Tackling disruptive behavior

Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri

Every month, we bring you situations commonly faced by teachers that may be linked to the mental health of their students. We discuss possible responses and how you may approach these situations with sensitivity and mindfulness. Most often these “problem cases” are a topic of discussion in the staffroom and teachers use this opportunity to learn from one another. We hope you will use these cases to exchange views on appropriate teacher responses and share your stories with us at Shivani.MathurGaiha@lshtm.ac.uk.

Puneet, a class 7 student tries to stand up and make a joke or distract others with fart sounds. He is throwing grapes from his tiffin box at other students in the middle of your lesson in class.

By doing what he is doing, Puneet is trying to seek attention from everyone. It is easy and natural to be irritated by these actions as it is disturbing the entire class. As a teacher, you are presented with two natural, impulse-driven options: explaining that disruptive behaviour is not warranted in class or punishing him. Alternatively, you may want to call out Puneet and ask him to answer a question to make him feel remorse for not paying attention. By doing so, you will only be able to stop his behaviour for a short period of time and this may give him a chance to act out even more. Trying to embarrass Puneet may not even appear to ‘work’, and has the potential to make him confrontational and question your authority.

In that very instance, you must try to remain calm. Gently, suggest that the flow of classroom teaching and activities is not going to be affected by his behaviour. You may ask for the tiffin box with the grapes and let him know that he may access it as soon as the class is over. If he continues to stand up during class, first, try to ignore him. Else, ask him if he can move to another seat at the back of the class – so that fewer students are distracted by him. However, it is important to address the situation and handle it carefully.

It is important to understand why Puneet’s need for attention is so high that he is acting out in such ways. When he is scolded in front of others, he is getting exactly what he wants: attention. So, it is important to handle the situation in privacy. Students who cause disruption once or on a regular basis are equally in need of a one-to-one, supportive discussion. In this case, you can ask Puneet to step outside with you after a class or ask him to come to a lab or any other classroom, where you can ask him what makes him do what he does. Asking him to come to the staffroom may make the matter worse if other teachers see him with you and he feels persecuted. Several reasons like wanting to be included in peer groups, wanting to create a cool image or lack of attention at home can make children behave the way Puneet is behaving. When the child feels listened to, he often moves to healthy ways of seeking attention than the ways in which he is seeking attention now.

This column was co-written by Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri. Shivani is a public mental health communication practitioner and postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University. Spandana is a counselor, work-life coach and trainer with eight years’ experience, and who currently works with Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Hyderabad) along with other consulting work. This activity is conducted under a public engagement grant awarded to Shivani Mathur Gaiha by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.