Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Productive Ways to Respond When a Student Refuses to Leave the Classroom

The recent Spring Valley High School incident has made me reflect on what I would have done if a student using a cell phone refused to put it away and refused to leave class.  Like many teachers, I have been faced with similar (if not exactly the same) situations. I never once thought to force the student out of his/her seat.

I have had to learn over time how to react and control my emotions when a student is defiant.  Early in my teaching, my anger would boil up when a student openly defied me. Over time, however, I have learned that reacting with anger and yelling is unproductive.

Steps to Handle Defiance:


  1. Move On (Secretly Wait & Take Deep Breaths)

    After asking a student to do something, such as leave the room, I don't stand there stopping the whole class in a stalemate. I move on with the lesson. Now really I am giving some wait time to the situation. Some students need more time to process what is happening and comply to the directive. I also am calming myself down. No matter how many times a student is defiant to me in front of a class, it triggers a fight or flight mechanism in me, and usually the "fight" mechanism. If I give in to anger, then I've lost control of myself and the class. I will get nowhere with the student and will most likely lose respect from the class. One way I've learned to pacify this response is to meditate or breath. I have gotten to the point where I don't even try to hide it in front of students--I hope they see it as a positive way to regain control.

  2.  Think

    While I'm continuing with class, I am really trying to figure out what happened and decide how necessary it is to follow through with a class removal. If a student has done something very disruptive and the student's presence is still a disruption to the learning environment (and all my other management tricks are not working), I may call the Dean's office or principal and ask for an administrator to come get the student. However, if it is something like a student refusing to put away his/her phone and he/she is sitting quietly in class, there is no need for class removal. After nine years in the classroom, I have seen plenty of disruption. I have seen many students storm out of the classroom and many others refuse to leave their seat. I have never seen a student refuse to leave their seat and continue to disrupt the class. Although the defiance is something that needs to be discussed eventually, there is no need to remove a student by force if he/she is not disrupting the class or causing harm to themselves or others.

  3.  Discuss Privately

    If it seems as though the student has calmed down and there is a moment where students are working and I can talk to the defiant student privately, I may go over to discuss the issue with him/her. It is often the case that the student is not ready to talk to me. I may write a note or give distance until the next class period (if someone is too angry to talk to me later in the class period, they will probably not be calmed down for a while). If they refuse to interact with me and sit quietly for the rest of class, even if they continue to disobey the cell phone rule, I let it go. I have confidence that my other students know that I will work with that student and that using your phone in class is not acceptable.

    When I do talk to the student, I do not discuss the incident right away or speak to them with anger in my voice. I ask them how they are doing, if they've had a bad day or if something has gone on that upset them. If a student is furious because you want them to put away their phone, there's probably a deeper issue going on.
  4.  Think Again and Investigate

    After my class has ended, I'll have more time to try to better understand what happened. I'll check in with the student's advisor, other teachers (particularly those right before my class) and the Dean. I may or may not contact the student's parents that night--depending on how that would make the student react. I also may email the student. A lot of what I do depends on what I think will work with that individual student--getting to know students ahead of time, therefore, is key!
  5. Make a Plan

    Typically by the next day, the student has calmed down and can talk. Again, I don't address the situation in terms of what the student has done wrong, but more about what is going on and why the student was so upset. If the problem is something that re-occurs, I would work out a system so the student and I can deal with the issues in a proactive manner. 

    For example, I once had a student who would storm out of class angrily, yelling at me and the co-teacher. After eating lunch with her and talking, it became clear that sometimes she had a bad day and my redirection was the last straw. We came up with a plan that when she felt like storming out, she would ask permission and I would always say yes. We continued to develop a plan where she would go visit the Dean and give her a candy or cookie (yes, this was our plan--I was pregnant and always had cookies at my desk!). Over time, the student gained control of her reactions and our relationship improved instead of deteriorated.
The big point I want to make here is to not respond immediately with anger. Losing control in front of the class is bound to happen, but using strategies like cooling down (yes, you too!), meditating and trying to understand the trigger for the behavior is far more productive than proving your power in front of the class.

Read Your Students

A recent New York Times article mirrors many of the ideas above. The teacher interviewed also brings up an important preventative measure: read the students as they enter the class.  Pedro Noguera, author of "The Trouble with Black Boys:...And Other Reflections of Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education", discusses the importance of understanding the root of the defiance. Next time a student is defiant in your class, pause and remember how easily things can escalate into a situation you didn't intend for. De-escalating situations should be at the forefront, which may mean letting something go until everyone is calmed down.


  1. Great post Michelle. I asked my Elem. Science Methods class to take seven deep breaths in the middle of class just last night (Getting towards the end of the semester and they were looking a little overcooked)...Have you ever taught your own students to take deep breaths as an anger/stress management tool? Teaching them the strategies we use to stay calm may prevent outbursts in the future...

  2. Thank you Steve. Yes--I have used meditation with students as a means to re-set class when the room felt stressed out or chaotic. It worked with some groups, while others found it awkward and had a hard time taking it seriously (these were 9th graders). If students are receptive to it, I also use it when conferencing with a student privately if they are upset. We would sit together in the stairwell and take breaths before talking. I considered bringing in a meditation expert who works with teens to see how they get students to relax.


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