How to deal with a disruptive student

DisruptiveWe have all had that one student. The one who is bright and enthusiastic, but is so energetic that s/he can’t sit still or stop talking for more than a millisecond at a time. The traditional teacher-fronted classroom is a real challenge for them, and I am sure that they get more than their fair share of warnings and time outs from their regular teachers.

For an English teacher it can be even more of a challenge because we don’t necessarily speak the child’s native language well enough to make a difference, and using English just doesn’t help with beginning level students. We also have to deal with the fact that kids are in school all day before coming to our class, and they are just plain tired of being on their best behavior. Plus, they are seeing friends they only see once a week, so they are excited and just want to play. To top it all off, we don’t have a lot of time to invest in discipline and encouraging proper behavior, so we have to find a way to deal with it in the most efficient way possible.

Here are some general guidelines for dealing with disruptive behavior:

  1. Address the behavior right away! If kids sense that a behavior will be tolerated, you can guarantee that they will all start doing it, even the most docile ones.
  2. Make it clear from the start what is expected of the class. On the first day make sure you explain what is not allowed (e.g. running) as well as what you expect (e.g. focus on your own work when writing, listen when the teacher is talking, etc.) You may need to have a native speaker come in to help you with this part if you don’t speak the kids’ native language. It also helps to review from time to time, especially when a new student joins the class.
  3. Let their energy guide your choice of activities. If you have a class of very energetic students, try to incorporate more full body/gross motor activities into your lessons.
  4. Let the parents know what is happening. If your school is like mine where the parents are not in the room during the lesson, you will need to let them know what is happening with their child. Sometimes a parent can talk to the child right before the next lesson and that will be enough for them to tone down their behavior. Even if that doesn’t work, the parents still need to know so that if the problem gets worse it will not be a big surprise for them when you finally do bring the parents in.

These are some specific techniques that have worked for me:

  1. For an exceptionally chatty or “hyper” student, give them a job. With kindergarteners I simply ask them to “help” me teach. I have a chair at the front of the classroom next to the whiteboard, and I ask the student to sit there and hold my eraser for me. If s/he can do that without interrupting the class, s/he can erase the board when I am finished. This keeps the student away from others without actually punishing him/her, and the student gets to feel useful.
  2. Give them an incentive. Younger kids (K-3) are eager to do little jobs like pass out pencils/erasers, hand out papers, collect books, etc. If a student is getting distracted from their reading/writing work, offer them one of these jobs on the condition that their work must be done first. (You can specify that it must be done neatly if that seems necessary.)
  3. Find a way to incorporate their need for attention into the class. Many disruptive kids just want attention any way they can get it, and asking them to stop is not usually very successful. I often have the child come to the front of the class to help me demonstrate a song. Even if the child doesn’t want to sing, s/he will usually let me move his/her arms around to the music while I sing, and the child can bask in the attention of the entire class while we learn the song.
  4. Channel their energy into approved behavior. With my little ones (2-3 years old) I always tell them what they can do along with what they cannot. For example, we don’t run inside, but hopping is fine. With the K-grade 3 kids, I limit where they can go during an activity, so I will say, “You may pretend to run for this song, but you have to stay in the green carpet area/behind the line of tape.”
  5. Incorporate some “brain breaks” into the lesson to burn off some energy. Kids have trouble sitting down for long, so change things up as often as you can. If you are at the table for one activity, sit on the floor for the next. I will sometimes ask the kids to do some kind of yoga pose between activities, or to make letters with their bodies. Just that one minute of stretching or exercise is usually enough to keep them focused.

If you have any other ideas that have worked for you, please share!



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