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December 2014


Disruptive students: Identify, prevent, manage
Sean Tvelia


william a ward quote

The time to think about how to handle a difficult or disruptive student is not when you’re actually confronted with a difficult or disruptive student.

These are situations for which preparation is the best defense. I know it’s impossible to anticipate every possible situation; we are an open, public community college committed to serving students from a broad range of abilities and backgrounds.

However, given the concerns brought to my attention this semester, and given that I’ve served as the health and safety officer for the FA, I’d like to share a little advice about dealing with disruptive students.

Communicate your expectations

It’s helpful to identify expectations for appropriate behavior in your course outline. For example, if your course outline states that cell phone use during class is acceptable only in case of emergency, when you spot a student on his or her phone you can simply state aloud to the entire class, “I’d like to remind everyone that cell phone use during class is acceptable only in case of emergency.” Most students tend to put their phones away upon a verbal reminder like this and appreciate not being singled out.

You might also offer a generic statement about appropriate behavior in your course outline, such as this: “All students in this course should be able to speak openly and honestly when contributing to an informed discussion, but please remain respectful of others’ perspectives.”

It might be wise for faculty to make verbal reminders as the semester progresses too. One colleague practices positive reinforcement. Early in the semester, she might—half jokingly—say, “Wow. Nobody was on their phone again today. You must really like this class!” or “You all consistently show up for class on time. Careful, or I’m going to start thinking you’re truly excited about learning in this class.” This publicly reminds students of her policies in a light-hearted, positive fashion that encourages appropriate behavior.

What counts as disruptive behavior?

Despite written and verbal indications of appropriate behavior, a student may violate behavioral codes, perhaps because she’s a special needs student or perhaps because he’s a returning veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress. Often, we faculty have no way of knowing which students might exhibit inappropriate behaviors.

And we need to understand the difference between annoying and disruptive. A student who constantly questions your content or seems extraordinarily vocal during class conversations might be annoying, but if he or she is respectful of others’ right to speak it does not rise to the occasion of disruptive behavior. A student who has been homeschooled for years, for example, might not be as familiar with general expectations for classroom conduct, turn taking in conversations, etc., and might simply need guidance or time to get acclimated.

The college defines disruptive behavior in the Student Code of Conduct:

  1. any behavior that could endanger life or property
  2. behavior that interferes with the maintenance of an atmosphere that is conducive to academic pursuit
  3. conduct that disrupts any authorized or sponsored college event
  4. lewd or indecent conduct
  5. the blocking of an entrance, exit, or access to any college facility, area, road, stairway and/or walkway
  6. behavior that causes a material disruption to either academic endeavors or the administrative operation of the college

In general, classroom disruption generally refers to behavior a reasonable person would view as substantially or repeatedly interfering with the conduct of a class.

General guidelines for managing disruptions

In most instances it helps to assess quickly and to act quickly and appropriately. By ignoring an issue or behavior, you risk having it escalate or making it appear to other students that you’re not in control.

If a student’s behavior is less egregious—e.g., you might characterize it as difficult or irritating—you should address it immediately either by speaking with the student after class (or outside the room if in a non-classroom setting) or by reminding the entire class/group of students about appropriate behavior.

If you suspect the student might need disability services, contact your campus student services office. The student may have an issue that has yet to be diagnosed. You should note, though, that having special needs does not absolve a student from knowing and exhibiting appropriate behavior, but having a conversation about it with your campus disability services specialist can help you work with that student more effectively.

Before I proceed, here are some useful phone numbers to know:

If you see a student…

Call this office:

  • Showing disturbing behavior or emotional difficulties but isn’t a threat
  • Counseling:
  •       Ammerman 451-4053       Eastern 548-2524       Grant 851-6250
  • Showing disruptive behavior as defined below
  • Student services:
  •       Ammerman 451-4044       Eastern 548-2514       Grant 851-6521
  • Showing behavior that presents an immediate threat to themselves or others
  • Public safety:
  •       Ammerman 451-4242       Eastern 548-2573       Grant 851-6777

Handling more serious disruptions

If a behavior continues despite your clear communication that it is unacceptable, know that classroom faculty have the right to ask a student to leave the class for one day. If you do, you must report the incident to the associate dean of student services within one business day. You should be prepared to document (see advice below) what the student has done that was disruptive, intimidating, harassing, threatening or violent.

If the student’s behavior presents a substantial threat or persists in disrupting the learning environment, faculty have the right to request that the dean of student services impose an interim suspension until a disciplinary hearing can be conducted.

If the student is agitated or has ignored your reminders/cautions about appropriate behavior, here's some advice.

You want to avoid inflaming an upset student further. If he or she is speaking out, listen to his or her concerns. If it happens during class, you cannot let the individual completely disrupt the other students’ right to learn. Use your judgment: If the student seems to just be venting, give him or her a few minutes, then state calmly and unemotionally: “I hear that you’re upset. However, this is not the right time to discuss it. If you feel you can continue, you’re welcome to stay for the remainder of the time. However, if you prefer, you can leave and we’ll make an appointment to speak later.” If the student chooses to leave, indicate how and when he or she can reach you after class. (If you prefer not to be alone with the individual, ask your chair or supervisor, a colleague or Public Safety to be with you or in the immediate vicinity.)

Sometimes just listening to a student will calm him or her down. Other times disruptive students are seeking the attention of their captive audience. You’ll need to assess the situation and respond as best you can.

If the student does not respond to your request to exhibit appropriate behavior or to leave, call Public Safety (numbers above) to have the student escorted out.

Another way to avoid inflaming an already irate student is to stay focused on the behaviors you’ve witnessed rather than use “you” statements (“you raised your voice,” “you threw a book”). “You” statements may give the impression that you’re attacking the student and can escalate the situation and/or direct their ire at you personally.

Avoid “you” statements
like these:

Focus on the behaviors

  • You keep interrupting the class.
  • Interrupting class is not acceptable behavior.
  • You slammed the door on your way out.
  • Slamming the door is not acceptable behavior.

You should document all incidents involving the student. It’s sufficient to write notes in a bound notebook or journal, or you can type and save them on your computer. Document the incidents as soon as possible so you can capture important details like date, time and location; who was involved; how you responded; and what behaviors you witnessed from the student.

Again, it’s important to focus on the behaviors, not on your impressions of the student’s behaviors. Consider the following examples:

Avoid noting impressions
of the student or incident:

Identify specific behaviors
and facts instead:

  • I’ve been upset all semester because this guy keeps interrupting my class. I’ve been teaching for ten years and I’ve never had to deal with b.s. like this! Students always like my classes and I can get testimonials from students to prove that. They always compliment me. I don’t know who this kid thinks he is!
  • From 9/8 to 9/24, student interrupted each class meeting (6 classes in a row). This included speaking out of turn, belittling classmates’ contributions and raising his voice to talk over other students. When I reminded the class that each student has the right to share their ideas uninterrupted, he snorted and rolled his eyes.
  • I couldn’t take her attitude any more because she’s just so difficult even though I’ve tried and tried to be nice to her. She was being ridiculous, so I told her to leave. I’m pretty sure she called me a bitch and then she slammed the door on her way out.
  • On 11/11, I asked student to leave the room due to her refusal to stay seated despite three reminders. Student left, muttering expletives, and slammed the door on the way out. Five students [identify them] approached me after class to indicate that they fear being in that student’s presence.


Solutions for everyone’s health and safety

Phones in or very near every classroom would be a good start; we cannot assume every location across our multiple campuses has reliable mobile phone service. Clearly posting the security phone number in each classroom and other meeting locations would help too. Faculty may not be able to place the call if they are intently focused on a seriously disruptive student, or if they’re new to the college or adjunct faculty (who may have several security numbers to memorize if working at multiple institutions).

Each campus has a Students of Concern Team that meets regularly to discuss, well, students of concern. Your campus team might include representatives from counseling, health services, student support services, the dean of students office and the dean of student services office. Sharing information you have about students who exhibit an inability to comport themselves in an appropriate manner helps those teams do their job—and could potentially avoid a major incident on campus.

Most importantly, know that you have the right to a workplace in which you do not fear for your own safety or the safety of colleagues and students. Contact me if you have questions about how to handle disruptive students or more ideas for maintaining a safe workplace: