Recognising and Managing Difficult Student Behaviour

As a university staff member, it is likely that you will be confronted with students who engage in behaviours that are disruptive to your classes, or workplace. In addition to disruptive class behaviour, you may encounter students who display more threatening behaviours such as stalking, intimidation, and physical or verbal abuse. It is important that these disruptive or aggressive behaviours are understood and handled appropriately in order to preserve classroom and workplace civility.

This page provides some information regarding common causes of disruptive and aggressive behaviour, as well as some strategies for managing individuals displaying these behaviours.

Triggers for difficult behaviour

Physical and environmental causes

  • Medication, Drugs, Other Substances: Can affect behaviour if the substance is still in the student’s system. Extreme behaviours may be due to reacting or recovering from a substance. Student tolerance for others’ behaviour may also be reduced by ingested substances.
  • Illness: University students tend to be poor at taking care of their health. Feeling ill can elicit irritability, confusion, and inattention. Chronic illness, such as diabetes or chronic pain, as well as life threatening illnesses (such as cancer or AIDS), can increase irritability. Some illness can also result in sleep disruption.
  • Personality Disorders: Students with personality disorders tend to be more disruptive in their interpersonal relationships. Students with a personality disorder may often appear to be typical students; however over time it may be apparent that it is beyond your skill to manage their behaviour. At this point, it is advisable that you refer the student to professional help.
  • Fatigue: Some students may work multiple jobs or night shifts in addition to studying. This can cause fatigue which can often lead to irritability, loss of attention, and interpersonal insensitivity.

Emotional challenges

  • Loss: Students who have experienced major loss and grief may express anger, as well as guilt, depression, withdrawal, and denial. These students may feel a loss of control and are likely to try to regain control by any means possible.
  • Attention Seeking: Students who are feeling lonely or feel isolated may have learned to obtain attention through disruptive behaviours.
  • Redirected Aggression: Students may be upset over some event unrelated or peripherally related to the class. Small events in the class may trigger disproportionately large responses, making you a possible target for the expression of the student’s emotion. It is easier for the student to blame a problem on someone else than to take personal responsibility. You may encounter this when a student has performed poorly on assignments or exams.
  • Emotional Distress: Students may suffer from any variety of emotional distress or mental disorder. In general, these individuals may display unusual behaviour but are not purposefully disruptive. It is more likely that they are overlooked. If you feel that a student is displaying certain signs of emotional distress, you may consider referring the student to seek professional support.

How to respond to violent and aggressive behaviour

Dealing with a student who is being verbally aggressive and/or physically violent can be frightening. Always call for help (contact security on 9385 6666) if you or others are in imminent danger.

The following levels of response correspond to the degree of hostility present in the student. If you feel that a situation is becoming potentially more violent, consider higher levels of intervention.

1. Diffusing the Situation

  • Be aware of your feelings
  • Stay as calm as you can
  • Show empathy and concern
  • Avoid contradicting the student or insisting you’re right
  • Be direct, set limits, and don’t tolerate abuse

2. Get assistance

  • Tell the student “let me see if I can find someone who can help”
  • Talk about your concerns with your supervisor or with peers
  • Have a plan in place for times when you feel threatened and need others to assist

3. Get to a safe location

  • Call Security on 9385 6666 and state "Personal Threat", or get someone else to.
  • Retreat to locked office or other safe place while waiting

How to respond to disruptive behaviour

Disruptive behaviour can interrupt and interfere with the day-to-day functioning of the educational process. Disruptive students may often verbally intimidate others, or be excessively demanding of faculty or staff. They may repeatedly interrupt a class by making hostile remarks out of turn, and aggressively talk over the lecturer.

Helpful to:

  • Be consistent with your dealings with students
  • Calmly and firmly request that the student stops the disruptive behaviour
  • Ask the student to leave the classroom/lecture if behaviour continues
  • Ask to speak with the student privately about concerns they may have. You may want to ask a colleague to join you if you are uncomfortable with meeting the student alone
  • Use “I” statements to address the concern
  • Check that you understand the issue
  • Log/document the behaviour, including the name of student, date, and time of the incident

Not helpful to:

  • Assume that the student is acting out in malice. It may be the case that they are unaware of how disruptive their behaviour is
  • Engage in debate
  • Ignore the behaviour if it is occurring repeatedly
  • Jump to conclusions about why the student is being disruptive
  • Become aggressive
  • Take the student's behaviour personally