Prevention is better than cure

As an instructor, you have the power to promote an inclusive classroom community with an emphasis upon preventing disruptive behaviors as much as possible. Your relationships with students is influential, and it may seem counterintuitive, but these relationships begin long before you set foot in the classroom. It all starts with your syllabus. When you draw up and develop your syllabus, you're beginning to craft and outline the behavioral expectations and standards of your classroom community. As faculty, we have prerogative in how we go about doing this, so long as the standards we establish are reasonable and reflect College policies and procedures and relevant laws and statutes. Syllabi need to outline both students and faculty rights. For example, it is common to have a classroom standard in your syllabus that prohibits excessive lateness to class. Lateness can be disruptive, and it's our prerogative as faculty to set a classroom standard to address it. But, it would stretch the limit and be extreme to add the consequence that if a student was ever late to class, the student would automatically fail the entire course. This consequence would not reflect College policies, and would not accord due process to the student latecomer. In academia, due process can be defined as treating the student fairly and in accordance with College policies, such as the Student Code of Conduct

So, prevention begins with the design of our syllabus. We can try to address common scenarios and concerns. We can build in resources. And, we can communicate this to students not only on the first day, but throughout the semester. But, prevention can also be furthered by expecting the unexpected and having "go to" resources and supports on and off campus at the ready. You're already preparing yourself (or, furthering your skill set) as an effective instructor by virtue of your taking the time to read this. And, as noted, we'll delve into the often muddy waters of the intensive aspects of the classroom management continuum, in just a bit. Another key facet of prevention is limit setting, which can be done in the syllabus as well as in our communication with our classes. So, prevention can take different forms. It can be primary, with the goal of avoiding any disruptive behavior. Or, it can be secondary, as we attempt to enforce the limits we've described in the syllabus and nip disruptive behaviors in the bud early on. It can also be tertiary as we deal with disruptive behaviors after they have occurred. No matter the type of prevention, any prevention it is better than "cure", so to speak, because it circumvents the trials, tribulations, precious time, stress, suffering, and potential headaches that may be part of the "cure" process, Thinking preventively helps us have clear and transparent standards for classroom etiquette. It paves the way forward for us when specific, meaningful conversations with students about responsible classroom etiquette become necessary. It helps to preempt irritating behaviors from escalating and becoming bigger concerns. It treats all students with equality, regardless of whether a student is distressed, and/or has a disability. Setting limits treats students like the adults that they are, and helps to foster a safe classroom environment for all students while also preparing students for "real world" consequences of disruptive behavior. To these ends, giving students feedback about a disruptive behavior can be very useful to them. It may help them prepare themselves for the world of work, for instance. Finally, as many legal strategists have noted, educational institutions have the duty of demonstrating moral behavior. If limit setting is done in an affable, professional, and non-defensive manner, it can also help us to connect with and build trust with students.

Let's turn to an example of how this works. For many of us, students texting during class is a "pet peeve". It's common to find language in our syllabi stating that texting is not permitted without the express permission of the instructor. I have permitted exceptions at times, such as when a student indicated his partner was nine months into her pregnancy and due to go into labor at any moment. But, this is obviously an exception, not the rule. In general, if a student texts in class, the first time this occurs, it's reasonable to issue a verbal warning. If the same student does this a second time, I have language in the syllabus that indicates that students who continue to text will be counted absent. This is also something I communicate on the first day of class. So, it's an attempt at primary and, if need be, secondary prevention and limit setting.

An example of a secondary prevention, namely, trying to prevent ongoing disruption, happened in one of my classes some years ago. We were about midway through the semester when one student began to laugh during another student's presentation on alcoholism. The laughing student had not shown up on the day he was scheduled to give his own presentation, had done minimal work in class, and seemed disengaged. The other students tended to ignore him. I had met with him twice to discuss his academic progress, which hovered around a low "D" level. I knew that I would need to speak to him immediately. I decided to intervene after (rather than during) class, because the presenter seemed unphased during the laughter (and I did speak with him as well, just to make sure he was alright), When I spoke to the disruptive student after class I reminded him that respectful behavior was a requirement of our classroom community, and pointed out that his laughter was disrespectful to the presenter as well as to the rest of the class. The student was defensive at first. He denied laughing at the presenter. He looked angry and an uncomfortable few moments passed between us. I expressed that the reason for my speaking with him about this was that I wanted to see him succeed in the class. Moments later, his expression began to soften. He apologized, and admitted that he had laughed at the presenter "because he looks like some rich kid - what does he know about alcoholism". He also admitted he was disengaged at Harper altogether "My Aunt pays for my classes, but I don't know what I'm doing here". He then surprised me by suddenly reaching out to shake my hand, and thanked me for reaching out. He shared that sometimes he felt lost on campus. He added that he and his father had fought the night before, and it led to his being kicked out of his house. He had spent the night sleeping in his car. He added that this had not been the first time he had slept in his car, because "My dad's a mean drunk and he's always drunk". Let me add that this was unfolding during a sunrise spring semester class in February after a particularly frigid night. He shared that he was often hungry during class because he didn't always have access to food, I wound up making several referrals for the student. We had met for about ten minutes. My original intent was to set limits, but as we connected with one another, the interaction morphed into something else. The brief encounter mattered to him. Without any prompting from me, at the start of the next class, he went up to the student he'd laughed at and apologized. He then stood up and apologized to the class, stating "I had no right to laugh at anyone and I'm sorry I did it". He began to contribute to class. Other students began acknowledging him and talking to him. He finished the class with a solid "C". There were no additional incidents of disruption. Best of all, he began making connections and using resources around campus. We shook hands again, a few years later...as he walked the processional in cap and gown during graduation.

All of this to is say that prevention is valuable at any stage, and you never know where a conversation with a student will lead. Obviously this was a happy ending, and not every ending is. But, good classroom management will give you the necessary foundations for these kinds of conversations. I think of these efforts as building the "infrastructure" for the classroom community. Whether the conversations you have around limit setting are healing or contentious or somewhere in the middle, think about preventive considerations as you write your syllabi. Writing in specific classroom policies that reflect the College's Code of Conduct and relevant policies, procedures, and even resource is your first line of defense for managing many common classroom management scenarios. You can set standards including policies for lateness, unapproved cell phone/technology use, side conversations, interruptions, making up assignments, repeated absences, disrespectful behavior, etc.. It's important to set these limits, even when you find, as I had, that there may be some compelling reasons why a student pushes the limits. Having these limits not only provided the student and I grounds for a good conversation, but also took the wellbeing of the other students in the class in mind. It let the disruptive student know that he was a valued member of a classroom community in which he mattered, and in which he had responsibility. In this particular instance, I'd go so far as to say that the student laughing at another student was elliptically requesting attention and feedback from me as his instructor....and perhaps, in his own indirect way, signaling his readiness for help.