One of the top questions I get asked by teachers is how do you deal with disruptive behavior in the classroom. When you are in a classroom full of teenage students, behavior problems will likely arise at some point. Even the best teachers face some difficulties with their students. We can’t and shouldn’t expect our students to be perfect all the time, but we can equip them with the skills they need to make good decisions so that they have way more good days than bad days.

My very general answer to this question is simply social-emotional learning. Not only does social-emotional learning increase academic achievement, but it also works to naturally decrease student behavior problems. SEL sets students up for success because it teaches them the skills they need to persevere through challenging situations, focus their attention, avoid distractions, and make good choices. I think we can all agree that these are skills all students need to learn. If you are in search of ways to integrate SEL into your classroom, I’ve got you covered

Image that shows text reading Not only does social-emotional learning increase academic achievement, but it also works to naturally decrease behavior problems.

Ways to Handle Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom

How often do you make a student leave or sit in an isolated spot in the classroom because they are interrupting everyone else’s learning experience? Maybe a student won’t stop talking to others. Another student keeps throwing paper airplanes across the room. The student sitting in the front row keeps standing up blocking the view of those behind even though you have asked him 3 times to stay in his seat. Whether big or small, disruptive students can be very frustrating for teachers. There are so many ways we can handle these behaviors, but the question becomes are we handling them effectively?  The key to saving yourself and your lesson is SEL. 

Each competency of social-emotional learning has bits and pieces that help people control their actions and reactions like perspective-taking skills, resolving conflicts, and reasoning. If teachers want their classrooms to run as smoothly as possible, then they need to start by helping students develop their self-awareness. 

Self-awareness is what gives us the ability to:

  • Set boundaries
  • Recognize bad habits
  • Understand what holds us back
  • Plan for challenges
  • Keep our focus
  • Communicate our needs

Think about how many problems would go away if students were able to do all these things on their own. Teaching self-awareness can be done explicitly with lessons and guidance on how to build each one of these skills. It can also be integrated into any content. These templates make it easy to get students practicing self-awareness while still focusing on academic material.  Fostering self-awareness leads students to self-regulation and this is what is needed if you are going to effectively handle classroom misbehaviors.

Image of a male student sitting on a classroom desk with text showing the skills of self-regulation: set boundaries, recognize bad habits, understand what holds you back, plan for challenges, stay focused, and communicate.

What is Student Self-regulation?

Self-regulation is often used interchangeably with self-control. While they may seem like they are very similar, the fact is self-control is a small part of the much larger skill of self-regulation. Self-control is what we use to not let feelings get the best of us. We suppress our feelings, most likely not dealing with them, so that when they arise again (and they most definitely will) we are back to square 1 and the misbehavior continues.

Self-regulation on the other hand effectively deals with the feelings that may cause misbehavior. Self-regulation starts with identifying the trigger of negative feelings or stressors and then using tools to cope with them. When students are able to self-regulate, they are in a better position to correct their misbehaviors before they even start. 

Image with text that reads self-regulation is not equal to self-control.

How to Teach Self-regulation to Students

Self-regulation is a skill that must be practiced over and over again. As students get older, the rigors of school become more and more. This gives teachers plenty of opportunities to teach and help students build skills that will lead them to become more successful in the classroom. I teach students to self-regulate by breaking it down into a 3 step process. 

Step 1: Identify the Trigger

When misbehavior occurs the first question should always be why. Don’t jump to any conclusions. Try to get the real answer to this question by being straightforward and asking the student. You may not get an answer right away, but it does open the door to guide the student in identifying what causes negative behaviors, feelings, or reactions. The only way to solve a problem is to first know what the problem is. 

Step 2: Make a Plan to Eliminate or Reduce Triggers

Once triggers that cause stress or unwanted behaviors have been identified, the student should make a plan on how to avoid these triggers in the future. It is for certain that we cannot always avoid things so planning how to reduce triggers may need to be considered as well. Making this plan helps students see the need for setting boundaries and working to eliminate bad habits. The goal here is also to show students that they are in control of their actions.

Step 3: Use Tools to Follow Through on the Plan

Give students tools to cope with stressors effectively. The plan that a student creates shows that he or show knows what needs to be done but that doesn’t mean he or she is equipped to carry out that plan. Start with a conversation of simply asking the student how each piece of the plan can be achieved. This will set the scene for teaching specific skills that lead to self-regulation. 

Some ideas of tools that may be helpful to students are:

  • Time-management apps or strategies
  • Organizational techniques
  • Habit tracking apps
  • Goal-setting apps
  • Goal visualization apps
  • Note-taking techniques
  • Test taking strategies

Often times a student misbehaves because they haven’t mastered executive functioning skills. A focus on building these skills can help students see their potential and increase their motivation. 

Infographic for how to teach self regulation to students. Step 1 help students identify the trigger; step 2 guide students to make a plan; step 3 teach specific skills so that students may use tools to carry out the plan

Students should always be involved in the process of managing their behavior. When they take an active role in this process it becomes a valuable learning experience. It gives them a chance to identify their strengths and weaknesses, become self-aware, and be able to self-regulate.