“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
Make your behavioral and academic expectations clear. Be proactive and define your expectations before anyone has a chance to get the class started on the wrong foot. Consider starting each class with a brief reminder or alternatively give the class and members kudos for making the last class one that encouraged learning. Think of and present your syllabus as a contract between you and your students and review the whole syllabus the first class. If you change your syllabus, make sure you let the students know so your actions aren’t experiences as arbitrary.
Model to your students what you yourself expect. If you don’t want students to be late, model being on time. Show students how to disagree respectfully. Maintain inclusive attitudes and use civil language and be careful not to inadvertently provoke a cycle of disrespect by debasing or invalidating a student or by making them the brunt of a joke.
Try to see problem students as needing something from you rather than rejecting what you are offering. Try not to take a student’s challenges as personal and it will be easier to respond non-defensively. If a student offers disparaging comments about a reading, assignment or your class in general, acknowledge their disappointment. Consider reframing their comments to be a demonstration of their commitment to learning information that is personally meaningful. Sometimes the act of empathizing with their disappointment is enough to derail a potential ongoing challenge to your teaching. Sometimes students are uncivil because they are stressed and lack the skills to do the work that is assigned. Ask them to stay after class and see if you can determine if this is the problem and if you can refer them for extra academic help or counseling.
Consider making your own list of disruptive behaviors and how you will respond to each when it arises. Feeling like you can handle a student’s behavior helps you project confidence which reduces the number of challenges to your teaching. What would be on your list? Students who: pack up early, surf the net during class, ask problematic questions, arrive late, have a cell phone ring during class, interrupt others, correct you, monopolize class discussions, are hostile to other points of view, etc.
Know who your students are, if possible. Acknowledge students when possible by name. Anonymity in a classroom makes students feel less connected and more likely to be disrespectful.
If a student triggers a red flag, try and get to know them. Call them by their name, and encourage them.
Anticipate tough discussions in your class. Students need to learn how to tolerate other points of view while also expressing disagreement. If you know that a class discussion could go into dangerous or highly conflictual territory, talk to your students about the difficulties they may encounter when someone disagrees with them and how to talk about difficult things in a courteous way. You might want to ask the students how they think it would best work to keep the discourse civil but real.
Set appropriate boundaries. You can be friendly with your students, but your role is one of authority and is different than a friend. Sometimes a student might need this to be clarified. If you are concerned about how to best deal with boundary issues, consider seeking a consultation with a colleague or with someone in the counseling center. Some students who are struggling with a personality disorder have learned very ineffective ways of getting their needs met and which can leave others feeling exhausted and perplexed on how to help. The best strategy is establish firm and professional boundaries and let a professional counselor help with a referral for longer term counseling in the community.
Learn the warning signs of impending violence. Trust your instincts. If someone feels dangerous or you suspect they may become violent trust your instincts. Common signs of impending violent behavior include: a fixed stare, visibly tense muscles in the face or arms, hands, red face, difficulty breathing, a loud voice or standing too close.
Know how to deescalate through use of your own voice and body posture. If you feel yourself getting tense in reaction to a student’s behavior, take a deep breath and try and calm yourself before you do or say anything. Speak quietly and calmly. Listen to the other person without interrupting. Try to get some distance between you and the other person – at least 2-3 feet. Make good eye contact and be aware of any emotions you might be conveying through your facial expressions. Try to appear calm, neutral and interested.
Address inappropriate behavior immediately…within reason. This is a hard call sometimes. You want to avoid an audience which can make it harder for some people to back down, but you also want to communicate to the rest of the class that you have things under control and you’re not afraid of dealing with problem behaviors. Sometimes you might want to address inappropriate behavior with a reminder of your expectations as stated in the syllabus. Other times you might use humor to address a problematic behavior. Give the other person an exit. Don’t back them into a corner where they are likely to get more verbally aggressive. Redirect the discussion to a more cooperative approach and avoid power struggles. If it looks like a pattern is developing ask to speak to the student after class and convey your concerns. Seek advice from your chair, colleagues and the counselors at the counseling center.
Approach students and convey your concern if you notice they are sad, their hygiene has been neglected lately, they appear to be angry, upset or are acting problematically before they become a classroom problem. Empathy and concern for each other is one way of reducing classroom behavior problems and for some students they have no one to talk to about problems they might be experiencing. You are the front line and are the first to be in a position to notice when a student is in trouble. Once you have expressed concern, if they are receptive to talking, walk them over to the counseling center to set up an appointment or call with them in your office, or give them our number and location.
Don’t ignore, dismiss, or minimize threats, harassment, or concerns that other students bring to you about another classmate. If a student confides in you that they are being stalked or threatened by another student, take it seriously and accompany the student to Public Safety. If you receive a paper and believe there are implied or direct threats, ask to speak with the student privately for clarification (if you feel safe doing so) and then seek consultation with the counseling staff or staff at Security. And, don’t promise students that you will keep what they say secret. You can tell them you will be discreet, but if anyone is in danger you will need to make sure that all parties are safe.
Document each incident, witnesses, what action you took and how it ended.