Conflict management can help to overcome disrespectful and disruptive behaviours that interfere with the classroom learning environment.
Conflict in the classroom can take many forms. Sometimes conflict can be a welcome part of learning, such as in a discussion on a controversial subject or a disagreement about the interpretation of data or a text. However, other sorts are less welcome, such as those that disrupt student learning and/or make it difficult to teach effectively. These sorts of conflicts include behaviour that:
- Distracts, disturbs, annoys or wastes time;
- Goes against the stated/unstated codes of appropriate behaviour in the learning environment; and/or
- Shows disrespect, prejudice, bias or hostility towards the instructor and/or other students.
This resource describes possible disruptive behaviours in teaching and learning contexts and allows you to explore your own beliefs and values in order to develop teaching practices for a variety of responses.
What is disruptive behaviour?
Social behaviours are learned, both within cultures and within specific environments. University classrooms bring together people from diverse cultures and backgrounds in a diversity of spaces and places, and it is almost a guarantee that there will likely be some differences of opinion about what behaviours are acceptable. What is acceptable in one learning environment may not be acceptable in another, and what is acceptable to one person (whether instructor or student) may not be acceptable to another. Yet despite this diversity, often social behaviours and norms are unstated.
To explore this further, consider this list of some potentially disruptive behaviours.
- Using a laptop/tablet/smart phone for non-class purposes during class
- Coming to class unprepared
- Cell phone going off in class
- Making sarcastic remarks/gestures
- Sleeping in class
- Asking repetitive questions
- Interrupting others who are speaking
- Challenging the instructor’s knowledge
Which ones do you find disruptive, and which ones wouldn’t bother you? If you imagine yourself in different teaching settings (e.g., lecture hall, lab, meeting with 1-2 students, design studio, clinic, etc.), would your answers change?
While there is some room for individual interpretation and preference, there are some types of behaviours that are clearly unacceptable, and these often have university policies and municipal/provincial/federal laws prohibiting them. These include:
- Making harassing, hostile or offensive comments or physical gestures to the instructor and/or students
- Threats of violence against the instructor and/or students
The role of the instructor
In many educational resources, the instructor is framed as a manager of behaviour in the classroom, with power and control over their course and its delivery. However, it is important to keep in mind the nature of that authority. Scholars have argued that terms such as “classroom management” imply a racist and neoliberal attitude where instructors police student bodies in an oppressive and problematic way (Kumashiro, 2009; Casey et al., 2013). Regardless of your personal position on the role of the instructor in this regard, it is important to remember that, as the course instructor, you are ultimately responsible for creating, to the best of your abilities, a welcoming and inclusive environment where all students can learn to their full potential.
The University of Manitoba also has policies that inform instructor and student behaviours. The most important of these is the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy (RWLE). Under the RWLE, academic staff “must encourage a respectful environment within the work and learning environments for which they are primarily responsible. They are expected to identify and address issues of concern in a timely manner, recognizing the value of early intervention” (2.6).
In addition, part of the role of instructors is to educate students regarding the RWLE policy and procedures and to help them understand the ways in which their behaviours both inside and outside the classroom are impacted by the policy and procedure requirements (2.11).
Nothing will prevent conflict from arising in life, but there are some evidence-based proactive strategies that can help to minimize it within teaching and learning spaces.
Model desired behaviour
This could include modeling behaviours such as punctuality, preparedness, focus, organization, enthusiasm, active listening and respectful engagement with students.
Use active and engaging learning strategies
Engage students in what they are learning through activities, discussion, surveys, quick check-ins, polls, writing or drawing activities, etc. Consider this list of active learning strategies as a starting point.
Set ground rules and expectations
Being clear about expectations by sharing them in the syllabus and during class time helps to make standards of behaviour more transparent for instructor and students alike. Involving students in creating shared expectations rebalances unequal power dynamics and creates a classroom environment where everyone feels they can contribute and remind others of classroom rules and guidelines. For some ideas on creating classroom expectation statements, please see Developing Community Agreements from The University of Washington’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
Consider your mannerisms and body language
Find mannerisms and body language that are authentic to you and also project a sense of leadership and confidence. Consider the tone and volume of your voice, your gestures and facial expressions, and your use of supporting materials (e.g., slideshow presentations, visual/audio aids, etc.) to enhance rather than distract from learning.
Many different leadership styles exist, and students and instructors alike also hold biases (both explicit and implicit) about what leadership style is expected from a university instructor. As in the previous point, consider how norms relate to your own leadership style in terms of body language, mode of address and attire. Learn students’ names and express care and concern as appropriate.
Dealing with conflict is often difficult. Some basic strategies include:
- Use techniques to stay calm and respectful (e.g., breathing deeply, counting to 5 before responding, etc.).
- Reframe the situation with curiosity and compassion (e.g., “I wonder what’s going on for that student” rather than “That student is so rude!”).
- Remind students of previously communicated expectations and guidelines (e.g., “Let’s all remember that we have a classroom guideline of waiting for others to finish speaking before the next person speaks.”).
- Follow up with out-of-class meetings and other communications as appropriate.
- Use active listening strategies and open-ended questions to allow students to share their perspectives and allow you to fully understand the problem.
- When taking a decision, consult with all parties involved as much as possible, communicate clearly and document your response in writing
For more serious instances of racism, sexism, harassment, and other forms of micro- or macroaggression, or for times when situations are escalating quickly, it is even more important to take action. Four basic options are:
- Pause the discussion by asking students to write or draw how they are feeling for five minutes. This allows heated emotions to cool somewhat and also gives you time to decide what to do next.
- Acknowledge what has happened and, if you are not ready to take the next steps, tell students you need a little more time to respond appropriately. Give a specific time when you will return to the conversation (at the next class, by email within 24 hours, etc.).
- Ask to speak to specific students outside of class, but also consider the impact of a public statement. Often, a mix of public and private is an effective response strategy.
Seek advice and guidance from colleagues, supervisors, The Centre and the other service units and supports listed below.
Responding to disrespectful behaviour
- Begin by assessing the behaviour. What is the degree of risk and the severity of the behaviour? Is it simply annoying, or would you categorize it as disruptive or even dangerous or hurtful?
- Consider what may be the underlying cause of the behaviour.
- Depending on the situation, you may wish to speak with the student individually, make a referral, consider disciplinary action or report the incident to the department head or dean.
Academic staff resources and supports
The Centre provides individual consultations, workshops, and resources on teaching and learning for graduate students, staff, and faculty.
The OHRCM promotes a respectful working and learning environment in which individuals are treated equitably and diversity is valued. If you have a concern regarding harassment, discrimination, sexual violence, or conflict, the OCHRCM can help.
UMFA provides resources for its members.
Student Advocacy helps UM students navigate university processes and advocate for their rights as a student.
This website explains what respectful conduct is (both in-person and online) in a student-friendly way.
The Case Management Office helps students find the right resources when they are facing a crisis.
The Student Counselling Centre (SCC) provides free counselling and mental health support to University of Manitoba, English Language Centre and International College of Manitoba (ICM) students.
The Sexual Violence Resource Centre provides support, resources, information and referral services for any student, faculty or staff member who has been affected by sexual violence.
STATIS is a diverse team of professionals committed to promoting a safe and respectful work and learning environment for the campus community.
This department ensures a safe environment in which members of the UM community can live, work, study and enjoy life at UM.
All governing documents at UM can be found here.
Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Responding to disruptions in the classroom. University of Washington.
Marini, Z. (2013, November 6). Reduce confrontation in your classroom: How to cultivate civility. University Affairs.
Nordstrom, C. R., Bartels, L. K., & Bucy, J. (2009). Predicting and curbing classroom incivility in higher education. College Student Journal, 43, 74-85.
Casey, Z. A., Lozenski, B. D., & McManimon, S. K. (2013). From neoliberal policy to neoliberal pedagogy: Racializing and historicizing classroom management. Journal of Pedagogy, 4(1), 36–58.
Kumashiro, K. K. (2009). Against common sense: Teaching and learning toward social justice (2nd ed.). Routledge.