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Coping with Disruptive Students in the Classroom

Review Academic Affairs Policy #12, Disruption of Class (June, 2015) for additional information. 

The following information is designed to provide JMUs faculty with appropriate, effective, and legally sound principles for dealing with disruptive student behavior in the classroom. 

Reluctance to Address Behavior

Faculty often face issues of disrespectful and inappropriate classroom behavior. Instructors often fail to address the disruptive behavior of students, if they are (1) be unsure how to handle the situation, (2) fear legal or physical retaliation from the student, and/or (3) conclude that reporting the disruptive behavior will cause emotional pain to an already fragile or unstable person. Failure to address disruptive behavior is likely to encourage further disturbance, as it sends the message that such behavior is not problematic and that university personnel are indifferent to it.

Examples of Disruptive Behavior

Disruptive behavior is repeated, continuous, and/or multiple student behaviors that hinder the ability of instructors to teach and students to learn:

  • Eating in class
  • Monopolizing classroom discussions
  • Failing to respect the rights of other students to express their viewpoints
  • Distracting side conversations
  • Constant questions or interruptions which interfere with the instructor's presentation
  • Overt inattentiveness (e.g. sleeping, using laptops for non-class-related activities)
  • Creating excessive noise with papers, backpags, etc.
  • Entering class late or leaving early
  • Use of cell phones
  • Inordinate or inappropriate demands for time and attention
  • Poor personal hygiene (e.g., noticeably offensive body odor)

More extreme examples of disruptive behavior include, but are not limited to:

  • Use of profanity or pejorative language
  • Intoxication
  • Verbal abuse
  • Harassment 
  • Threats to harm oneself or others
  • Physical violence

Importantance of Prevention

The best thing you can do to address disruptive student behavior is to create an environment in which it is unlikely to occur.  

  • Use the class syllabus to inform students in writing of standards and expectations (e.g., respect, courtesy, timeliness, etc.) for classroom conduct and of possible consequences for disruptive behavior.
  • Devote time during the first class to review this information in the syllabus.
  • Serve as a model by demonstrating appropriate, respectful, and responsible behavior in all interactions with students.
  • When class size permits, learn and use the names of your students.

Responding to Disruptive Behavior

  • Deal with the disruptive behavior immediately.  Ignoring the behavior will likely cause it to increase.
  • A general word of caution directed to the class rather than the identified student may deter the disruptive behavior.
  • Make direct eye contact with the student engaged in the disruptive behavior or ask a question of someone sitting close to them.
  • Work against the tendency to take the disruptive behavior personally. You are simply the unfortunate person who must address it.
  • If the student's behavior is irritating, but not particularly disruptive, talk privately with the student and remind them of classroom expectations for behavior. If you feel unsafe being alone with the student, request that a colleague or your department chair attend the meeting.
  • If it is necessary to deal with a student's behavior during class, calmly but firmly inform the student that the behavior is disruptive and ask them to stop it. "Please end your conversation now and refrain from in-class phone calls. It is disruptive."
  • If the disruptive behavior continues, warn the student (perhaps in private) that the behavior may result in student disciplinary action.  "We've already discussed talking when I am speaking. If you disrupt the class again, you will be referred to OSARP."
  • If the student continues the disruptive behavior despite being given a warning, the student should then be asked to leave the classroom. After class, the instructor should contact OSARP and provide pertinent information about the student's behavior.  OSARP will determine if a charge will be placed against the student.
    • If the student refuses to leave the classroom after being instructed to do so, they should be informed that this refusal is a separate instance of disruptive behavior subject to additional penalties.
    • If the student continues to refuse to leave the classroom, the instructor may choose to adjourn class for the day.
  • Keep a log of the date, time, and nature of all incidents of disruptive behavior and any meetings you have with the student. Document incidents and meetings immediately, while the details are fresh in your memory.
  • Keep your department chair informed as the situation develops.  Ask for guidance and support from them and colleagues.

What if a Student Reacts Negatively or Says He/She Has a Disability?

When a faculty member addresses disruptive behavior in the classroom, students sometimes accuse the faculty member, subtly or directly, of being rigid, unfair, insensitive, and/or uncaring. Such accusations often trouble faculty members who (probably accurately) perceive themselves as being flexible, fair, sensitive, and caring individuals. To provide support to and a rationale for the decision to address disruptive classroom behavior, faculty should remind themselves that college mental health professionals regard setting and enforcing reasonable behavioral limits with students as not just appropriate but as highly desirable.

Regarding the issue of disabilities, it is important to be aware that even such conditions as physical or psychological disabilities are not considered a legitimate excuse for disruptive behavior on a college campus. Prevailing law recognizes that students with disabilities can be held to the same reasonable behavioral standards as individuals without disabilities, even if a violation of institutional rules is the result of a disability. This practice accords each student with the dignity of a presumption that they have at least some personal accountability for their actions.

Possible Sanctions for Disruptive Student Behavior

The Student Handbook specifies the minimum level of conduct expected of every JMU student.  These standards are higher than those imposed on all citizens by civil and criminal law and serve to foster an environment in which learning and scholarship can flourish.  Students who are found responsible for policy violations due to their disruptive behavior face OSARP sanctions including, but not limited to:

  • Fines and/or restitution.
  • Sanctioned programs specific to the incident and the needs of the individual.  A variety of programs are in place to address alcohol, drugs, values, civic responsibility, and service learning.
  • Disciplinary probation:  Such status indicates that any future policy violations may result in more severe sanctions and/or suspension from the University.
  • Dismissal from course:  The instructor may dismiss the student from the course.  The department chair should be notified of the dismissal.  The student has the right to appeal this decision to the department chair. 
  • Suspension:  The student is prohibited from enrolling in classes or being on University premises for a specified period of time.  Readmission is conditional upon reapplication and approval.
  • Expulsion from the University:  The student is permanently prohibited from enrolling in classes or being on University premises.

Campus Resources to Help You Deal with Disruptive Students

Counseling Center (Student Success Center, 3rd floor, 540-568-6552)

Counseling Center staff members provide consultation and support for faculty/staff who are dealing with a disruptive and/or emotionally disturbed student.  Psychologists and counselors can aid in the development of a more comprehensive understanding of the student's problem behavior and in the design of effective intervention strategies.  You may encourage the student to voluntarily seek assistance at the Counseling Center, but the Center does not provide services to students who are coerced or mandated into treatment. 

Office of Student Accountability & Restorative Practices (Student Success Center 2122, 540-568-6218)

OSARP administers sanctions to students whose disruptive behavior violates the policies found in the Student Handbook.  Sanctions serve to demonstrate to the student that s/he is responsible for the behavior and that disruptive behavior has predictable consequences.  Further, educational sanctions address ways to prevent the behavior from happening again in the future.

Office of Public Safety (540-568-6913) (In an emergency, 540-568-6911)

While not typically involved in most situations of disruptive student behavior, the University Police Department is the primary source of immediate support when the disruptive student engages in threats or actions to harm her/himself or someone else.

Recommended Reading

Coping with Misconduct in the College Classroom: A Practical Model by Gerald Amada (1999).  Asheville, N.C.:  College Administration Publications, Inc.