Dealing with Disruptive Behaviour in the Classroom

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Dr Matthew Williamson offers some brief advice on how to recognise and deal with disruptive behaviour by students.

One of the things which people find most difficult to deal with when teaching, whether it be in a large lecture theatre, a small tutorial or on a ward or clinic is the ways in which students can disrupt the learning process.

A few things to think about when looking to address this:
  1. Think about whether the behaviour is irritating to you, disrupting the individual displaying it or disrupting others. If it is not the last of these, you may want to try to ignore it otherwise an intervention may disrupt more students learning than the initial behaviour.
  2. What causes disruption? There are Institutional causes (such as the timetable, the ways in which students have to move from room to room), Environmental causes (such as poor room layout, inability of students to hear at the back, uncomfortable seating), Material causes (such as the level of the work not being right) and Student causes (such as lack of interest, external issues)
  3. How might you deal with disruption? There are six generally agreed approaches to dealing with disruption:
  • Pre-empt: if you know, for instance, that your case is the last of a long day, make allowance for students being tired;
  • Avoid: don’t let the disruptive student be disruptive – give them a specific task, or don’t be drawn into debate;
  • Proximity: students are less likely to be disruptive the nearer you are to them. Try sitting beside the noisy students in a seminar, for instance;
  • Confront: where it is unavoidable, confront behaviour carefully and quickly. If people at the back are chatting, don’t ask ‘what’s going on back there?’, ask ‘Is everyone at the back able to hear me OK?’
  • Take it out: Consider taking a student aside outside a class to ask if they are OK, rather than addressing it in a classroom
  • Escalate: if you have a regularly troublesome group, consider asking for advice in your team, or going to the Year Tutor.

Interested in hearing more about classroom management? Check out Keeping control in large lectures and Advent Calendar Day 3: Use your teaching space creatively.