George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Responding to Disruptive Students

Negative attention doesn’t help difficult students change their ways, but teachers can alter classroom dynamics through this exercise.
An angry-looking teacher stands with her hands on her hips beside two students.
An angry-looking teacher stands with her hands on her hips beside two students.
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Negative attention, or punitive communication, is a common, unconscious habit of defense when a familiar environment feels unsafe or unmanageable. Educators may turn to it instinctively when they feel frustrated because they see their work being disrupted. But difficult students don’t benefit from being punished.

Generally, guidance about challenging behavior at school targets the challenging students. I’d like to break this unidirectional point of view and approach the topic by looking at the educator. I want educators to feel physically and emotionally safe in class always. And I want empathic educators who are confident and prepared for their response toward challenging behavior—their own included.

“Behavior is communication. Behavior has a function. Behavior occurs in patterns,” Nancy Rappaport and Jessica Minahan write in The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students.

Unfortunately, the same is true of negative attention. Negative attention communicates that an educator doesn’t know any other language to access the relationship with a student. Negative attention’s function is self-protective and unconsciously anti-inclusive. Negative attention’s pattern sounds loud and looks clumsy.

“The only behavior teachers can control is their own,” Rappaport and Minahan advise. What follows is an idea that can help teachers change their responses to challenging, disruptive behavior.

Mapping Behavior

Draw a map of your classroom, including doors, windows, desks, blackboards—all significant items and areas. I’m sure you’ve already got a clear idea of where the most challenging students usually sit. Now imagine teaching class on a regular day. Trace the paths you usually take across the room. Do you sometimes speed up for a particular reason? Draw a bold line on the map wherever you usually hurry your pace.

Draw a circle on the line to mark each stop you make on your journey. From each circle, draw a line with another color to represent your initial glance from that position. Who or what are you looking at? Continue drawing lines to match every glance you can remember being part of your everyday “watching” routine. If you prefer to teach sitting down, begin your map by tracing the lines of your glances from the place where you usually sit.

If you raise your voice, draw arrows tracing the direction and target of each instance.

Now put your breathing on the map. Are you conscious of the way you breathe during class? Use a new color and draw a wavy line on top of the lines and arrows you’ve already sketched. Does the wavy line look even, or have you drawn some chaotic or nervous zigzags? Could it be that you’ve sometimes forgotten to breathe? Use the same color to draw a flat line for such moments.

Can you remember a frequent thought you have during class? Does it concern all of your students, or some student in particular? Write your recurrent thought on the map close to that student’s desk. Repeat this for every student for whom you have a specific thought. Do your thoughts refer to yourself? Write them down on the map at the spot where each one comes to mind. Do the same if your thoughts relate to the class as a whole.

An example of the kind of map the writer describes in this article
An example of the kind of map the writer describes in this article
A classroom map showing the teacher’s movements, thoughts, and breathing patterns

This map enables you to view yourself during class, to track your emotional and physical data, and to evaluate your behavior, including outbreaks of negative attention.

The map will help you to understand the context, form, and time frame in which negative attention might emerge, because you can see when and where you feel insecure or unsafe. You have now begun to visualize yourself within a classroom, conscious of the surrounding objects and interacting students. Through the map, you might discover you are too often at the center of attention.

Since attention seeking is also a very common example of student behavior, and negative attention an inadequate response to it, it’s time to observe your students.

The Disappearing Teacher

Look at your map and find the best observation spot in the classroom, where you can watch students at work without intervening. Then set a task you know your students enjoy doing, and disappear. Just enjoy observing your students as the protagonists of their own learning.

During this experiment, you shouldn’t leave your observation post and really must remain silent. The goal is to create a situation in which you expressly avoid whatever negative attention you usually give—verbal or physical—and comprehend your students’ needs more fully.

Repeat this experiment several times, until you find the best spot to observe every student. This step is essential to discovering any changes in how you and your body have unconsciously expressed negative attention in the past.

Many educators who have done this experiment report significant gains in achieving authentic, positive sovereignty in class. They also calmly accept that no lesson goes as expected.

Investing time in building physical and emotional familiarity with the learning environment, instead of nervously anticipating disruption, changes the educator’s perspective toward the whole class, their interaction with individual students, and their self-awareness. Negative attention stops being a solution—instead it is seen as a hindrance to the process of understanding students’ needs.

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Kate Colon's picture

Wow, this post gave me a new way to look at this situation. It is very common in schools today and I always struggle with how I internally respond to a teacher when I see them responding to a student in a way that rubs me the wrong way. I loved the map idea. So many times as the teacher we put the blame on others, but this is a healthy way of examining ourselves through out the day. If we can fix something, it has potential to help those "disruptive students." Thanks for sharing this. It makes me want to go create a map now. :)

Marci Schneider's picture

I'm curious if this will have an impact n my classroom. I teach students with emotional behavior disabilities.

John Harris Loflin's picture

From my perspective as an urban educator (retired), so-called dis/ability and Special Education are political concepts having nothing to do with education. They are social constructs which perpetuate the myth of the normal child.

"The problem's not the student with learning disabilities; it's the way normalcy is constructed to create the 'problem' of the learning disabled child."
~ reworded from L. Davis, "Constructing Normalcy"

"I'm not deaf, you can't sign. You have a signing disability. I'm normal.
~ reworded from L. Davis, "Constructing Normalcy"

With respect to African American students, we have to appreciate this essay: "Re-examining Resistance as Oppositional Behavior";jsessionid=02F3585B40D0814...

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Marci, I think this strategy might help you out! Self-reflection is key for working with any tricky population of students.

Marci Schneider's picture

Thanks! Even just thinking about it led me to rearrange a bit and place myself in a different location when my most difficult group enters the room.

Jim_Holly's picture

The article is interesting. Understanding our patterns is an important element of reflection. However, I find such statements as "Negative attention communicates that an educator doesn't know any other language to access the relationship with a student [how does it necessarily communicate anything but disapproval]. Negative attention's function is self-protective and unconsciously anti-inclusive [how can psychology be inferred]. Negative attention's pattern sounds loud and looks clumsy [how can this always be objectively true?]." to be highly suspicious. Claims such as these need support other than the author's opinion. In fact, such statements should be a red flag regarding the grounding and validity of the author's statements in general.

John Harris Loflin's picture

My question is why would certain students be considered a "tricky population" in a school that's trying to liberate students? Such students are seen as difficult in schools that colonize students--schools confusing assimilation/acculturation with education, especially education for liberation: See Prof. Chris Emdin's "neo-indigenous" students

Dr. JAMES SIKA's picture

This article is revealing. however in my mind and from experience some students and pupils require attention. alternatively some students seek populist way within the classroom. destruction may be away of gaining attention and winning friends.

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