Student Conduct: Disruptive Classroom Behavior

What is Disruptive Classroom Behavior?

Disruptive behavior can prevent an instructor from teaching or students from learning. Disruptive behavior is often repeated and continuous, and may include:

  • Interfering with the ability of the instructor to conduct class or of others to learn.
  • Talking on the phone during class.
  • Late entrance or early leaving.
  • Monopolizing discussions.
  • Constant interruptions.
  • Talking out of turn.
  • Changing subjects.
  • Passing notes.

Preventative Strategies

The best way to handle classroom disruptions is to prevent them before they happen. Prevent disruptions with these tips:

  • Include behavior norms and expectations in your syllabi.
  • Discuss these norms and expectations on the first day of class.
  • Share responsibility with students by asking what the norms for classroom behavior should be, and adding their ideas to your list
  • Get to know the students by name. Students are less likely to create disruptions if the professor knows who they are.
  • Model the behavior you expect from your students. For example, if you are sarcastic in class, then sarcasm will be seen as acceptable within the classroom.
  • Set the tone and expectations early in the class. It is hard to impose new rules after the class is underway, but you can always ease up on rules that have already been established.
  • Request occasional, anonymous feedback from the students on how the class is going. This gives the students a sense of empowerment and allows you to discover if you are reaching the class.

How to Deal with a Disruptive Student

Knowing how to deal with a disruptive student can defuse a situation quickly. The following are effective de-escalation strategies:

  • Stay calm and do not become defensive.
  • Be direct with the students and calmly ask them to stop.
  • Be positive rather than negative.
  • Act as early and quickly as possible to avoid losing control of the classroom, frustrating other students, or creating a hostile learning environment.
  • Stop and wait for the students to settle down before proceeding with the lesson.
  • Adjust your teaching style by implementing group work if students are disrupting the traditional lecture. Call on students (both disruptive and otherwise) to come forward and lead discussion.
  • In serious situations, ask the student to leave the room and meet with you in your office during office hours.
  • Document everything.

Out-of-Class Interventions

  • 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.
  • 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.

Meeting with a disruptive student

As discussed above, sometimes a meeting during office hours is the best solution to handling disruption in the classroom.

  • Identify what it is the student is doing to disrupt the classroom.
  • Inform the student 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).
  • Stay calm and do not become defensive.
  • Be respectful and remove yourself and personal feelings from the incident.
  • Lead discussions that focus on the positive rather than negative.
  • Make sure to clearly express your expectations for behavior.
  • Document everything.
  • Do not meet alone with the student if you have personal safety concerns. Consult with University Security. Using a conference room where others will witness the meeting without hearing the discussion. Consider having another person present with you in the room, such as a department chair or colleague

After the meeting

Give the student a letter or a memorandum containing:

  • A summary of meeting.
  • A summary of the understandings and agreements made during the meeting.
  • A warning that further incidents may result in dismissing a student for the remainder of the class period and a referral to the Office of Student Conduct.
  • The future expectations you have for the student (i.e. what acceptable behavior looks like, what is required by the syllabus, etc).

Persistent or More Serious Disruptive Classroom Behaviors

  • If the behavior persists after an oral and written warning, submit a report to the Office of Student Conduct. If disciplinary action is taken, the student has a right to a hearing on the allegations. You may be called as a witness.
  • For more serious incidents such as a classroom outburst or an assault on a field trip, the matter should be immediately reported to University Security and the Office of Student Conduct.
Adapted with permission from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and Northern Arizona University’s Student Rights & Responsibilities.

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