Brookhaven Services & Resources > Counseling > Classroom Management: Dealing with Difficult Students

Classroom Management: Dealing with Difficult Students

Classroom Management: Dealing with Difficult Students

What do you do when a student:
  • undermines your authority,
  • leaves class repeatedly for bathroom breaks or to talk on the phone,
  • appears not to pay attention during class,
  • smells strongly of body odor, strong perfume or cigarette smoke,
  • is verbally or physically threatening to you,
  • practices annoying and/or disruptive behaviors,
  • monopolizes the conversation,
  • falls asleep in class,
  • is repeatedly tardy,
  • refuses to participate in class discussions or group work,
  • flirts with you,
  • shares or copies work,
  • submits a plagiarized paper,
  • sits in the back and chats with a classmate, or
  • is just plain disrespectful?

These are just a few issues most instructors will have to deal with at one time or another. With the help of an article titled, “Classroom Management,” the Brookhaven College counselors address the issues below. Please e-mail other issues that you have observed, and we’ll provide suggestions and add them to the list. There is always more than one way to handle any situation, so we’d love to hear what works for you. Contact us at

Classroom Management Issues
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1. Undermining the instructor’s authority

This is tricky as it speaks to attitude. A student might belittle the instructor or engage in a battle of the wills. This student should be privately told that his/her attitude was confrontational and asked how this might be resolved. Be careful not to read most questions about content, interpretation or assignments as a challenge of authority. Acting as if these kinds of questions are not a challenge, even if you suspect they are, can convey a sense of confidence and control. Sometimes merely assuring the student, while smiling, that you have indeed reflected on this issue at length and that he or she too will understand why the information or the assignment is valuable diffuses the situation. You may even want to encourage them to ask the question again at a later date if necessary.

2. Leaving class too frequently

Camps are divided as to whether or not students should ask for permission to leave for bathroom breaks or wait for a break in the class. This is contentious for some faculty when breaks are taken too frequently. You might ask the student if everything is OK privately so that they know that you are concerned by his or her behavior. Don’t assume disrespect — it might be a bladder infection or some other physical problem.

Counselor’s Suggestions:
I have told students that they may take one break during the class. I have a policy that if they need a second break, they need to take their things with them because it will become too disruptive for them to leave and return multiple times. However, if a student conveys to me at the beginning of class why they need to leave the classroom more than once to take a call about a sick parent, etc., I will allow the request. It may be good to have a policy about this based on your tolerance of this behavior.

3. "Spacing Out" or sitting with back to instructor

If this is a repeated problem, students need to know that their nonverbal behavior is perceived as disinterest. You might ask them after class if they need a more comfortable seat. Some students are extremely shy and it might take half of the semester before they open up enough to make sustained eye contact or face the instructor completely. Remember also that sustained eye contact is a culturally dictated practice that might not be feasible for some students.

4. Poor hygiene

Poor hygiene, too much perfume, cigarette odor or other strong odors can be distracting or even nauseating to students. The cause for the odor might be culturally-based in bathing preferences between cultures. This can be a real problem for some faculty members while others will never encounter the dilemma. I suggest letting the offending student know that in close quarters, some students have issues with strong smell. It might be suggested that for their time in the classroom, not their time outside the course, the odor be masked in some way.

Counselor’s Suggestion:
If you need help explaining this situation to a student, please contact a Counselor at the Counseling Center. Contact the center at 972-860-4673 or

5. Verbal or physical threats

Verbal or physical threats are serious matters. As a general rule, consult professional experts for assistance immediately. Contact the Brookhaven College Police at 972-860-4290.

6. Gum, food, pagers and cell phone disruption

Consequences for breaking an instructor’s policies on these items could range from the loss of participation points to the addition of an assignment presenting a topic to the class by the offender. Some instructors allow pagers and cell phones to be ‘on’ with the vibrate setting as long as students attend to the phone at the break, if the class is not interrupted. Instructors need to abide by this rule as well and allow for at least one mistake per student as accidents do happen from oversight. The idea here is to prevent habitual disruption from gum popping and phones ringing.

Counselor’s Suggestion:
I have had increasing problems with students text messaging during class. I finally came up with a policy to help extinguish this behavior. I told students that if they were caught text messaging, they would have to take a quiz over the material we covered that day. They can either come to my office to take the quiz before the next class period or take it during the class the next class period. I know this is rather punitive, but I no longer have any problems with text messaging.

7. Monopolizing discussions

This is common but manageable. Many students are excited and talkative so it might be good to give them a few class periods to settle in. However, if it’s evident right away that this is a trend, it’s best to ask them to stay after class. You might approach them initially by saying that you are pleased with the amount of enthusiasm they have for discussion but were hoping that they have suggestions for getting the other class members equally involved. The student will most likely get your drift with minimal humiliation.

Counselor’s Suggestion: I’ve had students never “get the drift” that they were monopolizing discussions. When this happens and I want to utilize classroom discussions, I bring in a small soft, stuffed ball. I tell the class that only the person in possession of the ball can talk. The ball is tossed from me to a student and then back to me. This keeps me in control of who gets to speak next, giving everyone an opportunity to express him or herself. If someone tries to respond and he/she doesn’t have the ball, the other students usually shush the student, making sure the rule is followed. Or, if the students don’t quickly step in to enforce the rule, I will do this by gently reminding the offender that he or she is not holding the ball at that time and must wait his or her turn. This technique was adapted from the use of the talking stick by the Native American Indians, and I’ve had success with minimizing monopolizing behaviors.

8. Sleeping in class

Sleeping in class is usually considered rude. Most faculty members believe it should not be tolerated and is best curbed up front by waking a sleeping student and asking them to step outside with you. Once there, faculty members often tell students that it’s best for the rest of the class if they return when they are awake enough to be an active participant. You obviously are the one to choose lenience or punitive action. If it’s one of your more involved students, consider giving them the option of completing an extra credit research assignment they can bring to your next class period covering the subject matter they missed while they were sleeping.

An alternative approach is to assume that the student does not feel well, was up most of the night with a sick child, or has some other condition that results in sleepiness when still for long periods of time. You might simply choose to wake the student and ask if he or she is feeling all right. You need to approach this with true concern for the student's health and well-being. Most of the time, students are so embarrassed and so appreciative of your genuine concern that they don't let it happen again. Encourage students to actively participate and take notes, as this is helpful to their learning as it stimulates memory in the brain. In particularly long classes, break up the session with activities or paired conversations about a topic to ensure that students stay engaged. Students don't learn much from listening, so remember that the more they "experience" the learning process the more you are really teaching.

9. Repeated tardiness

There should be clear parameters set around this issue up front – either in your syllabus or in the class decided norms. Stick to your guns on the policy. Some fair policies might include three tardies equal one absence. It might be best to discuss this with students individually; some are habitually late because they are dependent​ on bus routes or other drivers for transportation to school.

10. Refusal to participate or speak

We cannot force students to speak in class nor participate in group projects. This can be addressed and become a win-win situation by either giving the student alternative options to verbal participation (unless it’s a speech class) or by carefully coaxing some response out of him/her and praising whatever minimal effort you receive. Remember, some students are terrified to be in a class setting – especially if there are round tables rather than desks – allowing for little anonymity.

Counselor’s Suggestion:
I don’t force any student to participate or speak. Many students experience severe anxiety if they have to participate in class or are called on and put on the spot. Some students have social phobias, so attending class is quite difficult for them. However, as Dr. Rodriguez points out, praising minimal effort can go a long way. Many students begin their college careers shy, quiet, easily embarrassed and uncertain in the classroom, but as their confidence grows, their participation in class will also grow. The new freshman, with the proper guidance, will look quite different after two years in college.

11. Sexual innuendo, flirting or other inappropriate suggestion

These kinds of behaviors should be curbed as soon as it occurs. It’s never comfortable to tell a student that he or she isn’t being appropriate and if you are uncomfortable, a short, positive e-mail or phone call might suffice. Your response should not be judgmental and you might discuss it with your department chair or faculty mentor before broaching it with your student.

Counselor’s Suggestion:
I suggest that you first try to curb this behavior. However, if it continues, you might consider calling the Counseling Center to discuss it with a counselor. We can contact the student and set up a time to talk to her/him about the behavior and address appropriate vs. inappropriate behaviors when interacting with an instructor. Contact the Counseling Center at 972-860-4673 or

12. Sharing/Copying work

In some cultures, students work together to produce homework. It may come as a shock to these students that they cannot submit identical work. This also may come as a surprise to couples, parent-child, siblings or close friends. Be careful to give thought to how you will handle this before you encounter it and react as if it were intentional cheating. This also can occur when the class does a great deal of group work. Make sure you are clear about what is individual vs. group work in your assignments.

13. Plagiarism or lying and scholastic dishonesty

Depending upon the class and the student’s prior knowledge of what plagiarism entails, some faculty issue an automatic F for the first instance, then expulsion from the class with a report to the department chair and division dean on a second instance. Most colleges have specific policies. Be sure to know your college policy before taking action. Plagiarism should be outlined in your syllabus with a reference for students to the college catalog for more information.

Counselor’s Suggestion:
It is probably a good idea to familiarize yourself with the district policy on Scholastic Dishonesty.

14. Too much chit-chat

Allow two-minute chat times for groups, or before class begins let groups know that you have material to be covered and that their talking isn’t helping you achieve your goals for the class. Know too, that some students occasionally translate a word or phrase to a table-mate who might not have as strong an understanding of English, be patient and observant when curbing this behavior.

Counselor’s Suggestion:
Proximity can also curb this behavior. By this, I mean the instructor can stand close to the students who are chatting. This usually stops the chatter for a while. Sometimes I place my hand on the student’s desk, never veering off from the day’s topic, which serves to direct them to where I’m standing and to where my hand is placed.

If I’ve tried proximity and talking to the student privately and the student is still chatting throughout class, I give him/her a warning at the end of the class period. I let the student know that if the behavior continues, he/she will be asked to leave my classroom because the talking is interfering with my ability to teach. I explain to the student that the behavior is dangerously close to violating the student code of conduct: “intentionally interfering with normal college or college-sponsored activities, including but not limited to, studying, teaching, research, college administration, or fire, security or emergency service.”

If the chatting continues after the warning, the student will be asked to leave class. He or she may return during the next class period only if he or she can refrain from interfering with the teaching and learning that is occurring. If it occurs again, I would then talk to the vice president for enrollment management and student success and refer the student for a consult. So, as you can see, I give the student many chances to rectify the behavior. After 20 years of teaching, I can remember three incidents where I’ve asked a student to leave my class after a few attempts to curb the behavior.

15. Disrespectful behavior

The reality is that sometimes students just plain won’t like you. You will find yourself in a conversation with yourself about why they don’t like you and treat you with disrespect. Animosity will perpetuate itself so remember your role and look for a way to positively invite the student to engage more deeply in the class. Perhaps offer them a special task, based on a self-disclosed talent for instance, a student whose hobby is origami (Japanese paper folding) might lead a lesson on the art of following instructions.

Counselor’s Suggestion:
This is something that I talk about during the first day of class. I have a “classroom expectations” policy that I include in my syllabus. Feel free to use this or tailor it to your needs.

Classroom Expectations
The theme of this class is respect. I will treat you with respect and I expect the same treatment from you. In addition, I ask that you also be respectful to classmates. This means that you are not to interrupt your classmates or interrupt me when I am talking. Disparaging comments about classmates or about me will not be tolerated. Furthermore, cell phones ringing during class, text messaging during class, and arriving late to class are examples of rude and disrespectful behaviors. You are to arrive on time to class and turn off cell phones or put them on vibrate when entering the classroom. If you receive an emergency call, please step outside of the classroom to take the call. Text messaging is not allowed during class time.

Because disrespectful behaviors can sometimes become an issue, I’ve developed a policy that I will follow. Students who continue to display rude and disrespectful behaviors will be given a warning. If the behavior continues, students will be asked to leave the class. The student must meet with me before he/she can return to class. If the behavior still continues, the student must meet with the vice president for enrollment management and student success to discuss the situation before being allowed back in the class.
Helping students learn to be college students
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Distributing this list of desirable and undesirable behaviors can serve to avert management issues in that some students simply do not realize that their behavior is negative or disruptive to the instructor or to their classmates. The following table identifies some common positive and negative behaviors that provide students with a guide for managing themselves as students. You might wish to distribute this list to your class at the time you discuss your syllabus or set class norms as a group. Feel free to modify this list as needed for your students.

Positive Impression Givers

  • Book on desk, pencil or pens ready
  • Note taking or recording the lecture/class with permission from the instructor
  • Ask questions that are appropriate
  • Make an effort to maintain eye contact
  • Sit where you can see and be attentive
  • Submit assignments on time, and ask if there is supplemental material you can explore to better complete your assignments such as video titles or other materials
  • Help your classmates whenever possible
  • Make certain you understand assignments when assigned
  • Save announcements about necessary absences for before or after class
  • Refrain from doing other course work or paying bills in class
  • When using the Internet in class, stay on task rather than surfing for fun
  • Give the instructor the respect you wish to be treated with
  • Don’t interrupt, belittle, or put down fellow students
  • Keep an open mind when issues arise you disagree with and disagree with dignity
  • Make certain you pay your fees for enrollment and get your text on the first day of class
  • Be positive with expectations of success in the course
  • Know the instructor’s name and call them only what they prefer to be called – ask if necessary
  • Spell the class, instructor and assignment name correctly on all submitted work

Negative Impression Givers

  • Picking face, nose, grooming, knuckle cracking, nail filing or cleaning teeth
  • Heavy sighs, eye rolling
  • Laughing AT the instructor rather than WITH the class
  • Leaving early without letting the instructor know ahead of time
  • Frequent tardiness or absences
  • Distracting noises: foot tapping, nail biting, pen twirling/tapping, yawning without covering your mouth, mumbling, zipping up bags, paper tearing, paper toy making, etc.
  • Head on desk to indicate boredom
  • Staring at the clock or your watch
  • Skipping assignments and/or breaking assignment policy
  • Handing in shoddy, unstapled, ripped out pages that show no care for the assignment
  • Reference to sexual situations inappropriately in assignments (unless it’s asked for in the assignment such as a human sexuality class)
  • Frequently forget text and notebook
  • Attempt to be class-clown inappropriately; a joke here and there is fine, but repetitious clowning is distracting
  • Squinting or face making to show disapproval
  • Note passing or hand signals to others
  • Interrupting the instructor to ask what you missed when you were absent or if you missed anything "important"
  • Acting as if the class or topic of discussion is irrelevant or stupid – if you really feel so, drop the class
  • Leaving your belongings where they inconvenience others
  • Tipping in your chair

Other Resources

Classroom Managementby Lisa Rodriguez, Ph.D.

Responding to Distressed StudentsUniversity of California, Santa Barbara, Counseling Services
Addresses how to deal with students who have problems ranging from aggression and potential violence to substance abuse, suicide and irrational behavior. Clicking on one of the problems listed, leads to a page of useful information, including dos and don’ts for each type of behavior.

Dealing with Disruptive Behavior in the ClassroomKathleen McKinney, Illinois State University Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology
Strategies to prevent and address disruptive student behaviors.

Keys for Managing Challenging Student Behaviors
Courtesy of the East Bay AIDS Education Training Center
Instead of holding your students with an iron grip, allow them to be themselves until and unless their behavior distracts you or others in the class.

When you notice unproductive behavior, nip it in the bud. Otherwise, you send a clear message to the students that it's OK for them to talk while you are talking, etc.

Use classroom management techniques before you become irritated, impatient or upset. We are much more powerful when we are centered, when we like our students and when we view our students with fondness rather than impatience.

Allow students to save face. When we put students down in front of others, the entire class of students will turn against us.

Do all you can to feel good about yourself and others on a daily basis. Your attitude will come across to your students, so it is important to be in good mental and physical shape.

If, by chance, you feel that you have spoken sharply in an attempt to manage your students, own up to it. "Wow! That sounded harsh. Forgive me!"

Remind yourself: "If teaching were easy, everyone would be doing it." Teaching in front of a classroom full of students can be challenging, but on the other hand, very rewarding!