June 4th, 2012

Dealing with Difficult Students and Other Classroom Disruptions


Problem students come in all forms, and may be “difficult” for a wide variety of behaviors. While it’s impossible to create neat little categories that adequately describe the full range of problems encountered by college faculty, a good starting point may be to classify the behaviors as annoying, disruptive, or dangerous. Each requires a different type of response based on the context of the behavior.

Consider the following scenarios one might experience in the classroom:

  • A student behaves in an entitled manner. He texts in class, shows up late, gets up frequently to use the bathroom (or take a smoke break) and surfs the Internet during class. The student was asked to reduce these behaviors. He does not comply. The student smells of alcohol and talks about parties the night before.
  • An older student emails her adjunct faculty member, challenging two exam questions and her grade. The faculty member responds via email. Then the student brings it up during class, becoming argumentative and enraged, resulting in her yelling and shoving a desk.

Either of these behaviors can quickly derail the learning experience and create an unpleasant, or even dangerous, environment. During the online seminar Handling Annoying, Disruptive, and Dangerous Students, presenters Brian Van Brunt, director of Counseling and Testing at Western Kentucky University, and Laura Bennett, student conduct officer at Harper College, outlined strategies for dealing with difficult students.

One of the keys, they said, is to be proactive in setting expectations on the first day of class, and communicating those expectations, both verbally and in the syllabus. Explain what types of behavior you expect from your students and the type of learning environment you are looking to create. Taking the time to set the tone, learn students’ names and share a little bit about yourself is an investment that will pay dividends throughout the semester.

And yet, even if you do everything right, there still will be students who push your buttons and become (or have the potential to become) a destructive force in the classroom. Depending on the situation, you may want to refer that student to the student conduct office or campus behavioral intervention team. More often, however, you will first want to speak with the student about the behavior, and Bennett offered the following tips.

Eight-step outline for difficult conversations with students

  1. Describe the behavior and its impacts
  2. Listen to the student’s perspective and response
  3. Discuss appropriate behavior
  4. Discuss resources to promote success
  5. Reiterate or set parameters for future behaviors
  6. Share consequences for noncompliance
  7. Summarize the conversation
  8. Inform of any follow up:
    • Document the conversation and plan
    • Decide who you will inform
    • Check in with the student

“These are not easy conversations to have but you want to approach the conversation from the point of ‘I’m really concerned about this behavior because if it continues it’s going to get in the way of you being successful’ and not ‘How dare you,’” said Van Brunt. “Students, particularly this generation of students, want to know that you care about them and that you want to see them succeed.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 12:25 p.m. Eastern based on reader feedback.

  • Sarah

    There are some wonderful suggestions for having difficult conversations with students. I'm often stumped when I have students with these types of difficulties in the classroom.

    However, I would encourage everyone reading this article to not see students with cognitive disabilities, such as Asperger's Syndrome, as "annoying" or "disruptive." These students have wonderful strengths, and drawing those out, encouraging other students to see the uniqueness, creativity, and strength of the Asperger's Student, will benefit them far beyond your classroom.

  • Susan

    Agree with Sarah – in fact, it's very offensive to label those with Asperger's Syndrome as "annoying" and / or "disruptive". It encourages stereotyping of students with autism. Many with Asperger's would be greatly pained to ever speak out in class rather than even potentially be perceived as "odd", "annoying," "different." Colleges & universities indeed have a legal mandate not to discriminate against students with recognized disabilities, and that includes Asperger's.

    • Sarah

      Well said. As a parent of a child with Asperger's who is brilliant, funny and an absolute gift (according to her teachers) I would hate for anyone to label her or discriminate against her because of her differences. These are the misconceptions about students on the Spectrum that we must stop spreading.

  • Baila

    Agree with previous comments. My nephew has Asperger's and he is also brliliant, funny and sensitive to being hurt, particularly by his professor. Your description of the student was offensive and the classification of someone with a disability as "annoying" brings to mind the recent case in New Jersey where a professor told a student who stuttered not to speak in class. This discriminatory treatment was discussed extensively in the New York Times.

  • Thank you everyone for the feedback.

    The article (and the seminar on which it was based) attempted to outline how students, including those with Asperger’s Syndrome, can be challenging for faculty. It was never our intent to group students who have cognitive disabilities with those who are challenging because they feel entitled, have anger issues or simply aren’t motivated.

    In a nutshell, we goofed. I’ve updated the article in response to your feedback and appreciate you letting us know of our error.

    • Sarah

      The quick response to this issue is much appreciated. However, I am still concerned about all of those who read the article in their inbox and will never see these corrections. Although I know Faculty Focus has the best interests of students at heart, this was much more than a "goof."

  • Concerned

    While I certainly appreciate that we don't want to pant all students with Aspergers with broad strokes, I am frankly disappointed that the example in question was just simply removed rather than amended or discussed.

    I was actually sent this article precisely BECAUSE I had a student similar to the one described in the article. While I support that this student had every right to be in the classroom, he was what I would classify as a "disruption" – inappropriate/too frequent/off point comments, inappropriate contact with other students, dealing with the other students' reactions to the student in question. These were all things that I had to deal with over the course of the semester.

    I was given no warning about this situation (even though the student had presented challenges in other classes), nor was I given any substantive help or guidance in dealing with the challenges posed by this student. Most of us in higher education are not given special training in dealing with students with cognitive disabilities. The difficulties I encountered with this student were compounded by the fact that this was a large lecture course.

    This student was indeed funny, smart, and overall, just a sweet kid, but that doesn't mitigate the fact that he was a challenge to have in the classroom. While the label "annoying" sets the wrong tone, the example is in fact apt.

    Again, I do not believe that we should lump all Aspergers students in one category, but it should be acknowledged that they can pose unique classroom management challenges. Advice on how to handle those challenges should be welcome.

  • Pingback: Richmond Public Schools Interview With Don Coleman June 17, 2014 | Chris Tompkins, My Journey()

  • Rebecca

    I need some help. What would you do if you found out a student was being disrupted and found out it was because of anger due to another teacher's lack of respect, bad attitude, and other negative behavior's and it was causing the student to drain it onto another instructor?

  • ??? ???????,??? ?? ???,??? ?? ???????????????? ??????? ??,??? ??????? ????????????,??? ??????? ??,???? ??????? ??,????????????,?????????,??????????????????????????????????,????,?????????,?????????,??????????????,????????????????,??????????,D?G,???????,???????,??,???????,,?,??????????,????????,????????,?????????,????????? ????????? ???????????? ??? ????????? ??? ??? ?MAX80?OFF?????SALE?????????????????? ???,?????? ??? ??,?????? ??? ??? http://www.bagkakaku.com/celine_bag.html

  • ??????????? ??????????????????????? ???,??????? ????????????2015?? ?????? ??????????? ??????? http://www.msnbrand.com/brand-copy-IP-12.html

  • ??????????? ??????????????????????? ???,??????? ????????????2015?? ?????? ??????????? ??????? http://www.bestevance.com/RogerDubuis/index_3.html

  • Bill

    We live in an increasingly insane world. I can't believe the extent we are trying to accommodate students who can't control what they say and do. There was a time not too long ago where disruptions were simply not tolerated. Period! This was a norm, and it was widely and consistently enforced. Now the focus in every article I am finding on the topic is how to coddle students in the handling of their disruptive behavior and narcissistic tendencies. This will only make this worse, and on a societal scale. The message we are sending is this: if you act like a complete idiot, don't worry. We'll make every effort to not make you feel bad. This is absolutely NOT how the real world works. This candyland nonsense started in hjgh school, and now the sickness has spread to college. Boy are students in for a shock when they leave school and find out that their immediate needs and feelings are not the sole concern of the rest of the world. What a tremendous disservice, and what better way is there to make the world beyond school filled with the maximum amount of rudeness and confrontation as it fills up with coddled, selfish adult brats.