Office of the Faculty Teaching Fellow

Student Behavior Problems

I'm concerned about student behavior . . . disrespect for me in various forms, and disrespect for each other.  I wasn't expecting this from college students.

Although student behavior is not a frequent topic of discussion, the problems are real and common nationwide.  A single disaffected, disengaged student can disrupt a carefully crafted climate of trust and collegiality and push us off balance.  Some issues (e.g. cell phones and side talk) are comparatively trivial, yet irritating.  Verbal assault and other disruptive behaviors can be much more serious.  All deserve attention, and how we respond to these things is noticed by students.  Solutions are suggested by twenty years of scholarship, and we begin to address the problem by acknowledging it is real.  The problems vary; there is no fits-all solution.  Most are easily resolved; some require significant planning.  Here are some ideas and resources:

(1) Avoid being reactive. Keep notes; make a plan. If you like, consult with the Center for the Advancement of Innovative Teaching.  The HPU Student Conduct Code can be found in the Student Handbook.

(2) Your emotions provide clues:  If your primary emotions involve irritation and annoyance, the solution will probably involve communicating expectations to an individual or to the class.  If your primary emotion is anger, it's likely an important boundary--perhaps one you weren't aware of--has been crossed.  If you're angry, it's especially important to avoid confrontation in the moment of anger, unless it's absolutely necessary.

(3) Set boundaries:  Boundaries are limits.  We may not recognize a boundary problem until someone’s actions push those limits, and then jump too easily to anger.  To set a limit, we have be clear about what the limit is, and have a plan for describing it and what we will do if it is disrespected.  When (a) a student’s behavior feels personally intrusive or is negatively affecting your classroom culture, and (b) you feel frustrated, angry or hurt (and perhaps helpless), you may be dealing with a boundary problem.   Boundary-setting in relationships means limit-setting, not personal rejection.  For instance, with students who giggle when called upon, you can arrange a calm talk in a private spot: the hallway outside class, an office, a conference room.  Script ahead; point at the objectionable behavior and its consequences for others; try to help them identify goals; ask for specific behavior change.  Think ahead:  plan and describe the action you will take if objectionable behavior persists.  For example:  (in private) When I ask a question in class, it usually sets off giggling and cross-talk in your group.  It’s a distraction for me, and it is disturbing other students.  I can’t allow you to do that.  Will you stop this?  If your tone is pleasant, you will probably get a “yes.”  Thanks, I appreciate your help.  (By the way, if you continue the behavior I’ve identified as a problem, I will need to change your seating.)  With the student who always challenges, speak privately.  I welcome your questions and challenges, Jason; they can enliven the class and make me think a lot.  I enjoy that stimulation!  But your persistence and tone in voicing challenge frightens others and some are deciding not to participate out of fear you’ll challenge them.  I can’t allow this to happen. From now on, please voice your objections in private.  Ask for change; set the boundary clearly and firmly.   Always plan and think ahead; never try to set a boundary when you are angry or hurt.

Learn more about boundaries from these resources:

  • Psychotherapist Mark Sichel describes why boundaries are not rejection in this resource.
  • Joy Fisher-Sykes from The Sykes Group offers straight-speak about saying no.