To Manage Disruptive Students, Keep Calm and ‘Alpha Command’ On

Late arrivals and classroom eaters are a fact of life—but can be overcome

Disruptive Students

Disruptive students are a fact of life—whether they are late, talk inappropriately, or are just plain rude. These disruptions get in the way of learning and are not easy to handle, but there are fresh ways to confront this age-old problem.

Education expert Aaron Daffern offers innovative solutions to disruptive student behavior in his live webinar for Eli Education, “Manage and Motivate Difficult Students: A 3-Phase Comprehensive Approach.” Daffern tackles sticky classroom management issues and shows you how to manage difficult students of all types.

What to Expect: Chip Munchers and Antagonists

Webster University outlines the myriad ways students can disrupt class. Examples include arriving late, continually entering and leaving class, texting, munching on chips, interrupting the instructor, making antagonistic comments, grandstanding, being open rude or inappropriately critical, sleeping, having poor personal hygiene, and being threatening and abusive.

In response, Webster gives instructors a broad palette of disciplinary options, ranging from removing students from the classroom and documenting the behavior to calling the police and referring the miscreant to Student Affairs for a judicial review. But by then, many experts say, the damage is already done.

Bad behavior can raise hostility levels and increase aggression, as the American Federation of Teachers notes.

“Managing unruly behavior is one of the most difficult, frustrating, and even frightening parts of being a teacher,” the association notes. “With these high-need students, no behavior management strategy is going to work all of the time—but some are more effective than others.”

Still, management tactics can go too far, cautions a report from Stanford University. Go too hard on students and they may simply stop showing up.

“Recognize that at least some disruption is inevitable,” the Stanford report notes.

What to Do: Wield Assertiveness and Empathy

Disruptions are hard to deal with because the root problem of any bad behavior can vary so widely, reports career site With that in mind, the site notes, it can help to focus on yourself, not the troublemaker.

Smart: “Do not become hostile towards the student,” says. “This will only show the student that he or she can push your buttons and the problem will escalate.”

Poorly-considered reactions can exacerbate the problem, affirms the American Federation of Teachers: Reprimanding, escalating, arguing, and attempting to force compliance can all make the situation worse.

Do this: Instead, try “alpha commands,” the site recommends. Such commands “involve clear, direct, and specific instructions to students without additional verbalizations, and they allow a reasonable period of time for a response.” (That is in contrast to “beta commands,” which have too much verbalization, can be confusing, and offer no or inadequate time for complying.)

In addition, practice a little empathy and put yourself in the student’s shoes. Classroom20 writer Richard D. Solomon outlines factors to consider when dealing with problem behavior:

  • The student’s negative thoughts
  • The student’s anti-social skills
  • To what extent the student feels that the classroom is a community of learners

Don’t Show Anger, Do Show Disappointment

When all else fails, don’t give up—and get creative, The Cornerstone for Teachers’ writer Angela Watson suggested. The site recommends:

  • incorporating sign language,
  • mastering the “ice cold stare,” and
  • asking simple questions that prompt students to self-correct.

Ultimately, aim to engage, not embarrass, students, Watson wrote, contributing to the chorus of experts cautioning against anger. “Don’t match the intensity of students’ behavior: tone yourself down, which encourages them to tone down,” Watson said. “Showing quiet disappointment or disapproval in your facial expression and tone is enough to communicate a strong message without distracting the students who are on-task.”

Finding a workable classroom management solution is key. As Daffern notes, disruptions can bring a class down, but solving them can benefit everyone—and make your day in the classroom much more enjoyable.

To join the conference or see a replay, order a DVD or transcript, or read more
Jeff Schmerker
About Jeff Schmerker
Jeff has extensive professional experience writing on a variety of topics, from pharmaceutical research to environmental history. He has published more than a half-dozen books, and he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and restaurant reviewer. He lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife and son.