that their disruptive behavior does not fit your criteria for participation and that their grade will be lowered if it does not stop (this one can be tricky, depending on what your syllabus says and how you handle it).

 

Balancing Discipline and Student Evaluations

Finally, concern about students' reactions and negative feedback on student evaluations as a result of these types of situations is often an issue for faculty. Overall, these situations will probably not have a major impact on your evaluations. In addition, the fact that you have tried to address these situations and deal with the disruptive students should further reduce any negative effects. Discussing the problem openly with students may also help.