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Handling Disruptive Students

A Delicate Dance for Any Teacher

Found in: Class Management

When students are disruptive, teachers must react quickly - and correctly.

So, how does a preservice teacher learn to do that? Same as with any other skill - practice. And talking with and observing colleagues. And taking classes.

Here's how Sandy, a preservice 6th grade teacher, and her cooperating teacher handled a disruptive student Sandy faced:

The boy, who was mature for his age, was having trouble settling down to work and was being quite disruptive. After subtle attempts to quell the disruption, Sandy spoke directly to the boy. As she was speaking to him, he stood up and stared at her aggressively, and became verbally abusive. She asked him to leave and as he left, he made an obscene gesture and a sexually explicit comment. She was taken aback, but she knew she had to respond. She looked around the room at the other students, who were suddenly silent. They were unsure what was going to happen and looked to her as the teacher to see what she would do. Sandy immediately escorted the student to the door and turned him over to her cooperating teacher, who had been working with a small group outside the classroom. Sandy then went back to the class, took a deep breath, and restarted the lesson. Sandy reacted instinctively and she handled the situation appropriately for several reasons:

  • She dealt immediately with the challenging student.
  • She established that she was the teacher, was capable, and was in charge, even though a student teacher.
  • She reassured the rest of the students that they were in a safe environment after the unsettling outburst and challenge to authority.

How did the Liz, the cooperating teacher, handle the disruptive student?

She took the student to the office where the student remained until a parent conference could be held. At the parent conference the behavior was described, the student had an opportunity to respond, and some in-school suspension was assigned. The student returned to class after a reasonable period and the relationship between the teacher and student was preserved.

When she works with disruptive students, she does what she describes as a "delicate dance," which requires balance. She doesn't want these students to believe they can never be accepted or valued by her again.  She wants them to know that she believes they can still be successful in class, but that their behavior has crossed the line and must be addressed. She achieves balance by applying understanding and discipline according to circumstances and the student. And she always addresses the student's behavior, not the student:

You did this…It is not acceptable for these reasons…And here is the consequence and the time frame for that consequence…And here's what happens after that.

Setting the Tone of Teacher-Student Interactions

When a student misbehaves, the teacher-student interactions need not become adversarial. Here are some practices teachers can use to set the appropriate tone:

  • Communicate clearly with the student, using understandable vocabulary.
  • Be firm and direct.
  • Use your tone and voice carefully. Don't get angry or emotional.
  • Be rational and objective.
  • Always provide a time to listen to the student.
  • Ignore trivial denials.

Dealing With Student Who Threaten

At times a teacher may encounter a truly threatening student. The school should have clear procedures in place for these situations.

Inexperienced teachers should take classes or talk with other teachers to learn the skills necessary to work with difficult students. Otherwise, they may find themselves in power struggles, with control issues, and reacting emotionally.

Typical Behaviors of the Young Adolescent
Most of the student behavior in a middle school classroom is the result of their developmental growth. Here are some behaviors that are typical of the young adolescent:

  • They are impulsive.
  • Because of brain growth spurts, they cannot sufficiently edit thoughts, things they say, and things they do.
  • They are searching for and testing the "boundaries" of those they know.
  • They are seeking adult acceptance while experimenting with independence from adults.

Well-prepared teachers know the developmental issues of their students. They respond to negative student behavior in ways that communicate that the teacher is in control, that there are parameters for acceptable behavior, that the classroom is safe, and that individual relationships with students will always be positive and supportive.

About the Author

Pete Lorain, author of articles on middle schooling and other education issues, currently works under private contract. Prior to retirement, he served as a high school teacher, counselor, and administrator; middle school principal and director at the district level; director of human resources; and president of National Middle School Association from 1996 to 1997. Revised 2012.


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