Disruptive student management

Disruptive boy throwing paper in the classroom

Even one disruptive student in a class can be exhausting for a teacher. So how do you stay sane when one of your pupils disturbs the class and refuses to cooperate?

Renate’s challenge

Here’s Renate, teaching in Spain: “I have a disruptive student who makes teaching especially challenging. He never sits still, even for a minute. Instead, he makes animal sounds, crawls, and jumps about. His goal is always to do the opposite and to disrupt any activity. However, I try not to raise my voice, although he makes me angry. I also feel for the other children who would like to learn English, but in such an atmosphere, it’s tough.”

Solutions for dealing with a disruptive student

1. Keep cool

Angry people can look pretty comical, so don’t become the butt of the joke! It can be hard to calm a provocative, naughty child. To help you stay cool, bear these points in mind:

  • Losing your temper weakens your position of authority. It shows you can’t control yourself.
  • If you are all stewed up inside, you won’t be enjoying your lesson at all!
  • Additionally, shouting at a naughty child makes them the center of attention.

If being angry and shouting isn’t an option, then what tools do you have?

2. Look after yourself first

The first thing to do is to help yourself. You can’t help others if you are feeling weak and helpless. The most urgent issue in Renate’s case above is to remove her anger towards the child. When the child provokes her, she feels angry, and the atmosphere becomes tense. This tension arises from the combination of the boy’s naughtiness and the teacher’s anger. Therefore if the teacher’s attitude changes, the atmosphere will change.

3. Acceptance, understanding, and compassion

First, accept what is. This disruptive student may be so full of energy that he can’t sit still, and perhaps he has ADHD. Instead of feeling mad, try feeling compassion. I understand he drives you crazy, but if you get into a negative emotional state, it won’t help you, and you won’t enjoy the lessons so much.

So be selfish. Change your outlook, even if you change it artificially. Pretend to yourself that this poor boy has difficulty, and it’s not his fault that he is like that. The situation in class will be the same, but you’ll feel better about it.

Three boys with learning difficulties
Be compassionate if you can – who knows what kids might be dealing with at home.
4. Don’t reward his demand for attention

Shouting at this child, singling him out, will make him the center of attention. He may love that!

  • Try Ignoring him completely when he misbehaves.
  • Don’t use his name.
  • Pretend he is not there. He’s making animal noises to get attention.
  • Don’t even look at him. Imagine he’s invisible. Most kids hate being ignored; it’s the worst punishment. Experiment with this.
  • Praise him, using his name, when he is good.
  • Make him the center of attention when he is good.
5. The teacher is the boss

Just because you understand his difficulties doesn’t mean he is the boss. Be calm, firm, and consistent. Last night, I had a naughty child at my house, and I asked her to move over onto a stool next to my chair. She didn’t move. I asked again. No reaction. So I insisted, nicely, and firmly that she move over – she moved over. If they test you, you need to show them that you ARE the boss, and it’s non-negotiable.

6. Make good behaviour a choice

If, after three firm requests, the child still disobeys, try a question like this one: “Would you like me to speak to your father when he picks you up after class, or would you like to sit nicely?”

This gives the boy a choice. He is responsible; he chooses. It’s more effective than just threatening him.

Then, if he doesn’t behave well, you HAVE to follow through and speak to the dad. Empty threats undermine your authority.

7. Does he need to burn off energy?

Since this boy loves making animal sounds, why not use that to help you teach. Use the skit Zoo Talk (from my book of 30 plays and skits for children) and get him to do the sound effects.

If he’s jumping off the walls, do a vocabulary quiz or question and answer session with the group. For every correct answer, the boy does a star jump. For every incorrect answer, he does three press-ups.

8. What if there is no change?

Tolerance: If, after you have asked him nicely and firmly to behave, he is still a total pest, send him over to play in a corner. Just set him aside so that you can at least teach the others. Perhaps he can do a puzzle or play with some toys, well away from the others. I don’t think he will like being cast aside, and he may well want to be re-integrated into the group. You can say yes, as long as you behave nicely.

9. Get inspired

Consult with fellow teachers and the head of school. See what ideas other teachers at your school have regarding your difficult student. If you have a whole class of disruptive kids, watch “Freedom Writers“, directed by Richard LaGravanese, a great film inspired by a true story that went on to influence the American education system (slightly!)

10. Give interesting lessons

Use my resources to engage your pupils with stories, games, music, and skits.

9 thoughts on “Disruptive student management”

  1. Thank you for the very useful reply to Renate. We must all have met at one point A disruptive student who challanges our patience. I find myself following the 5 steps you list all the time with a yr4 st. Ì have had since yr 1. It can be a real challange at times. I have come to the conclusion that indifference is our most powerful weapon and students’ most hated punishment. For me with Marco it’s called survival.
    Thanks a million!

    1. Shelley Vernon

      Hello Cristina,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you have found things that work. Since kids are all different, it’s worth trying various strategies to see which ones work the best.

      Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just kick our difficult students out of the class! But we can’t…so actually, I suppose it’s a good thing, since it makes us grow as teachers;

      Do you like Marco, but he’s noisy? Or do you dislike him?

    2. I love the answer, and I can see how I can use some of that for my teenager. However, I have a teen in my class who is ONLY taking class because his parents are forcing him. The other two students are not enjoying the class because he constantly bothers and disrupts. One of those students is even not interested in continuing to the next level. I think sometimes it is just becaus I am not a good teacher. HELP!

      1. Shelley Vernon

        Dear Stephanie,

        That must be very demotivating for you to be teaching students who don’t want to be there. Have you spoken to the parents of the child in question? Let them know that he is a disruptive element in class, and is not learning anything. Perhaps together you can get some leverege on the boy. For example the parents could take away his telephone and only give it back when he attains a certain mark in English.

        If you get nowhere with any of the ideas above, then you could ask the boy to get on with something else quietly while you teach the two who do want to learn.

        You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
        Save your enthusiasm for the ones who want to learn!

        Try some of the ideas in the blog above, and speak to the parents, and let me know how it goes.

  2. And I thank Marco! Because as you point out, he has jelped me to grow as a teacher! If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger, they say. And Marco has definitely made me stronger!

  3. Pooltai Lawakorn

    I always need an assistant to sit near him/her and help me to stop bad behavior, and listen to the teacher.
    If that way doe not work, my assitant takes him/her to do something else, so as not to disturb the teaching. That usually works and so the child can rejoin the class,

    If nothing works the assistant will tell the child that she will contact his or her parents to discuss taking the child out of class, since he/she doesn’t want to learn, and we need to teach other and can’t allow him/her to disturb.

    1. Hello there Pooltai, Thanks for your comment. That sounds good, I bet you rarely need to use the third measure and if you do, the kids must start behaving right away! It’s nice for you to have an assistant to help. That does make up for having bigger classes to a degree.
      All the best

      1. Hi Shelley,
        Thank you for this. I had one particular student in my class like that. He would even climb on desks and crawl around the room (11 years old). I did exactly all that you’ve mentioned above but for me he wasn’t the problem. There were about 3 other boys in the class who made things even more difficult. They wouldn’t stop pointing out what this kid would be doing, sometimes they’d even get off their seats to get this kid to stop whatever he was doing. No matter how hard I tried to ignore that student and no matter how I tried to explain to those boys what I was trying to do and how they could help, they wouldn’t stop. It was exhausting. They were noisier and more disruptive than that one student who couldn’t sit still.

        1. Hello Nanise, Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree, it can be exhausting managing children. When I did my after school clubs, I sometimes felt as though I had been teaching all day! That said, it was very rewarding. For the three boys who are being distracted, here are some ideas to try.

          Firstly, how about having 15-minute-challenge game? The game is not to react to the 11-year-old, even if he crawls right under your desk! Put the class into teams. Try with the 3 naughty boys on the same team, but if that doesn’t work, put them on rival teams and see if it makes a difference. 15-minutes is a long time, so, allow two warnings per team before a team loses. Don’t play the game for the whole lesson or it won’t be a game.

          Next, those three boys need to be more respectful of you, so you might want to ask them if they want you to speak to their parents, or the school director…or whatever tools you have.

          As for the 11-year-old who crawls around, if he is autistic then perhaps he needs to move about to stay sane, I really don’t know. But if he is just being naughty, you’ll have to send him into a corner for part of the lesson, because you should not be expected to run a class like that.

          You could let students know that they are being filmed. Video the class and show the parents and the school director. Sometimes parents are a nightmare. They blame the teacher for not coping with the class. In fact, what they don’t realize is that their child is the problem. Nothing better than a video of their obnoxious brat LOL! You have to keep that strictly private between you, the school and the parents.

          It’s a challenge. If you are in an area where all the kids are in gangs, and being shot at over the weekend, try this movie “The Freedom Writers”. It’s a great movie and based on a true story.

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