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Classroom Disrupters!

What to do about out-of-control kids? Your colleagues share their strategies.

Found in: Classroom Management

You’ve got a fabulous lesson ready to roll out, but that kid in the back is about to throw a chair!

It’s the opposite of the teaching moment—that dream opportunity when everybody’s mind is open, paying attention, eager to assimilate a new idea.

No, this is your nightmare. Nobody is paying attention to the learning because they’re all focused on one out-of-control student. It’s a rare state of affairs in some schools but amazingly common in others. Repeated incidents lead quickly to teacher burnout.

If this describes you, don’t give up! Many educators report dramatic success in dealing with disrupters. Only, they don’t all do it the same way.

Students are different. Educators’ personalities are different. And so are their approaches to children and teaching. Here are some strategies we gathered from experienced teachers and through an NEA Today online discussion board.

Select, adapt, and good luck!

Help them save face.

Most kids who disrupt do it because it is better to be known as a behavior problem than to be known as a dummy!

Teach the skills required for the task. Do not assume that students know how. Go to where they are, bring them to where they should be, and the disruption will cease.

—Cecelia Smith
Retired teacher and counselor, Greensboro, Georgia

Get to know them.

Be proactive, not reactive. Within a week of opening day, you know who the potentially belligerent students are. Get to know them before they become problems. Finding out what interests tough students is a good place to start, whether it’s dirt bikes, basketball, make-up, or fashion.

A few years ago, one eighth-grade girl tore up the classroom everywhere except in my language arts class. I found out she loved the MTV show The Hills, so I joked with her about the program and talked about a few characters. I had seen it only once, but that didn’t matter. Our interactions might have seemed trite, but they weren’t—who knows how many other adults took the time to initiate positive interactions with her?

—Paul Barnwell
Eighth-grade language arts teacher, Shelbyville, Kentucky

Keep your cool.

Don’t take the bait.

So often, kids will disrupt in a manner that is made worse by the response of the adult in charge. Kids quickly figure out which staff have “buttons” that can be pushed, and what they are. Don’t overreact. Pick your battles.

—Mitchell Steils
K–12 Intensive Service Team social worker, Ida, Michigan

Deputize them.

Co-opt them. Enlist the [disruptive] student’s aid in helping another student.

—L. Carvel Wilson
Syracuse, Utah

Ask for their help and give them things to do to help you. Sounds kind of backwards, as the students that are successful seem to deserve those jobs (taking things to the office, etc.) but they are not the ones that need the boost. Giving responsibility even when it does not seem deserved can sometimes produce just the opportunity to begin building a relationship.”

Terry R.

Try military discipline.

Several teachers at my school use this strategy: boot camp!

Let students know how you expect them to handle a transition or other activity, then practice. Example: You want students to line up in your classroom without talking, facing forward. Let them know what “without talking” and “facing forward” mean by demonstrating with one or two students. Then practice.

If they don’t get it right, do it over until they do. Then move on to the next transition.

Your initial practice should be during class time. Any additional needed practices should take place during recess or other preferred activity time. Once a few recesses have been lost, you start getting peer pressure directed at those who are depriving the whole class of that time.

—Judith Lister
Second-grade teacher, Pahrump, Nevada



Record their misdeeds.

I had a class with 15 disruptive students. They were the class from hell! It’s so unfair to the other kids. So every period I would start by announcing that I was videotaping my class, and the video would be available to any parent, teacher, or principal. If there were outbursts, I would have them recorded.

I never had any more trouble and I never had to use the video. However, you MUST check the laws in your state and your school's policy to make sure you are allowed to do this—my principal said I could do it if I announced it every day.

—Shirley Woodruff
Retired middle school reading teacher, Urbandale, Iowa

Phone home.

My classroom phone will call out to the students’ home or parents’ workplace.

(You can also use your cell phone.) When students are disruptive, I ask them to call their parents. Then, standing in front of me, they have to tell them why they are calling. This keeps the story from changing by the time the students arrive home. Also, the students have to accept their behavior by stating what they did. If they have to call a third time, they instruct their parents to come to school and sit with them, as the teacher does not babysit. Works every time. If one student has to make the call, the rest learn quickly!

—Char Milotz
Middle school teacher, Plymouth, Michigan

Transform it into a teaching moment.

I teach high school students with profound mental disabilities. Disruption indicates a need, so I ask: What need is this student communicating to me? A need to be recognized, to get busy, to leave the room, to take a break, to control the situation?

Disruptive behavior does stop the teaching process, but it can be turned into a teaching moment, an opportunity to teach appropriate coping strategies. I ask the other students for ideas. But if the behavior poses a danger of harm to self or others, I refer to the administration.

—Ann Nichols
Special education teacher, Florence, South Carolina

Reshape the lesson to involve them.

I love disrupters because they bring so much of themselves to the classroom.

I listen and do what I can to integrate what they have brought to the conversation into part of the lesson. I think about why they followed the impulse that took them away from what most students are doing.

I get as close to them as possible, so I can understand what motivates them, what makes them think, what interests them. Then I shape learning so that it supports them to be who they are, so they can grow with the rest of the class instead of against it.

—Jana Dean
Middle school teacher, Olympia, Washington

Encourage Overactive Questioners to Be More Self-Reliant

Periodically, I have students who ask exorbitant amounts of questions, either for lack of using their skills to figure out an answer or for attention. I developed a plan to curb this behavior. When applicable, I give a student three "tickets" (made from colored construction paper) each day, and whenever the student asks me a question, he or she also must hand me a ticket. When the tickets are used up, the student may not ask me another question that day. I have seen children become independent thinkers and self-sufficient when on this plan. They save the tickets for really important questions.”

Laraine R.
Fourth-grade teacher, Los Angeles, California

Illustrations: David Clark

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