Handling Disruptive Students
For students to learn, there must be some order in the class. Beginning instructors often are not sure how to set limits on student behavior without getting into unproductive classroom battles. It is important for new instructors to set clear boundaries in the beginning, confront disruptive behavior in a constructive way, and avoid getting defensive and ineffective when criticized.
- Establish clear ground rules from the beginning. Announce and spell out in the syllabus your expectations on side conversations, interrupting one another, tardiness, and other student behaviors. Explaining why a ground rule is important can motivate students to follow them. Ask yourself what ground rules you want in your class?
- A void becoming defensive. The more defensive and hostile the instructor becomes when confronted with a disruptive student, the more likely it is that the hostility will escalate. Students have a way of recognizing faculty members' "hot" buttons — comments that trigger an automatic emotional reaction. Although it is not always easy, every instructor has to learn to respond calmly and in a way that defuses rather than escalates conflict.
- Confront disruptive dynamics. Good ways to do this are:
- Refer to the established ground rules
- Subtly call attention to the behavior (e.g., stand next to two students who are talking)
- Redirect the interaction (e.g., Is there something I haven't made clear, John?) .
- Confront the behavior in general (e.g., Let's call a halt to interruptions. Give her a chance to finish.)
- Confront 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?)
- 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 may start talking to each other when the material presented is over their heads or they cannot hear the instructor. An alert instructor is sensitive to cues that students may be having difficulty and will either shift gears or ask students about their reaction.