Tips for avoiding and dealing with discipline problems in the college classroom

by Lauren Darm
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

It may not be the most pleasant part of teaching, but the fact is every teacher at some point or another is going to face the looming classroom issue of disciplinary problems.

Most teachers think about problems they fear facing in the classroom, yet with hectic schedules full of lesson plans, grading papers and individual research, it’s hard to find the time to develop strategies for the different disciplinary scenarios on their minds.

However, the fact is discipline problems will happen at some point, so we as teachers need to be proactive and figure out how to face these situations in advance, starting with your course syllabus.

Hopefully, if you have policies dealing with classroom management in place, you can halt these behaviors before they even start. But just in case that doesn’t work, we need to learn how to reinforce these classroom policies when actual situations do occur.

Wilbert McKeachie says in his text McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers that one of the keys to handling discipline problems effectively is understanding why students act out in the first place. He breaks these reasons into three categories: intellectual and academic challenges, classroom management challenges and emotional challenges.

McKeachie describes different disciplinary issues within each of these categories and explains effective ways to handle them:

Intellectual and Academic Challenges

Argumentative students: Don’t get into a power struggle with your students. Instead, use it as an opportunity for scholarly debate by allowing the student to present his or her side while you listen and then respectfully present yours.

Attention seeking students: Come up with ways to get other students involved without stifling the excitement of the attention-seeking student, like calling on other students and using group activities and discussion.

Unprepared students: Make sure you communicate what students need to do to be prepared. Also, giving quizzes or tests early in the semester reinforces that you expect them to do their work. And if students are unprepared because they’re struggling, it gives them time to improve their grade and seek outside resources like study groups or a tutoring center.

Classroom Management Challenges

 Inattentive students: This issue can take many forms, from a student texting or using a laptop (not for taking notes) to students who engage in side conversations. But no matter the issue, look at your material first to make sure it’s not too difficult or easy or boring. Maybe that’s the reason the students are acting out in class.

But whether or not this is the case, you still need to be able to halt the behavior. Try to break your class up into groups or interact with students around the inattentive ones to see if that gets them re-engaged. If that still doesn’t work, talk to the students outside of class to let them know they are being disruptive.

Emotional Challenges

Angry students: Like dealing with argumentative students, it’s important to avoid a power struggle by listening to the student’s point of view and then respectfully presenting your side. To prevent a situation from breaking out over a grade, use rubrics to explain your grading and return assignments at the end of class.

Discouraged students: Some students may start acting out or acting different if they aren’t doing well in your course. If this happens, you need to let them know their problems are temporary and aren’t a result from their lack of ability.

Students with emotional reactions to sensitive topics: If you are discussing a topic in class that could provoke this type of reaction, let students know in advance so they can be prepared. Also, stress that everyone needs to be respectful in both presenting and receiving opinions. You don’t want arguments break out over opposing viewpoints, and you want students to feel safe to share.

Psychological problems and potential suicides: No matter the emotional challenge you encounter, it’s important to realize something personal may be going on with the student. If you learn of a problem, listen but don’t intervene and refer them to the university counseling center if necessary. Even if the student doesn’t take advantage of professional help, the fact you cared may be enough to help.

Understanding situations like these may help the thought of dealing with disciplinary problems become less scary. These additional resources can also be helpful:

  • The UF Teaching Handbook provides a lot information about classroom management
  • The graduate school and teaching center offers a variety of workshops, a couple of which are about handling potential suicides and discipline problems.
  • And you can check out my Prezi on this topic here:

Lauren Darm is a doctoral student at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930).

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