The classroom management continuum
Having glimpsed some of the ways psychological distress can manifest in our students, now let's turn to an exploration of classroom management from a faculty perspective. A question frequently posed by faculty is how to "pre-identify students" who can potentially create disruption. There's a continuum of behaviors and situations that contextualize this question, and may require classroom management footwork on our part. These behaviors may or may not be linked with students of concern or students experiencing distress. Any student has the potential to become disruptive in a classroom, and setting aside the common stereotypes about mental health issues, there are countless reasons why students may behave in a disruptive manner. Some students are unintentionally disruptive. Other students can also enter our College intending to create disruption. Sometimes students re-enact patterns of disrespectful behavior that were tolerated and perhaps even implicitly accepted or encouraged in high school or at home (think of the "class clown"). Still other students may have poor social skills, few inhibitions, and at times, little self-awareness. We've all met the entitled students who believe that the rules don't apply to them, and feel privileged to push the limits we've established in our classrooms. And, we've all worked with students with complex lives who and are struggling with many compelling and stressful issues. The classroom can inadvertently become a place where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and the stress manifests in behaviors such as inconsistent attendance and performance, or falling asleep in class. This later group may at times includes students who are homeless and/or food insecure, students with unreliable transportation, and students without adequate access to some of the technologies and resources we may use in our classes. Some student Veterans have voiced that it is not uncommon to experience difficulty acclimating to civilian life, including life on campus. For example, a student Veteran in a class I taught some time ago shared "I feel like I interrupt everyone because I have to respond to everything and correct the other students...getting things right was part of my training". Yet other students have had traumatic experiences with authority figures and may be reticent to respond at all. Still others may have cultural, familial, and personal expectations that differ from our own.
It's important to acknowledge another common stereotype here: the conflation of disruption with disabilities. Yes, it is true that some disruptive students may also have disabilities, but the majority of students with disabilities are not disruptive. Some of the top performing and best behaved students on our campus have various disabilities. It's more accurate to characterize persons with disabilities as a being part of a broad population representing the full spectrum of humanity. This is a population we may already be part of ourselves, or may possibly become part of (perhaps as we age through time, or if we experience illnesses or accidents). In any case, whether a student is disabled or not, it's important to know that the same rules apply when it comes to disruptive behavior. Having a disability does not give a student some sort of "free pass" to be disruptive. When students have documented disabilities, you will receive information from the College's Access and Disability Services that will include an academic accommodation plan. If a student discloses that s/he has a disability but has not registered with Access and Disability Services, it's important to let the student know that s/he needs to register with that Office as soon as possible, so that appropriate accommodations can be determined. In short, whether chronic or temporary, visible or invisible, documented or undocumented, hidden, or perceived, having "differing abilities" , is simply part and parcel of the human experience. Being welcoming and inclusive for all of our students means not making assumptions about them, and creating access and universal design in the way we construct the learning environment of our classrooms. Learning more about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the College's Access and Disability Services are helpful ways to begin to dispel and fight ableism while promoting advocacy and inclusion for all students.
So, there's no one size fits all when it comes to disruptive students. All students benefit from clear communications and consistent limit setting. All students benefit from being addressed with equity, equanimity and sensitivity. Students are worthy of concern as well as of our respect. They have the rights to be who they are. They deserve our understanding. And, we should intentionally strive to build healthy relationships with them. BUT, regardless of their backgrounds, whether students are distressed, have a disability, or some compromise of their well-being, no student has the right to be disruptive. While students have rights, faculty and staff do, too. We have the rights and the prerogatives to establish academic and behavioral standards for our classes and for our Departments. Students are accountable to College policies and practices. This includes your course syllabus and the standards you've established, as well as any applicable departmental or program standards, the Student Code of Conduct, state and federal law, any directives issued by campus or community police, and any measures taken by the campus conduct officer.