Teaching Toolbox: Managing Disruptive Behavior

26 February 2020

All it takes is a single student with disruptive behavior to have a negative impact on the classroom learning environment for others. The most recent LTC teaching toolbox lunch considered approaches to setting up course guidelines and expectations to try to prevent disruptions, as well as discussing how to respond when challenges occur. Research shows that race, gender, and seniority status affect the degree to which faculty might be challenged and the possible strategies available for responding to such challenges (Chesler & Young 2007; Alberts et al. 2010) so the discussion also considered how faculty identities might play into the strategies that they would use in their classrooms.

Many factors that contribute to classroom disruption are invisible to the instructor (mental or physical illness, stress, personal circumstances). In this discussion, we focused on strategies for managing these situations rather than how to identify what might be the deeper source of the behavior. An informal survey of participants suggested that the most common types of disruptive behavior Carleton faculty see in their classrooms are poor social awareness (e.g. not recognizing when to step back in group situations, not recognizing impact on others) and disrespect for class time (e.g. arriving late, leaving early, coming and going during class time), but faculty indicated that they experienced other types of disruption to varying degrees including poor impulse control, inattentiveness during class time, antagonism towards the professor, and antagonism towards peers.

Strategies for preventing disruption

There are a handful of approaches that have been shown to reduce the likelihood of disruptive behavior in the classroom:

  • Setting norms and expectations (e.g. classroom discussion guidelines, policies in the syllabus about classroom etiquette, technology usage, etc.)
  • Building rapport and community
  • Establishing your own professional authority (e.g. discussing your experience with the subject matter, explaining your pedagogical choices, etc. and demonstrating clear and consistent application of course policies) 
  • Modeling and acknowledging desired behaviors (e.g. pointing out when students make thoughtful discussion moves or are productively engaging)
  • Focusing students’ attention during class (e.g. active learning, opportunities to check in about understanding/ “muddiest point”)

However, even faculty who work proactively to limit disruptions in their classrooms will on occasion find themselves having to react to situations that arise.

Strategies for responding to disruption

If one has tried to avoid disruption using the strategies above, then it is important to consider how to respond when a student transgresses classroom norms. While this will vary from situation to situation, it helps to think ahead about how you might respond. Possible responses include:

  • Providing a verbal reminder of appropriate behavior during class time
  • Directly confronting problematic behavior (e.g. say why it’s inappropriate and explain your expectations moving forward)
  • Deflecting problematic behavior (e.g. respond to aggressive questions as a request for information; respond with humor; ignore behavior)
  • Talk to a student one-on-one after class
  • Talk with the entire class next class session
  • Connect the disruption to learning goals for the course
  • Emphasize the communal nature of teaching and learning in the classroom 

The group discussed how mid-term course evaluations can be a good way to open up conversations around disruptive behavior. For example, if a student consistently challenges a faculty member around their use of small group work during class time, then the faculty member can use midterm course evaluations to get feedback on how others in the class feel the small group work impacts their learning. In many situations, other students in the class will feel that such a technique is valuable, and that information can then help inform the conversation with the student who is challenging the approach.

My take away from the conversations is that there is not a single approach to managing disruptions that is right for everyone, but no one should feel alone in their efforts to respond to disruptive behavior. Reach out to colleagues to talk about the situation!

Resources and bibliography

  • Alberts, H. C., Hazen, H. D., & Theobald, R. B. (2010). Classroom incivilities: The challenge of interactions between college students and instructors in the US. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 34(3), 439-462.
  • Chesler, M., & Young Jr, A. A. (2007). Faculty members’ social identities and classroom authority. New directions for teaching and learning, 2007(111), 11-19.
  • Knepp, K. A. F. (2012). Understanding student and faculty incivility in higher education. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 12(1), 32-45. 
  • Nilson, L. (2010). Preventing and Responding to Classroom Incivility. Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors, 3rd edition. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing, pg 55-64.