Responding to Negative Student Interactions

Submitted by nina on Fri, 07/18/2008 - 18:58.

Dear Nina,

What do you do when you have students who are deliberately derailing the lesson on a consistent basis?  How do you ignore their negative behavior when it is really disruptive (like yelling out negative comments about other students every few minutes). 

I have talked to these students individually and made phone calls home, but I'm having difficulty.  I want to ignore their negative behavior, but how can I when it's hurting the feelings of other students? 

I'm going to take another look at your chapter that you recommended before, but do you have any ideas about this?  It may have just been a difficult week, but I want to learn to tackle these issues at their roots instead of just tolerating them and dealing with them.

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for your question! It’s an important one and I know we’ve spoken about some of the same issues previously. Thank you for not giving up and for continuing to reflect on your classroom practice. Why don’t we start there—you’re practice. Because in fact, that’s basically what you have control of, right? 

As you know, my suggestions focus on teacher thinking and behavior. We can complain endlessly about student behavior, lack of administrative support, lack of parental concern, poor living conditions, etc., and while we might want to address these areas in different ways at different times we often do not have control over them. We can complain about student’s behavior and, of course, be concerned about it—as we should—but actually we can’t change it, can we? We can, though, reflect on our behaviors, speech, and classroom set up and decide what we might need to adjust to help our students decide to interact more appropriately. 

Before we get into more specific suggestions I want to point out that once you decide to make adjustments and implement something new stick to it. Deep, important changes might not come to fruition for a long time. I find that some teachers anxiously want change and when they don’t see it immediately they begin implementing something else or just give up. Remember much of what we want to see changed took many years to develop and will take time to adjust or extinguish.

I was recently asked to follow a high school student around to various classes to help with suggestions for teachers who said he was continuously disruptive. It actually took awhile for me to find him in class because he often loitered in the hall because he didn’t care to enter the classroom or because he had been sent out of the classroom due to inappropriate behavior. I’ve done this kind of work often so I will share with you some of my general observations and you can decide what most applies to your particular situation.

While some variation in behavior occurs depending on the teacher some common teacher behaviors/practices are usually evident across classrooms. For example, because teachers expect negative, disruptive behavior from these students they notice every little movement made. I saw this recently in one high school English classroom. When, let’s call him John, called out or turned to his friend to talk an immediate reprimand followed. When another student exhibited the same disruptive behavior it was ignored. In every class teachers were either hyper-vigilant in regards to John or totally ignored him for the entire period and allowed him to come and go as he pleased. These extremes came from good intentions but need to be examined more deeply. 

Let’s think about the messages we send John and his classmates through these behaviors. Of course, everyone knows, John included, that John is a “marked” man, i.e., a “trigger child”. This already colors the messages that teachers send. Therefore, everyone expects John to be either negatively signaled out or allowed to get away with murder. Whether one or the other happens usually depends on the mood and energy of the teacher. This unpredictability wreaks havoc in any classroom and actually does the same internally to the students and teachers involved. We all need to feel emotionally safe and secure before any learning happens.  

So you’ve tried to extinguish behavior through ignoring. While ignoring inappropriate behavior definitely has its place it must occur within a context of positive recognition. Therefore, while I often suggest ignoring a behavior until extinguished this technique will be totally ineffective and actually harmful if the student does not also receive recognition for positive work and interactions. Yes, perhaps when you are discouraged you might even think, “But he/she never does anything positive!” But I can’t believe this. Many teachers allow a student to drain them so that they cannot see the small, positive interactions that happen right before their eyes. He/she sits and waits patiently for 5 minutes before class begins. He turns to the right page. He raises his hand without calling out. He enters the room and says, “Hello, Miss.” Positive return responses go a long way and can include: “Thank you, John, I see you raised your hand and haven’t called out.” Or “I’m sorry we didn’t start right away but I noticed John you were waiting patiently for us to begin.”   This kind of recognition and appreciation needs to be part of every classroom culture.   But sadly, in almost every classroom I visit it is not. (For more details see Shanika’s story in Zaragoza N., (2002))

Let me point out, though, ignoring doesn’t mean that we allow a student to sit and not complete the required work because, “at least he/she is quiet.” These low expectations send the clear message, whether intentional or not, that you do not care about this student’s progress. The message sent, whether intentional or not, clearly states that this student means less to you than the others. The message states that you do not have faith in this student and that you do not care. Yes, I know these words sound harsh but think about the harshness of the messages you inadvertently send. Teaching is a high calling and a serious responsibility. Do we need to be perfect, of course not. Must we reflect continually on our words and actions, most definitely.

Clear, appropriate consequences need to be in place for all students to address incomplete or missing work. But it actually isn’t difficult to understand why so many of our students do not complete the work given. For a minute, let’s put ourselves in their places. Look at the actual tasks you require. Would you like to complete them? Do they really hold any value in the big picture? Answer the questions at after the passage, write a summary, color in the right bubble. Why? If you answer, “because that’s what we’re told to do.” Then I beseech you to rethink what you are doing and why. Did you become a teacher to push papers or to have a positive impact on the next generation? If you answer the latter than you know teaching and learning is much more than filling in the blank and test prep. You know that it is about purpose, joy, and service to others. Students involved in work that has a purpose and impact on an audience (i.e., drama, poetry, community project) will complete it. ( for more details see “Project Orientation” on

Finally, let me encourage you as you reflect upon your responses to your students to take care of your own emotional health. We all have issues that in certain contexts negatively color our thoughts and interactions. For example, if we have a psychological need to be in a position of authority this might hinder us from enabling our students to have authority and ownership over their own work and choices. If we have a tendency to note what we lack instead of acknowledging our own strengths than we will more times than not first see the deficits in others before seeking to understand their strengths.   I ask that you open your heart to yourself and your students. For in the end, real teaching and learning happens within caring, connected relationships.