It is not you, it is them. Don’t worry this isn’t a ‘navigating a breakup’ article. This is usually just what happens in the case of a disruptive student in an online class. There are many types of difficult and/or disruptive students. Some are distracted in their household environments: whether their siblings or family members are being loud, or they’re pre-occupied with their toys/ technology at home. Some are just loud and rowdy in class and trying to distract others. The most important thing to remember is that if they’re being disruptive, it isn’t because of you, it’s despite you. What you can do to affect this is to try to engage them constructively in the lesson in a way that distracts them from their distraction. Beat them at their own game, so to speak. 

You can manage disruptive or distracted students in several ways. An example of how to do this is by consistently asking them questions, seeking to prompt engagement with the class and provide interest in the topic. You could also provide the student with an “important role”, such as the questions-reader, where their designated role is to ask the questions to the rest of the class. Most of the time, this responsibility sparks some autonomy and excitement about the vital role they play in the class. This transforms their role from distracting or disrupting others into one that promotes involvement in their peers and helps the class move forward. This is a constructive way of changing their self-perceived role in the classroom and makes the student feel unique. A more direct route to obtaining their attention if they’re disengaged from the class, and one I’ve used in online classes for younger ages, is doing pair or group work and asking other students to call them back to class. This is a joke that makes most young students giggle as they’re usually running another app or just slightly off-screen. It creates a more casual environment where they may feel more comfortable to re-enter the classroom. 

When a student is more disruptive than distracted, it may be necessary to familiarise yourself with the tools your platform provides you with. This is particularly useful for younger students, as their forms of disruption are often in a laughable, almost cute, yet still a slightly annoying way. In my experience, their favourite thing to do is either scream or make noise, or open their mouth close to the camera and show the whole class their tonsils (endearing, I know). Through muting their audio and turning off their video, you stop their behaviour (in how it affects the other students). If I notice a student is displaying their tonsils to the class, for example, and if some in-class involvement and engagement doesn’t do the trick, turning off their camera for a minute usually stops the behaviour. Once they realise they can’t be seen and are not getting any attention or a response from their behaviour, they usually stop. After their camera is turned on again, they can usually re-engage with the class and don’t repeat the behaviour. If they do, you can utilise the mute/camera options consistently so they associate the behaviour with the minor inconvenience. Did I just recommend Pavlov-ing your students? Yes. Shamelessly so. 

Some of the most important things to remember regardless of the scenario: (a.) don’t do anything to worsen the situation, (b.) stay calm and polite while addressing the situation, and (c.) don’t take it personally. The first two seem the most obvious. Don’t aggress the situation and deal with the situations that may arise as calmly as possible. You don’t want to make the student feel small or create a hostile environment (I wish my primary school teachers were told this because it’d make me a lot less fearful of authoritative figures) (That was a joke, don’t worry, just some lighthearted oversharing). The last one is a bit harder to remember. In my first few lessons, I would forget to mute the chat button so the students couldn’t type in it. Halfway through the lesson, I’d realise the students were using it to talk amongst each other (in Chinese). Instead of thinking “oh it’s probably nothing, it’s just an exciting thing for kids to be able to chat amongst each other” I instantly assumed I was a horrible teacher, and they were all telling each other how boring I was in a language they know I can’t understand. It made me panic and I fumbled over the rest of the class. The truth is, 6-year olds aren’t malicious like that, and I wasn’t a horrible teacher. They were just distracted, and it was my anxiety that prevented me from teaching the best way that I can.

At the end of the day, we’re all complex human beings, with individual stories, best friends, parental baggage and all the other things we lug around in our unique universes of experience. We’re lucky enough for the technology we have that shape our interactions in a way that allows us to teach across the world. I feel so lucky to love my job and I feel so proud every time I leave a lesson that I could feel the students enjoyed and engaged with. I know it’s difficult to remember the bigger picture when you’re focused in on a moment, but it’s in those very moments that you must remind yourself that your students have their own unique experiences too. They feel anxious some days, low and angry on others, just like you do. This may affect how they behave in class, but it’s up to you to try to remind them that they can enjoy learning as well. Instead of focusing on how you went wrong, be open to the complexities of human existence. Most of the time, it’s a student’s way of projecting what they’re going through into the classroom that leads to their disruptive behaviour. (In other words, most times, it is them, not you). This is a small blip in your lives, and you’ll both make it through it. 

Article Written by Rosie Pires @ The Overseas Teacher

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LINK World TEFL Factbook | Ultimate Guide to Teaching English Abroad (theteflacademy.com)