Dealing with Classroom Behavioral Issues

No matter how much experience you have in the classroom, there is always the possibility that an issue with a particular student, group of students, or the general classroom environment.  It is important to be aware of the tools that you have at your disposal, both for preparing to minimize classroom management issues and for dealing with crisis points in the moment.  The following resources combine general guidelines and best practices from various institutions with specific resources for UNCG faculty.

There is no one cause of classroom disruptions, so the resources here are intentionally broad in scope.  Students may be acting out of frustration, boredom, mental health issues, or a variety of other impulses, and their actions may reflect aspects of their personal lives as much as they do the classroom environment.  It is important to keep this potential variety in mind, as much as is possible, when addressing issues of disruptive behavior.  However, there are a variety of proactive steps that faculty can take to minimize the occurrence of these issues, and to be prepared for those situations that do emerge.

Also, as with most advice, what works best is often going to be what works best for you, so think about how these suggestions fit with your existing approaches and strengths.  We have assembled some of the available resources, but encourage you to talk with your colleagues, including the UTLC, about the particulars of your situation.

Here are some common threads from the resources below:

  • Stay calm and try not to take the disruption personally. It can help you maintain your authority in the classroom to deal with distractions in a composed manner. 
  • Decide when you will deal with the situation. It is often best for both you and the student to deal with a situation without the rest of the class watching, but that does not mean that you should not deal with egregious disruptions immediately.       
  • Listen to the student and check your understanding of their situation. It is best to give the student the benefit of the doubt at first.  Let the student know that you care about their situation, which is why you want to address the disruption.
  • Decide how to proceed, and then follow through. It is important that the students recognize that you will do what you say you will do.  This advice is especially important if you had to deal with the situation in front of the class.
  • Document the situation. Regardless of whether or not you follow through on a formal process, it is a good practice to document what happened and how you addressed the disruption.

Assessing a Classroom Behavioral Issue

Perhaps the most difficult task for an instructor is assessing a classroom behavioral issue in order to diagnose an appropriate response.  Not all situations will be obvious as threats to the safety of you or others, nor will all minor distractions necessarily go away on their own.  The difference between a disruption and danger can be difficult to judge in the moment, but the following resources can help you prepare yourself for making such an assessment and reacting in a measured way.

Disruption or Danger? (PDF) – How do you identify when a behavioral issue is a disruption or a danger? This whitepaper from the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association provides some practical guidelines for preparing yourself to make such an assessment in the moment.

UNCG Policies and Collective Standards of Conduct

The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities has a specific policy for disruptive behavior, defined as a speech or action which 1) is threatening, or 2) substantially impedes the delivery of university services.  After considering the specifics of your situation, you should review the UNCG Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom Policy if you determine that you would like to engage with the formal process for removing a disruptive student from your class.

If the disruptive behavior does not rise to the level of a dangerous threat, it can still have a significant impact on the learning environment.  So, although the UNCG policy may not be appropriate, there are ways that instructors can address behavioral issues to establish and maintain collective standards of conduct.

Disruptive Behavior and Incivility

Civility in the College Classroom – This article from the Association for Psychological Science looks the problem of incivility in college classrooms by offering some broad suggestions for how to plan and follow through on potential incidents.

Dealing with Disruptive Student Behavior – This post from Stanford’s Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter provides direct advice for a variety of types of student behavior that college faculty encounter in the classroom, while also giving some broad guidelines that elaborate on the above article.

Classroom Discussions and “Hot Moments”

Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom – These tips from Harvard’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning looks at how to be prepared for when a difficult moment arises out of engagement with the course content.  These “hot moments,” as the author identifies them, can be great learning moments, but can be as problematic as other disruptions if not handled carefully.

Distraction and Technology

The Distracted Classroom: Transparency, Autonomy, and Pedagogy – This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education provides a theoretical framework for how an instructor might think about establishing a policy about the use of technology in the classroom that aims at improving learning while minimizing distractions.  It is part of a series on technology and distraction.

Mobile Devices in the Classroom: Managing Distraction – This blog post from Brown provides more pointed, brief suggestions of strategies to try if technology is becoming a concern in your classroom.

Mental Health

If you are concerned that a student’s disruptive behavior may be tied to mental health concerns, then the Counseling Center is a good resource on campus.  This FAQ from the Dean of Students Office is a good resource for assessing how to proceed and identifying more resources on campus.

UTLC Consultations

If you would like to discuss alternatives to the formal process outlined in the UNCG Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom Policy, then the UTLC is happy to meet with you to discuss strategies for addressing disruptive behavior with individual students and in your course more generally.  Schedule a consultation with the UTLC to discuss classroom guidelines, activities to promote engagement, or other approaches to dealing with disruptions.