“SHUT UP!”: 10 tips on how to deal with disruptive students in the classroom.

“SHUT UP!” Ok, so I snapped. It’s only happened once, and that was during my earlier years as a perhaps, ‘not- so-experienced’ professor. I was teaching a class about the importance of business plans and told a related joke. It’s good to have that kind of rapport with your students, right? Well, I thought so, up until the part when a small group of them didn’t settle down after the joke. I politely told them that we had to get back on track and finish covering the material; I was totally ignored. I asked again, but this time I was not so polite and my voice grew louder;  they still didn’t ‘get it’. That’s when I felt the adrenaline surge into overdrive, and verbally blasted them with a loud “SHUT UP!”. Maybe it was a lack of sleep or not being taken seriously, but I snapped. It worked; You could hear a pin drop. I’m sure thoughts of  ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ entered their minds, or visions of that episode of ‘Tweety and Sylvester’, where Tweety drinks the potion in the lab and turns into this big bird monster (that was a classic). There’s a great Albert Collins quote that I live by, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness”; that applied in this case. We finished off the class with an awkward silence and everyone left, except for one student. He walked up to me as I was packing up and said, “I’m glad you did that, they (students) are like that in all my classes. They never shut up and I can’t learn anything. None of the other profs have yelled at them like that…thanks.” He left. Right then, early on in my career, I realized the importance of why a prof needs to take control of their classroom environment and deal with disruptive students.

So, why are these ‘disruptive’ students acting, or think, they can act this way in YOUR class? Did they get away with this classroom behaviour in high school? Were they not taught any manners while growing up? Are you not engaging them enough in class for them to pay attention? Whatever the reason, you need to remember that they are now in your ‘cage’, and it is your ‘duty’ as a professor to ensure that those students don’t hinder the learning of those that want to be there. Plus, it’s not fair to those students that have worked hard to be able to pay for their tuition.

So, here are 10 tips that will help ensure that your class is an interesting, stress-free learning environment that demonstrates a culture of mutual respect.

  1. Start making positive ‘deposits’ right away at the beginning of the semester. Show your enthusiasm for the subject, and let them see that you are 100% committed to ensuring that each class will be a great experience for them. If you have several deposits in your account, there will still be plenty of  ‘respect funds’ left in the account when you need them. For example, you may need to use some of your funds when getting firm with them, giving constructive criticism, or handing back lower than expected grades. In fact, if you have earned their respect and have made a lot of deposits, you’ll find that they will not want to disappoint you and will try harder. However, if you start off the first class with negative comments or actions, there is nothing in your ‘account’ to draw from later on, and you’ll most likely be in the ‘negatives’ all semester. By the way, don’t be pompous and say to them, “look to the left, look to the right…only one of you will graduate.” One of my profs did that on the first day of a class. Most students had no respect for him after that.
  2. Remember the 3 R’s: Rewards (Hand out free ‘stuff’, positive feedback), Respect (don’t ever talk ‘down’ to them), and Recognition (positive comments, certificates of recognition, helping with networking opportunities). I’ll be writing a separate post on this later.
  3. Day one, look in the back row and back corners of the classroom to see who is sitting there. Nothing has really changed since high school; many of the ‘unmotivated’ students are usually sitting there. After all, isn’t it the best place to sit to be ‘off the radar’ and not pay attention? Make sure to walk around the class when you are teaching and hover around those areas, especially if you see ‘chatter’ (verbal or texting) going on.
  4. If students are talking, simply walk over to where they are sitting and lecture from there for a while. If you want, give them your best ‘I’m not impressed’ glance.
  5. Ask the students, who are talking, if they have a question. Stop midway through your sentence if you have to. The answer will most likely be “No.” and the awkwardness of the situation usually stops the conversation.
  6. Give students a small ‘brain break’ after 20-25 minutes (due to ‘BDNF’-Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor -more on that in a later post as well). This break is meant only to be for 3-minutes, and is not meant for students to leave the class. It will allow just enough time to let them quickly talk about the sports game or party last night or to text their friends.
  7. If a student’s behaviour is becoming an ongoing issue during the class, then talk to them in the hall during the break, and not in front of their peers. Tell them that the chatter (verbal or text) is distracting you from doing your job of teaching him/her and the rest of the class. The point is, don’t let it slide, talk to them sooner than later. Depending on the college policies, a letter to your Chair may need to be written and the student will need to meet with him/her.
  8. Talk to your students on breaks, after class, or when you see them in the hall, about non-subject topics (music, sports). Get to know them on a more personal level and find out about their interests. Outside of class time, you can even send them an article of interest or link to a video that they would like. This will eliminate an ‘you vs. them’ scenario in class.
  9. Non-chalantly read a quick list of your expectations for classroom management and acumen (top 10 list?) during the first class; it will set the tone and address potential future issues right away. As well, let students know that faculty ‘connect’ with each other on these issues and discuss students.
  10. Under extreme circumstances (they’re at risk of getting kicked out of the program), contact them to arrange a one-one ‘chat’. Buy them a coffee and find out why the are so distracted in class. In my experience, you’ll find out that they are going through some turbulence in their personal life (divorcing parents, health scare, death in the family, depression etc.) or they are simply in the wrong program. A coffee in the cafeteria or staff lounge will usually bring things out. From there, you can use your own judgment on how to deal with the issue. A word of advice: don’t get involved in their personal lives; stick to academic issues. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ‘lend an ear’, but if you think that they need to talk to a ‘professional’, then help them out by getting them information or connecting them directly with the right person.
Ultimately, it is your classroom and you need to be in control. Don’t ever leave the class in frustration. If anyone is going to leave the class, it is the disruptive student(s), not you. Again, thinking back when I was in college, one of my professors left the class in frustration on more than one occasion. Half the class were upset he did this and lost their respect, and the other half saw it as an opportunity to go to the pub! In some cases, you may have to ask a student(s) to leave the class, but I would do this discreetly on the break. I have done this once before and the student did leave and eventually dropped my class. The next time I saw him was in the following year. He sat near the front of class, paid attention, and passed my class.
Since many of us have experienced classroom management issues, what tips can you share that have worked for you in dealing with disruptive students?

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  1. Deanna Douglas says:

    Great Job! I saved it on my toolbar! Look forward to reading more!

  2. Thanks Deanna, glad you like it. I thought it was something we all can relate to.

  3. Amy Cotterill says:

    Great Article and it’s all so simple. I think we all need a reminder, at times, that classroom management is not rocket science; it’s dealing with people. If I may elaborate on one tip that has worked for me- #6, brain break- I use this in the form of “assigned talking.” I give the students 2-3 minutes, in pairs, to discuss a concept or issue that we’re working with in class. By sharing their feelings and thoughts on the matter, I find it typically helps them to release some energy and re-focus on the content at hand. But, you MUST set the ground rules prior to the event. I explain what I want them to do and then end with “At the end of 2 minutes (or 3 whatever you have decided), you MUST stop talking and return your attention to me.” It’s a little high school, but it works and they’re not insulted by it. Then, we launch into a discussion of what they discussed in pairs.