Plagued by Low-Level Classroom Disruption? Here’s How Teachers Can End It

Whether it’s giggling about an inside joke or daydreaming about after-school activities, every student experiences distraction for one reason or another. While this is normal from time to time, chronic disruption can be a major detriment to both teachers and learners.

But consistent, low-level disruption is problematic for classrooms Here’s how to intervene when you see these behaviors emerge.

The Problem with Low Level Classroom Disruption

Most teachers accept some low-level disruption as a part of everyday life in the classroom. A recent study in the UK asked teachers at 95 schools how they deal with the behavior. One-fifth said they ignored it and tried to continue class as normal, writes BBC News education reporter Katherine Sellgren. And one in 12 secondary school teachers in the survey agree that up to 10 minutes of learning is lost each hour due to low-level disruptions.

It’s not just lost time, though. Low-level disruption can have a significant negative impact on how students view and interact with their teachers, too. “If ignored, the problem can evolve into even greater behavioral issues that undermine your authority and lead to lasting character flaws for your students,” the team at Connolly Music Co. writes.

Frustrated teachers often direct negative attention at those students causing persistent disruption. Tommaso Lana, who researches self-guided learning environments, explains that this is a habitual and usually unconscious defense mechanism when responding to misbehaving students. And while it isn’t intentional, negative attention, which includes calling students out and reprimanding them, is ineffective. Negative attention communicates that an educator only knows how to yell and reprimand, rather than work constructively. This, in turn, can have a compounding negative impact on students.

In an American Federation of Teachers article, authors Hill M. Walker, Elizabeth Ramsey and Frank M. Gresham agree. “These interactions are extremely disruptive to the learning environment and damaging to interpersonal relationships. Such behavior, if not brought under control, can also trigger a broader group of students to behave in disruptive ways,” they write.

Moreover, having to incessantly reprimand students can cause teachers to feel constantly frustrated and, after some time, burned out. Burnout is three-dimensional. It includes feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, explains The Edvocate’s Matthew Lynch, Ed.D. So, it doesn’t just affect student learning. Low-level classroom disruption can actually drive teachers away from the profession and exacerbate an already troubling shortage of educators.

classroom disruption

Mitigating Sources of Low-Level Classroom Disruption

Low-level disruption occurs for many reasons and can impact classrooms in different ways. This is why it’s important to implement integrated approaches to disruption, writes Emma Dolman at Academy Today.

Sometimes, teachers are aware of who’s causing the classroom disruption. In these situations, history teacher Thomas Rogers suggests a few techniques. The first is to move closer to the student(s) when giving a lecture or presentation, as your presence can keep them in line. Similarly, he notes the importance of changing seating arrangements to minimize disruption and find the most productive format. “Consider rows rather than pods for a class where low level disruption can be a major hurdle,” he writes.

Dolman agrees with this approach. She says that having a layout where the teacher can walk between students can sometimes be enough to keep disruptions at bay. The right layout can also keep disruptive students away from each other. Keeping them out of each other’s direct line of vision can ensure that they’re not communicating and fooling around during class, Rogers adds.

Another classroom layout that can increase student attention and decrease distraction is the U-shape, according to Australian science teacher and blogger Emily Aslin. She says that a U-shaped desk arrangement allows teachers to see all students at one time, which can facilitate better discussions. It also allows for eye contact between teachers and students.

Student seating arrangements might also work well if you’re trying to separate certain students and you need a rhyme or reason to do so. Alphabetical arrangements, or alternating by preferred gender, can help break up cliques or friendships.

Intervene Clearly, Early and Often

Students will continue to be disruptive until they understand that their behavior is unacceptable. Once they know that such behavior will be reprimanded, they’ll think twice about acting out. This is why it’s important to establish standards early on, according to The University of South Carolina Center for Teaching Excellence.

The center stresses that teachers need to establish standards at the beginning of the class or semester. These can be outlined in the student handbook, which can then be reviewed collectively by the class. In fact, establishing standards is a core trait of effective teacher leaders, says teacher and writer John Dabell.

Specifically, teacher leaders have high behavior expectations for students, and are consistent in dealing with disruptive pupils. They also explain and enforce their expectations successfully to staff, pupils and parents.

To understand what such expectations might look like, consider a few set rules from teacher and research scientist Lee Reid. These include that students must always raise their hand, come to class prepared, treat one another with respect and listen when the teacher is talking.

“Once these expectations have been shared with the class, the approach I personally adopt and advocate to my staff is to simply leave the room for a few minutes, leaving the students to contemplate.” Reid says that this gives students time to discuss the possibility of establishing a learning environment that’s free from distraction.

When he returns to class, he asks students whether or not the rules work for them and if they have any objections. Since they usually don’t, he can carry on with the class knowing that students have fully internalized and contemplated the rules at hand.

classroom disruption

Positive Reinforcement and Learning from Distractions

Positive reinforcement is another form of early intervention that can teach students how not to behave, and what kind of behavior you’re expecting.

Rather than reprimanding a student for poor behavior, teachers should reward well-behaved students, says UK headteacher and author Tracey Lawrence. A student who is praised for consistently raising their hand instead of talking out of turn, for example, can show other students how they’re expected to act.

Information and technology teacher Charlie Asdell also believes that positive reinforcement goes a long way. Whether it’s thanking them for waiting patiently or rewarding them for working nicely together, consistent praise can have a long-term impact on classroom behavior. “Hopefully if you are praising them all the time, they will want to keep getting that praise, or see others getting it and want it too,” she writes. Positive reinforcement works because it allows students to feel good about their own behavior.

Similarly, a strategy for reducing technology distraction from teacher Tom Harris works to help students reflect on their daily behavior. He sometimes asks students to film one another performing skills. Since he teaches public services, these skills include things like presenting a slideshow or leading a thoughtful discussion. Behavioral issues seem to evaporate when there’s a camera and other students involved. Plus, when the lesson was played back to students, they were much more reflective of their behavior and how it affected the classroom.

“Seeing the lesson from a different perspective gave them an opportunity to reflect on the the way their actions affected the lesson,” Harris reports.

Images by: Wavebreak Media Ltd/©, Brett Sayles, Pragyan Bezbaruah

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