Handling Disruptive Students

From the Gospel Teaching and Learning Handbook:

Correct disorderly or inappropriate behavior.

There are some general principles to keep in mind that will help a teacher invite proper order and respect in the classroom. To have order does not always mean having complete silence; nor does it mean that a class cannot be enjoyable and fun. But a disorderly or irreverent student or group of students can have a negative impact on the learning process and hinder the influence of the Holy Ghost.

When a student or a group of students is misbehaving, it can be frustrating for the teacher and other students. At such times, it is especially important for teachers to keep control of their emotions and to seek the influence of the Spirit. How teachers respond to any given incident may be more important than the incident itself and can either increase or decrease the respect and trust of the students. As teachers correct improper behavior, they need to be firm but friendly, fair, and caring and then quickly return to the lesson. To ridicule a student publicly may correct a student’s behavior for a time but will not edify either the teacher or the student. It may also result in other students fearing or distrusting the teacher. Teachers should remember the righteous influence of persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, unfeigned love, and kindness (see D&C 121:41–42).

There are some specific steps teachers can take to handle problems as they occur. These are possible approaches to discipline problems that may not work the same way with every student or situation:

  • Make eye contact. Often students talk to each other at inappropriate times because they think the teacher will not notice. The teacher could look at the students and briefly make eye contact so they know the teacher is aware of what is happening.
  • Stop talking. If students are talking when they should be listening, the teacher could stop talking, even in midsentence if necessary. Raising the voice to talk over them will not generally solve the problem.
  • Move closer. Another action teachers can take to correct behavior without having to directly confront a student is to move and stand beside the misbehaving student. The teacher can continue with the lesson, but the student will usually feel the teacher’s presence and stop what he or she is doing.
  • Direct a question. Without calling attention to the inappropriate behavior, a teacher can ask the offending student a question related to the lesson. This is not done to embarrass the student, but to help bring him or her back into the discussion.

There may be times when students do not respond to these less direct efforts and continue to disrupt the class. Following are some additional, more direct steps a teacher can take to maintain order:

  • Consult with the student privately. The Lord said that if someone offends another, the offended person should talk with the offender “between him or her and thee alone” (D&C 42:88). The teacher could counsel with the student about why he or she is misbehaving and let him or her know that the behavior must change or additional steps will be taken. Teachers should make sure they differentiate the students’ behavior from their individual worth. It is important for teachers to remember that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). They should communicate to the student that while the poor behavior is unacceptable, he or she is valued. Teachers should remember to follow the Lord’s counsel and show “forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved” (D&C 121:43).
  • Separate the students causing the disruption.
  • Consult with parents or priesthood leaders. If unacceptable behavior persists, it is often helpful for the teacher to consult with the student’s parents. Frequently parents can provide additional insights and ideas that will help correct the concern. In some cases, the student’s bishop may be able to help.
  • Dismiss the student from class. President David O. McKay gave the following counsel to teachers: “If [your effort] fails, then you can make an appeal to the parents, and you can say: ‘If his misconduct continues, we shall have to put him off the roll.’ That is the extreme action. Any teacher can dismiss a [student]; you should exhaust all your other sources before you come to that. But order we must have!—it is necessary for soul growth, and if one [student] refuses, or if two [students] refuse to produce that element, then they must leave. Better one [student] starve than an entire class be slowly poisoned” (“Guidance of a Human Soul—The Teacher’s Greatest Responsibility,” Instructor, Sept. 1965, 343).

Before asking a student to leave class for any extended period of time, the teacher should counsel with the parents, seminary and institute supervisors, and appropriate priesthood leaders. In such circumstances it is important that the teacher help the students and the parents understand that the student is choosing to leave seminary by not choosing to behave in an acceptable manner. It is the disruption that is unacceptable, not the student. When he or she chooses otherwise, the student will be welcome to return to class.