Disruptive students in classroom.


Student incivility may include what some may call minor disruptions such as arriving late, interrupting the instructor to make a comment, the chirps of a mobile phone, falling asleep in class, dominating the class discussion, or putting books away before the class ends. Student incivility may also involve more serious behaviours, such as personal attacks, intimidation, or abuse. This resource offers strategies for preventing and dealing with disrespectful behaviour.

Why is there incivility?

While each instance of student incivility may be linked to a myriad of factors, generally speaking, disrespectful behaviour may be attributed to:

  • Growing stress and demands
  • Perception of universities as impersonal
  • Perception of students as consumers
  • Large courses that breed anonymity
  • Required courses that breed disinterest (Nordstrom, et al., 2009)

Further to that, conflict often occurs when people perceive their values, needs or identity are challenged, threatened or undermined (Weeks, 2011).

  • Values are the core principles that guide us.
  • Needs are requirements we have that provide us with a sense of security or self-worth.
  • Identity may include our professional or personal perception of who we are in the world.

What is the role of instructors?

In order to promote a respectful and positive environment, it is recommended that instructors:

  • Create a positive learning environment
  • Generate an atmosphere of trust
  • Talk to students before and after class
  • Provide students with quality feedback
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm for subject and course (Meyers, 2013)

Under the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy, 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) Further, “all members of the University Community, especially those in an instructional, supervisory or managerial position, have a duty to educate those for whom they are responsible regarding expectations for respectful conduct, including this Policy and the Procedure. It is further the duty of such individuals to deal appropriately with allegations regarding Breaches or other violations of this Policy and the Procedure.” (2.11) It is also important to note that under the RWLE and Sexual Assault Procedures, “any person, whether or not a member of the University Community, may contact the HRCMO to raise a concern regarding Discrimination, Harassment, Sexual Assault, or Reprisal, or to make a Formal Complaint. In addition, any other concerns regarding conduct or conflict that is not supportive of a respectful work and learning environment should be addressed with the appropriate manager, Academic Staff, or Unit Head responsible for the affected environment, in accordance with sections 2.5 of the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy.” (2.15)

Proactive strategies

  • Have clear policies and expectations for behaviour included in your syllabus – make reference to these expectations on the first day of the course and, when appropriate, throughout the course.
  • Engage students in course expectations, and in resolving problems that do arise.
  • Be available. If possible, before and after class, as well as during your office hours.
  • Focus on positive over negative right from the beginning in order to create a positive environment.
  • Model the behaviour you expect (e.g., prompt, respectful)
  • Provide ongoing and regular feedback. Among other benefits, this will prevent potential unexpected surprises for the students.
  • Connect with students by learning their names (or at least some of their names). Show interest in them and their experience. Show them that you are genuinely interested in supporting them in their learning.
  • Enthusiasm may be your most powerful tool. Demonstrating your excitement in the ideas and skills that you are teaching can be infectious.  (Meyers, 2013; Morrissette, 2001)

Responding to disrespectful exchanges

It is widely held that one of the primary goals of a university is to develop critical thinkers. One component of critical thinking is the ability to engage in a critical dialogue or debate. To develop this skill, it is necessary to provide students with opportunities to engage in discussions in which diverse opinions are encouraged. Critical dialogue or debate will typically include controversial or values-based issues that have multiple perspectives. In such situations, there is the possibility that discussions may break down into ugly or hurtful exchanges, for example, a disrespectful personal attack, rather than the hoped-for respectful exchange of differing perspectives. The danger here is the temptation to avoid controversial or value-based topics all together in order to remove any possibility of an uncomfortable or hurtful situation in the classroom. This would be a great disservice.
Now, perhaps more than ever, our students need the ability to articulate values-based arguments, while at the same time attempting to understand the thinking behind other perspectives. Our students need to feel safe in our classrooms. They should certainly not fear being personally attacked – especially when it comes to their identity (race, gender, sexual identity and (dis)ability). At the same time, our university classrooms are spaces in which our students need to have opportunities to voice (and listen to other’s) ideas and values, including those based in ignorance and false assumptions. If this seems daunting, take heart in the fact that there are many helpful resources and strategies to help in developing and maintaining a respectful classroom climate. The following are suggested practices to set a respectful tone in your classroom:

  • Consider asking students to help establish norms. Methods for doing this can include silent whiteboard discussion or concept mapping. For example: “What do you mean by respect?”
  • Use silent whiteboard discussion as a method for students to decide on classroom rules of engagement.
    • On one side of the board students list what helps them learn.
    • On the other side of the board they list what doesn’t help them learn.
    • Post the lists on the course web site. This strategy helps multilingual students and others who may prefer writing to speaking. (It is a useful alternative to traditional or online discussion for other topics as well.)
  • A classroom response system allows a version of a silent board discussion for larger classes. It’s useful as a check-in, but note you cannot grade responses, even as participation.
  • Ask students to provide examples of the difference between excitement and disruption in the classroom.
  • Give students a starter list of discussion guidelines on day one:
    • In small groups, students review the starter guidelines (which were developed by other students in other classes).
    • Students can add to, revise, and subtract from the guidelines.
    • The final version goes up on the course website and serves as a resource and go-to document for the class.
    • Afterwards, discuss the guidelines and include talk about respectful communication—because it’s not just what we say it, it’s also how we say it.
  • Choose or invite students to pick a “pause word.” When someone is offended or confused in class, they can say the pause word. The person using the word signals that they would like the instructor to deal with it, or they would like to unpack the moment.
  • Preview the conversations that will take place in the course (especially those about stereotypes and social constructions) by showing or assigning Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009, 18 min. & 9 sec.) This TED Talk explains how dangerous it is to think you know something about a person when you only know one thing about them, one “category.”  Discuss the TED Talk in class and link it to discussions and assignments to come.
  • Explain to and practice with students the difference between criticism (feelings and opinions) and critique (engagement with the text).
  • Clarify with students the difference between being uncomfortable — often necessary to learning — and having the classroom be a safe space.

(For more examples, see Strategies for managing class discussion – Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Washington):
Consider including in your syllabus a statement communicating your expectations with regards to respectful dialogue and discussion. Here is an example:

Student/faculty responsibilities: Class dialogue/discussion/participation

We are co-creators of our learning environment.  It is our collective responsibility to develop a supportive learning environment for everyone.  Listening with respect and an open mind, striving to understand others’ views, and articulating your own point of view will help foster the creation of this environment.  We engage our differences with the intent to build community, not to put down the other and distance our self from the other.  Being mindful to not monopolize discussion and/or interrupt others will also help foster a dialogic environment.

The following guidelines can add to the richness of our discussion:

  • We assume that persons are always doing the best that they can, including the persons in this learning environment.
  • We acknowledge that systematic oppression exists based on privileged positions and specific to race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and other social variables and identities.
  • We posit that assigning blame to persons in socially marginal positions is counter-productive to our practice. We can learn much about the dominant culture by looking at how it constructs the lives of those on its social margins.
  • While we may question or take issue with another class member’s ideology, we will not demean, devalue, or attempt to humiliate another person based on her/his experiences, value system, or construction of meaning.
  • We have a professional obligation to actively challenge myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so we can break down the walls that prohibit group cooperation and growth.
    [Adapted from Lynn Weber Cannon (1990). Fostering positive race, class and gender dynamics in the classroom. Women Studies Quarterly, 1 & 2, 126-134.]

We are a learning community.  As such, we are expected to engage with difference.  Part of functioning as a learning community is to engage in dialogue in respectful ways that supports learning for all of us and that holds us accountable to each other.  Our learning community asks us to trust and take risks in being vulnerable.

Here are some guidelines that we try to use in our learning process:

  • LISTEN WELL and be present to each member of our group and class.
  • Assume that I might miss things others see and see things others miss.
  • Raise my views in such a way that I encourage others to raise theirs.
  • Inquire into others’ views while inviting them to inquire into mine.
  • Extend the same listening to others I would wish them to extend to me.
  • Surface my feelings in such a way that I make it easier for others to surface theirs.
  • Regard my views as a perspective onto the world, not the world itself.
  • Beware of either-or thinking.
  • Beware of my assumptions of others and their motivations.
  • Test my assumptions about how and why people say or do things.
  • Be authentic in my engagement with all members of our class.

Statement courtesy of:

  • Gino Aisenberg, Associate Dean, Diversity and Student Affairs, The Graduate School; and Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of Washington
  • Adaurennaya C. Onyewuenyi, Predoctoral Lecturer, The Graduate School, University of Washington

Source: Responding to disruptions and incivility in the classroom. Center for Teaching and Learning (University of Washington).


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.

Tips for talking to the student

  • Ensure an appropriate time and location. Decrease the tension by reducing stimulation in the moment, such as having the person sit down or move to a quieter spot to talk. Respectfully offer an alternate date or time if the student (or if you) are not in a position to constructively discuss the behaviour.
  • As you talk to the student, try to remain calm and demonstrate respect. Respect can be modelled for the student by demonstrating how to be an active listener (listen, hear, and check/mirror what you’ve heard). As you listen to the student, give your full attention. When talking to the student, use “I” vs. “you” language, for example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been coming late to class,” instead of, “You are always late!”
  • Be aware of the non-verbal cues (both yours and your student’s) during your discussion.
  • Acknowledge the problem by commenting on the behaviour that you have observed. If possible, have the student identify the problem and rephrase the problem to ensure or demonstrate that you understand.
  • Ideally, try to involve the student in the resolution. What is the ideal outcome? How can you work together to achieve this? What are other options to consider? If appropriate to the situation, what are you able or willing to offer to support the student in changing their behaviour?

Academic staff resources and supports


Drolet, D. (2012, September 10). Defusing class disruptions. University Affairs.

Gunn, C. (2012, February 1). Is uncivil behaviourhijacking your classroom?The rules of engagement. University Affairs.

Meyers, Steven. (2013, September 24). Student incivility: Strategies to prevent and respond to conflict (webinar ). InMagna Online Seminarshosted by Faculty Focus. Magna Publications.

Morrissette, P. J. (2001). Reducing incivility in the university/college classroom.  International Electronic Journal for Leadership in Learning,5(4), 1-12.

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.

Responding to disruptions and incivility in the classroom. Center for Teaching and Learning (University of Washington).

Weeks, K.M. (2011). In Search of Civility: Confronting Incivility on the College Campus. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing.

Magna Campus Video and Supplemental Materials Resource

Student Incivility: Strategies to Prevent and Respond to Conflict


  1. Log on to UM Learn
  2. Under My Courses, select All Roles under Role, and All under Term.
  3. Scroll down to Development Courses and select The Centre – Magna Campus Resources
  4. Select Magna Campus > Open Menu > Seminar Libraries > Online Seminars
  5. In the search box, type in “incivility”