From term to term, you can’t predict the specific behavioral issues you’ll need to address in class. In some courses, you may experience few disruptions or problems (in fact, you may wish for more activity in class, in which case, you’ll want to seek and draw students into participation and discussion). Other terms, it may seem as though every student is devising a way to distract, disturb, disrespect, or otherwise cause problems for you and their fellow classmates. Though of course you don’t want to assume every student is a troublemaker at heart, it’s wise to be familiar with ways to manage disruptions and other classroom behavior issues before they occur.

In their book McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Fourteenth Edition, Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki describe four types of challenging behaviors that students may exhibit in your classroom at some point during the school term. Review their list below, and gather some ideas for managing these behaviors in a constructive manner.

  • The attention-seeking, discussion-dominating student. These students want to be heard… and they want to be heard often. Whether or not these students have something of substance to add (and very often, these “discussion dominators” do make valuable points), it’s important to maintain a balanced discussion, so that all students feel comfortable adding to the conversation. Tips to manage this behavior: For one: if you’ve asked students to raise their hands before answering, call on the less-responsive students first. Additionally, you may want to consider new ways to foster community in the classroom, which can increase your more reticent students’ willingness to speak up. If, however, you try these strategies and the offending student’s behavior continues, speak to that individual privately after class, and let him or her know that, while you value the eagerness to participate, you hope to hear from as many students as possible, and that thus, you’d appreciate it if they could wait to respond to some questions until others have had the opportunity to contribute.
  • The inattentive student. Some students are apt to drift off into their own thoughts, stare into their smartphones, or talk with classmates in the middle of your lecture. Not only do they miss out on what you’re saying, they often disrupt the students around them as well. Tips to manage this behavior: Because students may get distracted if they’re too challenged or not challenged enough, McKeachie and Svinicki encourage instructors to consider whether or not they’re presenting the manner that is proving either too difficult or too simple. If neither is the case, then they recommend implementing some strategies that encourage interaction and lessen the likelihood of disengagement, such as closely monitored group activities. You might also assign “minute papers” and then ask several students—including the inattentive ones—to share their answers. Other strategies include requiring students to rotate seats on a regular basis (and moving those easily distracted back-row students to the front row). Again, if a particular student’s inattentive behavior persists, you may want to speak one-on-one with that individual and ask about their lack of attention in a considerate and concerned manner.
  • The unprepared student. We all occasionally have “those days” when we’re not as prepared as we’d want or need to be. However,  some students make a habit of skipping the reading, viewing, listening, or other assignments you’ve intended as pre-class work. Tips to manage this behavior: First, be certain that all students know and understand your expectations. They may not prepare as you expected simply because they don’t know what’s expected of them. To ensure this won’t be the case, make your expectations plain in your syllabus and state them outright in the first class meeting. Over the course of your lectures, you may make periodic mention of points that underline your expectations (e.g. “As you undoubtedly noted in the reading for today’s class”); or, you could ask questions that draw out responses based on the materials assigned for that class period. In addition, consider using reading quizzes or other in-class activities that depend on knowledge of the course materials and thus reinforce the importance of coming to class prepared.
  • The uncivil and disrespectful student. Student civility lays the groundwork for respectful and productive class sessions. If even one student disrespects the time, feelings, and thoughts of you and their fellow students, their rude behavior has a negative impact on the entire class. Tips to manage this behavior: Many institutions have policies that outline appropriate classroom behavior and require all students to follow these guidelines or risk serious consequences. If your school does not have these, consider developing a list of classroom behavior requirements and implement them in your own course. You may also consider that some students may not see certain behaviors as necessarily “uncivil.” (For example, Svinicki and McKeachie point to research showing that, while most instructors and students would agree that sleeping during class is indeed uncivil behavior, some students don’t deem interrupting one another to be as rude as many instructors do.) Even so, if these issues cause problems in your classroom, it is worth the time and effort to outline your expectations in this area. (Svinicki and McKeachie, 177-181)


Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. Marilla Svinicki. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


What are your classroom management strategies? How do you deal with disruptions, distractions, or other challenging behaviors? Share your experiences and suggestions below.