Coping with Disruptive Students in the Classroom

  • In addition to the information presented on this page, be sure to review Article IV on Prohibited Conduct in the BCCC Student Code of Conduct (2016-2017).  


    The following information is designed to provide Baltimore City Community College faculty with appropriate, effective, and legally sound principles for dealing with disruptive student behavior, especially that which occurs in the classroom.  The goal is to help faculty more confidently, fairly, and safely address incidents of disruption in a manner that discourages such behavior while retaining the dignity of the learning environment.   

    Disruptive Behavior on the Rise

    On college campuses, the term "disruptive behavior" is most commonly associated with large-scale demonstrations and protests.  There is, however, another form of misconduct on campus which is seldom reported by the media but which causes individual faculty members considerably more personal turmoil:  disruptive behavior in the classroom.
    The climate of higher education has changed over the past few decades, and faculty are now faced with serious issues of disrespectful and inappropriate classroom behavior that previously were of little concern.  Unfortunately, instructors frequently fail to address the disruptive behavior of students, because they may (1) be unsure how to handle the situation, (2) fear legal or physical retaliation from the student, and/or (3) conclude that reporting the disruptive behavior will cause emotional pain to an already fragile or unstable person.  Failure to address disruptive behavior, however, is likely to encourage further disturbance, as it sends the message that such behavior is not problematic and that college personnel are indifferent to it. 

    Examples of Disruptive Behavior

    The Code seeks to foster and promote a sense of respect and consideration of others. BCCC is committed to ensuring a safe, learning environment and workplace for its students, faculty, staff, and visitors. Everyone at BCCC is expected to conduct himself/herself in a civil manner. The following types of conduct are prohibited by the Code and may be subject to sanctions under the Code. This list is not intended to be exhaustive or complete and is as follows:
    • Eating in class
    • Monopolizing classroom discussions
    • Failing to respect the rights of other students to express their viewpoints
    • Carrying on distracting side conversations
    • Constant questions or interruptions which interfere with the instructor's presentation
    • Overt inattentiveness (e.g., sleeping, reading the paper, using laptops for non-class-related activities)
    • Creating excessive noise with papers, book bags, etc.
    • Entering class late or leaving early
    • Use of cell phones in the classroom
    • Inordinate or inappropriate demands for time and attention
    • Poor personal hygiene (e.g., noticeably offensive body odor)
    • Use of profanity or pejorative language
    • Intoxication
    • Verbal abuse (e.g., taunting, badgering, intimidation)
    • Harassment (e.g., use of "fighting words," stalking)
    • Threats to harm oneself or others
    • Physical violence (e.g., shoving, grabbing, assault, use of weapons)

    An Ounce of Prevention...

    Perhaps the best thing faculty can do to address disruptive student behavior is to create an environment in which it is unlikely to occur. For example, an instructor should:
    • When class size permits, learn and use the names of your students.
    • Serve as a model by demonstrating appropriate, respectful, and responsible behavior in all interactions with students.
    • Use the class syllabus to inform students in writing of standards and expectations (e.g., respect, courtesy, timeliness, etc.) for classroom conduct and of possible consequences for disruptive behavior.
    • Devote time during the first class to review this information in the syllabus.

    Responding to Disruptive Behavior

    Some general suggestions for dealing with disruptive student behavior are:
    • Deal with the disruptive behavior immediately.  Ignoring the behavior will likely cause it to increase.
    • A general word of caution directed to the class rather than at an identified student may effectively deter the disruptive behavior.
    • Work against the human tendency to take the disruptive behavior personally.  The behavior usually has little to do with you, and you are simply the unfortunate person who must address it.
    • If the student's behavior is irritating, but not particularly disruptive, consider talking with the student privately after class to remind him/her of your expectations for classroom behavior.  If you feel unsafe being alone with the student for some reason, request that a colleague or your associate dean attend the meeting.
    • If it is necessary to deal with a student's behavior during class, you should calmly but firmly inform the student that the behavior is disruptive and ask that he/she stop it.  Example:  "Your use of your cell phone is bothering me and disrupting the class.  Please end your conversation now and refrain from in-class phone calls in the future."
    • If the disruptive behavior continues during either the present or some future class, warn the student (perhaps in private) that such behavior may result in student disciplinary action.  Example:  "I've already warned you about talking when I am speaking to the class.  If you disrupt the class again in this manner, you will be referred to the Office for Judicial Affairs."
    • If the student continues the disruptive behavior despite being given a warning, the student should then be asked to leave the classroom.  Following the class, the instructor should contact Public Safety at 410-462-7700 and provide pertinent information about the student's behavior.
    • Keep a log of the date, time, and nature of all incidents of disruptive behavior and any meetings you have with the student.  Document incidents and meetings immediately, while specifics and details are still fresh in your memory.
    • Keep your associate dean informed as the situation develops.  Ask for guidance and support from her/him and from colleagues.

    What if a Disruptive Student has a Disability?

    •  Regarding the issue of disabilities, it is important to be aware that even such conditions as physical or psychological disabilities are not considered a legitimate excuse for disruptive behavior on a college campus. Prevailing law recognizes that students with disabilities can be held to the same reasonable behavioral standards as individuals without disabilities, even if a violation of institutional rules is the result of a disability. This practice accords each student with the dignity of a presumption that they have at least some personal accountability for their actions.

    Campus Resources to Help You Deal with Disruptive Students

    The Office of Public Safety - 410-462-7700
    The Office for Judicial Affairs - 410-462-8505
    The Disability Support Services Center - 410-462-8585
    Student Support and Wellness Center - 410-462-8384

    Recommended Reading:

    Coping with Misconduct in the College Classroom: A Practical Model by Gerald Armada (1999).  Asheville, N.C.:  College Administration Publications, Inc.