Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom: Concrete Strategies for Cooling Down Tension

Temperature with both hot and cold temps

We’ve all experienced that moment in the classroom when the tensions run high and the air feels as if you could cut it with a knife. How we respond can shift the communication climate from supportive to defensive, which can have an adverse effect on student learning and comfort (Dallimore, et al., 2005; Souza, et al., 2010). Despite the feelings of paralysis that tend to come during hot moments in the classroom, certain practices can be implemented to increase the likelihood of maintaining a supportive climate. The following strategies are not exhaustive, nor will they be appropriate for all faculty or all courses. The strategies offered are meant to be reflected upon, modified, utilized, and evaluated so that faculty can be better equipped to effectively respond to hot moments and, as a result, move out of paralysis.

What are some strategies faculty can use when a comment has been made that causes a negative reaction? Regardless of whether you or a student were the source of the comment, it is important to view the challenge as a teachable moment and an opportunity for you, and others, to learn. Allow silent time for reflecting and for collecting your thoughts; silence can have a cooling-off effect. Asking everyone to take a couple of minutes to write down their thoughts may be appropriate as well.

Be aware of your nonverbals as well as those of students. Even though you may be surprised or shocked, express curiosity instead of judgment. Inquire about students’ nonverbals that could be harmful to the communication climate (e.g., loud exhalation, clinched fists). Acknowledge emotions, as neglecting to do so can make it difficult for students to listen and understand others (Sue, 2005; Sue, 2015).

Communication framework

When someone is clearly offended by a comment, inquire about what led to the offense. “What does that comment bring up for you?” “Please help me understand where you are coming from.” If it’s a discussion-based course in which students feel comfortable with one another and the offended student seems like they would be responsive, this can be done during the discussion as a group. Consider using a communication framework, such as Open The Front Door to Communication (OTFD).

The OTFD steps (adapted from The Excellence Experience, 2015) are:

  • Observe: Concrete, factual observations of situation
  • Think: Thoughts based on observation (yours and/or theirs)
  • Feel: Emotions using “I statements”
  • Desire: Specific request for desired outcome

Example: “I noticed (Observe) the volume of some people’s voices rising. I think (Think) there were some strong reactions to what was said. I feel uncomfortable (Feeling) moving forward with the discussion until we explore this. I am hoping some of you can share (Desire) what you are thinking/feeling right now so we can have a conversation and learn from each other.”

If students make blatantly inappropriate remarks, consider the following steps below (adapted from Obear, 2010):

  1. Clarify what you heard. “I want to make sure I heard you correctly. Did you say…”
  2. If they disagree with your paraphrase, you could move on. If you suspect they are trying to “cover their tracks,” consider making a statement about the initial comment. “I’m glad I misunderstood you, because such comments can be…”
  3. If they agree with your paraphrase, explore their intent behind making the comment. “Can you please help me understand what you meant by that?”
  4. Explore the impact of the comment. “What impact do you think that comment could have on…”
  5. Share your perspective on the probable impact of comments of this nature. “When I hear your comment, I think/feel…” “That comment perpetuates negative stereotypes and assumptions about…”
  6. Ask them to rethink their position or change their behavior. “I encourage you to revisit your view on X as we discuss these issues more in class. Our class is a learning community, and such comments make it difficult for us to focus on learning because people feel offended. So I’d like you to please refrain from such comments in the future. Can you do that please?”

Common ground

If a student is hostile toward you, you have options. Ask yourself if you’ve done anything to contribute to the hostility, and own it. Try not to take attacks personally or become defensive, and keep the focus on learning (yours and students). It’s useful to find common ground (“I know we both care deeply about…”) without changing the nature of the issue. Consider using OTFD. Acknowledge student emotions (e.g., “I understand you’re upset”), and convey your interest and concern to the student. Recognize that students are coming into the classroom with their own histories and issues (Warren, 2011). If appropriate, ask the other students to do some writing on the topic while you check in with the student who is upset.

If the situation escalates, remain calm and seek to regain control of the setting by requesting compliance from the student in concrete terms (e.g., “Please sit in your chair”). If the student refuses to comply, remind them of ground rules and the student code of conduct. If the student continues to refuse to comply, leave the academic setting to call for assistance. If a student is violent or threatening, remove yourself and instruct others to remove themselves from the situation, and summon campus police.

When hot moments ignite in the classroom, it is important to engage thoughtfully and purposively in strategies that maintain a supportive communication climate. Managing hot moments is a complex endeavor, and it is our responsibility to maintain a climate that is conducive to learning by not adding fuel to the fire.

Tasha Souza is the associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and a professor of communication at Boise State University.

Dallimore, Elise J., Julie H. Hertenstein, and Marjory B. Platt. “Faculty-Generated Strategies for “Cold Calling”
Use: A Comparative Analysis with Student Recommendations.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 16, no. 1 (2005): 23-62.

Obear, Kathy. “How to Facilitate Triggering Situations.” November 14, 2010. Accessed August 12, 2012.

Souza, Tasha J., Elise Dallimore, Brian Pilling, and Eric Aoki. “Communication Climate, Comfort, and Cold-Calling: An Analysis of Discussion-Based Courses at Multiple Universities.” In To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, edited by Linda B. Nilsen and Judith E. Miller, 227-40. Vol. 28. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Sue, Derald W. “Racism and the Conspiracy of Silence: Presidential Address.” The Counseling Psychologist 33, no. 1 (2005): 100-14. doi:10.1177/0011000004270686.

Sue, Derald Wing. Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues
on Race. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. “THE EXCELLENCE EXPERIENCE.” Learning Forum
SuperCamp. Accessed February 27, 2015.

Warren, John T. “Reflexive Teaching: Toward Critical Autoethnographic Practices of/in/on Pedagogy.” Cultural
Studies Critical Methodologies 11, no. 2 (2011): 139-44. doi:10.1177/1532708611401332.