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Responding to Disruptive Class Situations

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On occasion, erratic, disruptive, and hostile situations may arise in our classes. It can be extremely challenging to know when to keep track of a pattern of behaviors and when to respond accordingly, especially if you feel that your own personal safety is threatened.

On this page, we will offer you some steps that you can take to establish clear boundaries with your students from the very start of the quarter. Then, we will offer a list of strategies you can take to discuss your concerns with a student who may be causing disruptive situations in class. Finally, we will list some resources you can turn to if you feel that the situation needs to be escalated beyond one-on-one conversations with you and your student.

How Can I Prevent Disruptive and Hostile Class Situations from Occurring?

There are several small steps you can take to try and prevent disruptive student situations from occurring:

  • Include very clear syllabus guidelines about classroom conduct. We require our instructors to include the Stanford Fundamental Standard in their syllabus, and this language could be brought into other parts of your syllabus too, especially around conduct about class discussions.
  • Articulate clear expectations for grading early on. Grades can be an especially fraught point of conflict for students. Establish early on how you are going to grade students and what the consequences are for late and incomplete work. That way, students do not feel blindsided or severely punished later in the course.
  • Show that you are empathetic to student needs. On the first day of class, articulate your level of investment in students' learning and explain that you understand their challenges. While students may still push back against this articulation of empathy, it can go a long way to establish your relationship with their personal lives and feelings.
  • Set boundaries on when and where you will communicate with students. Restricting the times and places where you will meet with students will establish your personal boundaries early on and communicate to your students that you will not engage with them on issues about the class outside of normal business hours and in visible, public spaces.

What Should I Do If I Need to Talk to a Student Causing a Disruptive Situation?

Laura Bennett, a student conduct counselor at Harper College, offers several steps for instructors to take if they need to confront a student who is causing a disruptive or hostile situation. These steps are modified based on her recommendations (see link for an article from Faculty Focus that explores these steps in greater depth):

  • Take careful note of when and where the situation occurred and who else was present. You will not show these notes to your student, but you will want to have evidence in writing of what happened so that you can recall the situation accurately in the future.
  • Arrange for a time to talk to your student in a comfortable space for both you and the student. Make sure you schedule a block of time where you can listen to the student and discuss your concerns with them. You may choose to have the student meet you in your office, but at a time when your colleagues are around in case you feel unsafe.
  • Be direct, specific, and nonjudgmental in expressing your concerns. Use language that makes clear that you're not blaming the student for their behavior. For example, instead of saying, "You really caused a lot of uproar in class last week," state instead, "I noticed that the tone of the class really changed after "X" situation occurred, and I'm concerned about how that tone impacts the whole class environment."
  • Give the student space to share their perspective. At this point in the conversation, make sure you give the student space to share their perspective on the situation. Listening to them will allow them to voice their version of the story and will communicate to them that you still care about their success in the class.
  • Set parameters for certain behaviors. After the student has shared their story, remind the student of the class policies and expectations. 
  • Share consequences for noncompliance with class policies and expectations. Let the student know what will happen if they continue to act disruptively in class. They should know what to expect if they choose to disrupt class experiences in the future.
  • Ask your student to summarize your conversation. Asking the student to put the conversation back in their own words allows them to see that you care about their understanding of the situation; you don't want to police the student, but you want to make suer that they understand the community standards and classroom conduct in PWR.
  • Document the meeting and what was discussed. Keep clear track of your conversation and write a note on what conclusions you and your student came to by the end of the conversation.
  • Follow up with the student. Make sure that you e-mail the student or talk to the student after class to establish that you both are on the same page.
  • Let the PWR Associate Director know about your student. The PWR Associate Director can help you determine whether appropriate contacts should be made with Advising or Residential Education. Please refer to the FERPA guidelines on student privacy for learning more about communicating your concerns to admin.

What Can I Do If I Feel That the Response to the Situation Needs to be Escalated?

First, speak to the PWR Associate Director and let them know if you think they should notify the student's Residence Dean or the appropriate staff member in Undergraduate Advising.

We can (and will) remove students from class for persistent misbehavior.  To do so, we will need good concrete documentation, so keep careful records.

Are There Other Resources I Can Check Out to Learn More About Managing Disruptive Class Situations?

The University of Louisville's Dean of Students office offers a comprehensive Response Guide for Difficult Student Situations. This guide offers a series of steps that instructors can take for a variety of difficult student situations (e.g. aggressive student demand/request, angry or disturbing writing, verbally aggressive behavior, physical threats, etc.)