Every educator has likely had an experience with student disruptions. Students are children, after all, not robots. From time to time, they’re likely to have outbursts, struggle to remain on task, or have intense emotional reactions. This is a normal part of educating children. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy. When classroom disruptions happen, many teachers struggle to keep the class in order, support the child and keep the lesson going. This is especially true for children who cause frequent disruptions. If you’re facing this in your class, consider these five steps for responding.
Step One: Recognize the disruption.
A common mistake many educators make is to continue to try to teach while a disruption is occurring, almost as though it’s not happening. This is not an effective strategy, because while a child is disturbing the class, he or she is not able to learn, and neither is the rest of the class. And quite honestly, you’re probably not able to teach well in that moment either. So, the first step is to be honest to say to yourself, “Yes, this is a disruption that is affecting me/the student/the class.”
Step Two: Redirect the rest of the class.
Educators often first attempt to redirect the child who is causing the disruption. This seems to make sense – and if it’s a small disruption such as a student speaking without raising her hand, you can do a quick redirect and move on. But if the disruption is significant, trying to redirect the behavior while the rest of the class looks on means that everyone else is sitting there waiting for the issue to be resolved. When a disruption occurs, you can very quickly give the rest of the students something to do – either share with a partner, write or draw a response to something, move to a new activity, or read independently while you address the one child who needs your attention.
Step Three: Ask yourself what the child needs in that moment.
Behavior is communication. Often children communicate what they need in inconvenient or difficult to understand ways. But all behavior is telling us something, and disruptive behavior is communicating an unmet need. To you, the need may be unrealistic or inappropriate, but it is a real need to the child. The need might be attention, escape, power, security, or acceptance. You may not be able to figure out the need, but do a quick mental calculation to see if there are any clues you can derive from the child’s behavior. For example, a child who needs attention may be doing attention-seeking behavior such as talking out of turn or physically moving towards or touching the teacher. A child who needs to escape may be moving away from the group, physically retreating by laying her head down on the desk, or turning away from peers during group work. A child who needs acceptance may be trying to connect with peers, even if not in a helpful way.
Step Four: Support self-regulation or provide co-regulation.
Self-regulation is when a child is able to manage his own behavior and return to a state of calm. Some children will be able to do this (often with support) if they’ve had practice and have a set of self-regulation tools that they can rely on. A good strategy to support self-regulation is called time, space and movement.
Co-regulation is when another person (typically an adult) can support a child in regulating his behavior, by being a calm presence while the child’s nervous system returns to calm. Co-regulation often occurs through physical connection, either gentle, appropriate touch such as rubbing a child’s back or placing an arm around a child, or through breath or movement, such as taking deep, exaggerated breaths until a child’s breathing matches the adult’s, or calm, deliberate stretches that the child mirrors.
This step is the most crucial, as it is the step that will allow the child to be regulated enough to return to the classroom environment. This step also has the most variables, as a child’s ability to regulate depends so much on their age, maturity, development, history of regulation, trauma history, personality and more. Teachers likely won’t get this right every time, or right away. However, building a classroom with self-regulation opportunities available will support a child’s ability to self-regulate when the need arises. Consider adding a calm down space or a calm down box or comb through these additional self-regulation strategies.
Step Five: Revisit the experience later.
When a child is in a state of dysregulation, that is not the time for a conversation. The child’s nervous system will be in a heightened state and not able to retain information, let alone engage in complex thinking. But this doesn’t mean that a conversation about the disruption shouldn’t happen at all. Sometimes adults think it is best to let sleeping dogs lie, that once a child is calm, it’s best to let it go and move on. However, it is very important to revisit the incident for two reasons.
One, it is necessary for the adult to reconnect and rebuild the relationship that was likely ruptured during a negative interaction. When an adult must redirect behavior, give a consequence, or otherwise discipline a child, the relationship takes a hit, no matter how well the interaction was handled. Reconnecting after the fact tells the child that the relationship is still important.
The second reason to revisit the experience later is to provide the child the opportunity to be self-reflective. Ask questions such as: What were you feeling earlier? What did you feel right before the incident? During? What helped you calm down? The child may not be able to answer all, or any, of these questions. However, it models self-reflection for the child. If an adult doesn’t ask, the child is not going to ask herself. When an adult takes the time to model reflection, it shows the child that there is a step after an experience and sets her up to be self-reflective in the future. It may not happen the next time, or even during the school year, but each interaction builds on itself, and modeling self-reflection can make a difference over time.
Let’s state the obvious: these steps can work well when classroom disruptions are few and far between. But you can’t follow this process 40 times a day. If you have a child who is consistently disruptive, that’s a sign that the child needs additional support. Continue to follow these steps but be sure to document everything. Take note of every disruption, how often they occur, what time of day, and to what extent. Share your documentation with your support team – administrator, counselor, or other colleague – who can help get the child (and you) the support needed. If a child is making constant disruptions, he is not able to learn successfully, and you’re not able to teach successfully. It is in everyone’s best interest to provide additional support for this child, through an aide or special services. The key to getting this support is to document, document, document.
Next time you’re facing classroom disruptions, try to follow these five steps to restore peace to the child and the class as a whole.