Dealing with Difficult Classroom Situations You'll See Often


Situations crop up regularly in most classrooms that threaten to distract from the lesson and derail learning for all. The following are a few suggestions for getting students back on track and keeping your cool when challenges arise.

Conflict Management 101

It seems obvious to say that you can't learn about conflict resolution without conflict, and certainly negotiation can be a powerful tool. Sometimes, though, when an argument hits the high decibel range in your classroom, it's hard to see — or hear—the lesson. Get ahead of the noise and introduce your class as a whole to good communication strategies as soon as possible in the school year. Ideally — and with the right tools — students will eventually have the ability to resolve many of their conflicts on their own.

Teacher mediating

Responsive Classroom suggests some protocols:

  • Cool off. Students take a moment and a breath when they feel their emotions getting the better of them.
  • Speak to the other person directly. Students practice saying their peace firmly and kindly.
  • Use active listening. Students listen attentively without interrupting and repeat what they heard back to the speaker, one at a time.
  • Find a solution together.

Patience is a factor when implementing a classroom-wide compassionate conflict resolution, but you and everyone else in the class will reap the rewards of getting past the noise and feeling safe and respected when there's a disagreement.

yelling boy

Disruption Interrupted

When students create a distraction, whether they're speaking out of turn, resisting participating in class activities, or especially demanding attention, the impact is felt by everyone: the instructor (you) and the student's fellow learners. Disruptive behavior happens and will always happen even in the most organized and communication-rich environments. The key is to navigate the upset so that you can keep the class, including you and the student in question, productive and on track.

ALSUP Approach

Bagnall Elementary School in Groveland, Massachusetts, uses the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP) approach to address the disrruption at the root. ALSUP, developed by Dr. Ross Green as part of the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) model, seeks to put less emphasis on trying to eliminate or modify the behavior in the moment and more focus on helping a student understand why the behavior is happening in the first place. The assessment aims to light a path toward collaborative skill building that enables a student to find better ways to engage than disruption.

Opponents may argue that the ALSUP approach is time and labor intensive, as well as beyond the scope of responsibility of the typical classroom teacher. Shannon Campbell teaches kindergarten at Bagnall and has collaborated with the school psychologist to use ALSUP to identify issues in several students. Campbell says, ''I was amazed by the results I observed after completing the ALSUP and shifting my focus from eliminating the behavior to solving problems and teaching lagging skills. It took a few weeks to begin implementing the lessons and to infuse the new language, but the time spent was well worth it.''

Other Approaches

Even without implementing ALSUP specifically, many teachers are experiencing more peaceful and productive classrooms by shifting from discipline that isolates a child. i.e., sending them to the principal's office, to techniques that involve the student in their own improvement. Brendan Keenan writes in an article for Edutopia, ''The movement towards classroom-based, teacher-driven skill building in the area of emotional learning represents a significant paradigm shift for many teachers.''

gossip in classroom

Diffusing the Gossip Reaction

As every teacher knows, gossip has the potential to spread and destroy faster than wildfire. What can one teacher do in the wake of wildfire? The Human Dignity Coalition published an open letter from Berkeley Arts Magnet School teacher Vanessa Sinai in praise of the Welcoming School curriculum, an educational support program aimed in part at preventing bias-based bullying.

Sinai writes, ''This incident encompassed name-calling, gender stereotyping and gossiping… While I was initially angry and wanted to reprimand the student immediately, it made more sense to have a discussion and make sure that student was clear on definitions. I've assumed in the past that a student knew what they were saying when they didn't.''

Sinai talked with the student about how his/her behavior needed to change and followed up with a class discussion about the incident, after checking in with the other student. If a student in your class doesn't feel safe discussing a personal experience, you could use another anecdote in the discussion.

Techniques for Stemming Gossip

As with conflict resolution, stemming gossip begins with open communication right from the gate. Make it clear that gossip and other elements of bullying are inappropriate. Practice role-playing to illustrate the mechanics of gossip and to build understanding and empathy. Students who are able to do so can write about their experiences with gossip.

Happy students with maracas

Brainstorm for a Healthy Classroom

Some teachers feel that if they do everything right, disruption, conflict, and gossip should have no place in their classrooms. In her letter to the Human Rights Coalition, Sinai writes, ''Sometimes I get really upset because I feel like since I do so much work around Welcoming Schools, this kind of thing shouldn't happen in my classroom. After this incident I realized that this kind of thing will continue to happen for kids, because it always does, but the way we talk about it will change.''

Resources to Fall Back On

Challenging situations are a permanent part of the teaching experience. The good news is that you have resources to fall back on for support.

For example:

  • Team up with your school counselor, as Shannon Campbell did, to assess problems and find solutions for consistently disruptive behavior.
  • Participate in supplemental programs available to your school that talk about the damaging effects of gossip and bullying, and offer solutions you can use.
  • Engage parents and students in setting expectations for the classroom, and offer positive feedback when they're met. The goal remains the same—spend less time off the rails and more time on track to a peaceful, productive classroom.
By Irene Cooper
August 2017
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