How to handle unruly students

Disruptive students drive us crazy. The stress incurred is one of the primary reasons that so many teachers leave teaching. What’s tricky though, is figuring out how to cope with situations that are in the gray zone: behavior that is not so awful that we have to send students to the dean (such as fighting), but just awful enough to make us grind our teeth down to nubs. By taking a deep breath and thinking before we act, we’ll be more successful at gaining control.


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  • take the time to analyze the situation
  • use silent physical proximity
  • address the elephant in the room
  • follow through on logical consequences

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  • raise your voice
  • punish the entire class
  • allow the unruliness to set the mood

Mindy Keller-Kyriakides‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do take the time to analyze the situation

One of the misconceptions about control is that we have to do something right away. Not necessarily especially if the behavior is in the grey zone. They aren’t hitting each other; they’re disrupting the lesson either momentarily or consistently. Determine the core of the unruliness. Who is “student zero” in the chain of behavior? When does it seem to begin (if it’s a daily thing)? By taking those few moments, you’ll find your response to be much more effective as opposed to knee-jerk impulsive.

Do use silent physical proximity

One of the first responses to unruly behavior is to silently walk to the core of the problem and simply stand there. Make eye contact with as many students as you can, conveying a positive, warm presence. Your body and facial expression should say, “I see what you’re doing.” Often, this strategy will be enough on its own to curb the behavior.

Do address the elephant in the room

Talk honestly and frankly with the students about what’s happening, explaining how it makes you feel and how it impacts the class. Often, they will offer suggestions for offsetting the behavior without prompting. You’ll also find out, based on their input, who the actual culprits are (if you don’t know already). You may also discover something you are doing that seems to contribute.

Do follow through on logical consequences

Whatever system you have in place, follow it. Even if doing so means you have to stop the lesson, by taking the time to follow through, you’ll save time in the long run. If the consequence for being disrespectful is a “time out”, dole out that consequence softly and assertively. Students will see that you mean what you say, and say what you mean.

Mindy Keller-Kyriakides‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not raise your voice

One of the worst things we can do is attempt to assert power by yelling. It conveys a lack of emotional control, and possibly, you’ll say something very inappropriate. Also consider that when yelling, the voice will “break” or “choke”, which only serves as fodder for the class clowns. Anger is by definition a lack of control, so there’s no way to gain control in this manner.

Do not punish the entire class

It is unfair to take revenge on an entire group when (more than likely) there are those who have not contributed to the disruption. As a band-aid, it might make everyone quiet, but imagine the resentment that builds from this action. It also comes across as a frantic, helpless gesture and a frenetic attitude is not what you want to convey.

Do not allow the unruliness to set the mood

This point is admittedly difficult. However, if you allow the disruptive students to put you “in a mood”, the entire class suffers. Rising above your natural impulse to sulk or vent will reinforce that you are the adult in the situation. Students will come to respect this ability more than you realize; respect follows fairness.


These strategies will help put you in a better place, emotionally, to determine the best course of action for the future. The lesson that day may not even be part of the curriculum. Rather it may be a lesson in character. Using that moment of calm and honestly dealing with the behavior will do far more than yelling and punishment ever can.

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