Guidelines for dealing with disruptive students

Follow our guidelines to appropriately identify and deal with disruptive students in the classroom.

Identifying disruptive behavior

Disruptive behavior prevents an instructor from teaching and/or prevents students from learning.

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 Disruptive behavior is often repeated and continuous, and can include:

  • Monopolizing discussions
  • Talking out of turn
  • Constant interruptions of the instructor or other students
  • Changing subjects
  • Late entrance/early leaving
  • Passing notes 
  • Talking on the phone during class
  • Interfering with the ability of the instructor to conduct class or of others to learn

Preventing disruptive behavior with a syllabus

Writing a syllabus that clearly spells out your classroom’s policies and going over it with your students is an excellent tool to prevent disruptive behavior.

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 The following are examples of effective syllabus policies:

  • Cell phones and other electronic devices must be turned off during class.  If you have a special need, please speak to me before class.
  • Students must raise their hand and wait to be called on to speak in class.  Learning happens when we both express our opinions and listen to the opinions of others. Be respectful of other student's opinions, and allow other student's the opportunity to speak.
For more tips on syllabus policies, please contact our staff.

Preventative strategies

The best way to handle classroom disruptions is to prevent them before they happen. 

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Prevent disruptions with these tips:

  • Find out what the students want out of the class, and make your own expectations clear. Many disruptions occur because students do not feel they understand what the professor wants.
  • Get to know the students by name. Students are less likely to create disruptions if the professor knows who they are. 
  • Be a role model for the behavior you expect from your students.  For example, if you are sarcastic in class, then sarcasm will be seen as acceptable within the classroom.
  • Be careful about creating too much informality.
  • Set the tone and expectations early in the class.  It is hard to impose new rules after the class is underway, but you can always ease up on rules that have already been established.  
  • Request occasional, anonymous feedback from the students on how the class is going.  This gives the students a sense of empowerment and allows you to discover if you are reaching the class. 

How to deal with a disruptive student

Knowing how to deal with a disruptive student can defuse a situation quickly. 

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The following are effective de-escalation strategies:

  • Stand right next to the offender.
  • Stop and wait for the students to settle down before proceeding with the lesson.
  • Adjust your teaching style, which can be done by implementing group work if students are disrupting the traditional lecture.
  • Be direct with the students and calmly ask them to stop.
  • In serious situations, ask the student to leave the room and meet with you in your office during office hours.
  • Be positive rather than negative.
  • Stay calm and do not become defensive.
  • Document everything.

Meeting with a disruptive student

As discussed above, sometimes a meeting during office hours is the best solution to handling disruption in the classroom. 

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The meeting

Selecting an appropriate location for the meeting is important to ensure you protect yourself from any potential danger or career-damaging allegations. Consider:

  • Using a conference room where others will witness the meeting without hearing the discussion
  • Having another person present with you in the room, such as a department chair or colleague

When conducting the meeting, remember the following tips to ensure a smooth and successful consultation:

  • Lead discussions that focus on the positive rather than negative.
  • Identify what it is the student is doing to disrupt the classroom.
  • Make sure to clearly express your expectations for behavior.
  • Stay calm and do not become defensive.
  • Be respectful and remove yourself and personal feelings from the incident.
  • Document everything.

After the meeting

Give the student a letter or a memorandum containing:

  • A summary of meeting
  • The future expectations you have for the student
  • A summary of the understandings and agreements made during the meeting
  • A discussion of future consequences or actions if the disruptive behavior persists

Send a copy of this document to your Department Chair and the Office of Student Life.

Referring to the Office of Student Life

If a situation is very serious, you may want to report the incident to the Office of Student Life. 

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Our office will talk with you and with the student, and make a determination if the student violated the Code of Conduct. He or she may receive a warning or other sanctions.

Due process

When you decide to deal with a student by involving the Office of Student Life, the student has certain basic rights under due process:

  • Students have the right to written notification of the problem. (This is helpful for you as well, because it helps focus the conversation.)
  • Students have the right to respond to any allegation and to share their perspective.
  • Students have the right to confidentiality.  You should not discuss the situation with other faculty unless you make reasonable efforts to conceal the identity of the student.       
  • Students have the right to have an adviser or support person with them when they meet with you. (Please note that you have the right to speak with the student and not with the adviser.)
  • Students have the right to be notified in writing of any decisions or sanctions that are imposed.
  • Students have the right to appeal certain sanctions.  If your decision is to administratively remove the student from the class or fail them, you must notify them that they have the right to appeal that decision to the Department Chair or the Dean.  

Student disability

If a student indicates that he or she has a disability, refer that student to Disability Resources at 928-523-8773. 

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It may be that the disruptive behavior is related to a legitimate disability that requires some accommodation.  Indications of a disability could include indications or statements:

  • that he or she cannot keep up with you in class
  • that he or she cannot comprehend the reading
  • that there are too many distractions in the room
  • of misunderstanding or inability to comprehend the material

Example Student #1

Student exhibits behavior that causes concern for the personal well-being of that student rather than creating a worry for his/her impact on you or on the classroom.

  • Marked changes in student’s performance and/or appearance
  • Infrequent class attendance with little or no work completed
  • Repeat requests for special considerations
  • Appearing overly nervous, tense or tearful
  • Listlessness, lack of energy, or frequently falling asleep in class
Best Practices
  •  Speak with the student privately
  • Document all conversations
  • Encourage student to meet with counselor
  • Do not promise absolute confidentiality
  • Contact your Chair, Associate Dean or Dean or the Office of Student Life
  • Consult with Counseling Services and/or Disability Resources

Example Student #2

Student exhibits irrational behavior that makes others feel vaguely uncomfortable.

  • Disjointed thoughts
  • Incongruent and/or inappropriate emotional responses
  • Frequent or high levels of irritability
  • Suspicious or paranoid thoughts
  • Bizarre behavior (talking to someone who isn’t there)
  • Written assignments with concerning themes 
  • Expressed suicidal thoughts
  • Self-mutilating behaviors
  • Reports sexual or physical assault 
  • Recently learned of the death of a friend or family member
Best Practices
  • If no immediate threat, speak with student privately
  • Document all conversations and incidents of inappropriate behavior
  • Express concern for behavior and set limits
  • Do not reinforce delusions
  • Acknowledge feelings without supporting misperceptions (“I understand you think you are hearing voices, but I do not hear them and I believe you are safe.”)
  • Consult the Classroom Disruption Policy
  • Contact your Chair, Associate Dean or Dean and Office of Student Life (especially if student needs to be removed from class)
  • Consult with Counseling Services 
  • Consult with Disability Resources if the student mentions a disability or a diagnosis that might qualify him/her for services

Example Student #3

Student exhibits behavior that makes it difficult for routine work or teaching to take place due to the negative impact it has on those around.

  • Failure to comply with directives
  • Unruly or abrasive actions, including argumentative questioning
  • Monopolizing of classroom discussion
  • Behavior that interferes with effective class management
  • Bizarre behavior (talking to someone who isn’t there)
Best Practices
  • Speak with student privately
  • Avoid escalating the situation, speak calmly and with concern. Avoid physical contact
  • Express concern for behavior and set appropriate limits
  • If student continues to disrupt, ask student to leave the classroom
  • If student is uncooperative in leaving the classroom, contact NAU Police
  • If student poses a danger to others, dismiss the class
  • Consult the Classroom Disruption Policy
  • Document each incident, including witnesses. Share the information with your Chair, Associate Dean or Dean
  • Contact the Office of Student Life (especially if student needs to be removed from class)
  • Consult with Counseling Services
  • Consult with Disability Resources

Example Student #4

Student exhibits behavior that threatens the safety or well-being of others.

  • Harassment or stalking
  • Specific threats of physical harm
  • Expression of suicidal thoughts
  • Intimidating behavior
  • Self-mutilating behavior
  • Brandishing a weapon
Best Practices
  • Contact NAU Police immediately
  • If student poses a danger to others, dismiss the class
  • Do not attempt to keep the dangerous student from leaving the room
  • Avoid escalating the situation. Speak calmly and with concern
  • Document the incident, including witnesses; share the information with your Chair, Associate Dean or Dean
  • Avoid physical contact


Disruptive behavior as discussed here does not include threats against a faculty or staff member.  Direct, indirect, and implied threats should be reported to immediately to:

  • Northern Arizona University Police Department
    • Phone:  928-523-3611 or 911
  • Office of Student Life
    • Phone: 928-523-5181

Additional Campus Resources

  • Counseling Services
    • Phone: 928-523-2261
  • Disability Resources
    • Phone: 928-523-8773
  • Appropriate Academic Dean's office