Being an instructor is an exciting but often challenging position that carries with it an array of responsibilities. Not only are you responsible for classroom learning, but you must also operate as a leader in the classroom by fostering a professional atmosphere of respect and community-based sharing.

Even without reading the article, you can probably think of how you might deal with situations of student incivility. In fact, to be a successful instructor today, this is exactly what you need to do. It is not advisable to wait for these incidents to pop up; planning ahead is one way to ensure fewer conflicts arise. Decide how you feel in advance about cell phone use. Will you ban it? If a phone rings (buzzes, clinks, chimes), will you take it away or take points off a student’s grade? Will you ignore it? What will you do if a student refuses to hang up when you insist on it?

These questions aren’t meant to raise your anxiety. But if they are, then you can imagine how you will feel in class when the situations really arise. You have the power to create a classroom without conflict. But you may need to do some additional reading, attend workshops, and take some time to think about how you want your classroom to operate to create the atmosphere you want.

Additionally, you may want to invite your students to describe the climate they would like to have and invite them to help you create it. The more your students understand your expectations in advance, the more smoothly your class will run. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Dedicate class time early in the term to typical problem behavior and invite your students to suggest ways to deal with it. For example, you could have students role play things such as speaking out of turn while another student is answering a question, coming in to class late, etc. Then ask the whole class to suggest ways to handle the situation. Some instructors have has success in having the students establish the rules for behavior in class.
  • Point out that some students seem to participate less than others and ask for ideas for ways to get everyone involved.
  • Announce that, because research evidence indicates that students who sit at the front get better grades, you will have a policy of rotating seats so that the next week you will expect those sitting in the back row to move to the front and all the other rows to move back one, etc.

When a student does cause problems in the classroom and the disruption is significant enough that the actual instructional environment is altered—either because the instructor gets off-track or because students are unable to focus on anything but the disruption—action should be taken to stop this. You have several choices in how to respond to a disruptive student. You could

  • Address the disruptive behavior as it occurs, even interrupting a student to do so
  • Address the disruptive behavior immediately after it occurs, while students are still in class
  • Address the class as a whole, reminding every member of what constitutes disruptive behavior
  • Address only the student who is responsible for the disruptive behavior privately after class, when everyone else has left

The choice is yours, but addressing disruptive behavior one-on-one with a student after class can help limit the extent of the disruption while still getting the message across that it won’t be tolerated. Whatever you choose, your students will take note of how you respond to conflicts in the classroom.

There are many successful ways to be proactive when dealing with difficult students. Numerous articles and chapters have been written about cheating and other problems. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (Svinicki and McKeachie 2014) leaves us with food for thought when the authors write, “It is human nature to perceive the problem as the other person’s fault; but before focusing on changing the student’s behavior, take a few moments to look at what you are doing that might be related to the student’s behavior. Interpersonal clashes involve at least two people” (p. 172).

Creating an atmosphere that is safe, friendly and inclusive will go a long way to building an effective classroom. It will help you to be a more effective instructor and will lead to your students being more successful. Of course, disruptions may occur but when they do you will be well served if you have prepared ahead of time. (TeamUP, Cengage Learning)

How do you prepare yourself for potential classroom disruptions? Share with us in the Comments section below.


This content comes from the TeamUP Professional Development Portal, and makes up a small part of one of the self-paced multimedia modules available. This article comes from a full article included in the module Conflict Resolution-Dealing with Difficult Students, which is part of Pod 8: Classroom Relationships. For a full list of available content, visit this site.

McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Svinicki, Marilla. 2014.  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Fourteenth Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.