Managing Disruptive Students in the College Classroom

A disruptive personality can manifest itself in a variety of ways and levels of intensity. A student who’s always late to class, uses obscene or abusive language, sleeps in class, or has a strong sense of entitlement can create major challenges for college instructors.

In the online seminar Coping with Seven Disruptive Personality Types in the Classroom, Dr. Gerald Amada, co-founder of the Mental Health Program at the City College of San Francisco, outlined the various personality types common to college campuses today, and the academic situations in which each of these types will most likely be displayed. He also suggested ways for instructors to respond effectively.

While noting that the personality types he discussed are not clinical diagnoses or psychiatric designations, but loosely represented characteristics that often overlap, Amada explored the following disruptive personality types and how they reveal themselves in students:

  • Explosive – volatility, shouting, profanity, bullying, making threats.
  • Anti-social – cheating, stealing, forging documents, exploiting others.
  • Passive-aggressive – chronic lateness, sleeping in class, procrastination.
  • Narcissistic – arrogant, self-centered, self-entitled, a tendency to devalue or denigrate others.
  • Paranoid – suspicious, levels unfounded accusations, blames others for personal limitations and failures.
  • Litigious – makes threats or preparations to file lawsuits in response to every slight (real or perceived).
  • Compulsive – preoccupied with orderliness and perfectionism (in themselves and their instructors), controlling, critical, and intolerant.

While some of the personalities are more dangerous than others, any one of them can derail a class; making it hard for the instructor to teach and the other students to learn. Even relatively minor behavior like sleeping in class or chronic tardiness must be dealt with quickly with strict rules and adverse consequences, Amada says. For example, while some faculty take the position that students who fall asleep in class only hurt themselves, Amada recommends waking these students and warning them they will be asked to leave if they fall asleep again. Allowing them to snooze sends the wrong message to the rest of the class.

For the more severe behavior, Amada reminds educators to leverage the many resources available to them, from counseling services to campus security.

“Remember, it’s not in your job description to put up with bullying, intimidation, or violence,” he says.