The Age of Incivility
Countering disruptive behavior in the classroom
By Virginia Gonzalez and Estela Lopez

From the April 2001 AAHE Bulletin

Columbine. Santana. Granite Hills. School shootings are seen on the evening news with what seems to be increasing regularity. We don’t think it could happen on our campus, particularly on our college campus. But it can, and it has.

Just this year a student was arrested for planning a Columbine-style attack at DeAnza Community College in California, and at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a student drove his car into a group of students, killing four of them.

Campus violence is, thankfully, an anomaly, and faculty members are much more likely to face a rude, sleeping, chatting, or bored student than a violent one. Understanding how to deal with uncivil behavior in the classroom, and how to spot and diffuse potentially volatile situations, are skills every faculty member should have.

"A student raised his hand. When the professor called on him, he began to contradict what she had just said. As the student spoke, he became agitated and his voice got louder and louder. We all looked at the professor. She remained calm and tried to respond. Suddenly, the student got up and yelled, "I cannot remain in this class!’ For a moment we all feared some violent reaction, but he simply left."

— A graduate student in a master’s level course*

Addressing the Concerns
Northampton Community College, a public two-year college located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, started to address the issue of classroom incivility two years ago through a series of staff development workshops. Workshop facilitators Virginia Gonzalez and David Goss, both Northampton faculty members, solicited descriptions of students’ uncivil behavior from the faculty and workshop participants then analyzed and aggregated the results.

Six categories of student behavior emerged from the gathered information — disengaged, disinterested, disrespectful, disruptive, defiant, and disturbed. The participants determined that each type of behavior creates its own dilemmas, but all affect the total classroom experience for the instructor and other students.

For example, disengaged and disinterested students distract other students by reading newspapers or napping or performing personal grooming rituals. Disrespectful students engage in conversations with each other during class time to the extent that other students have problems hearing the instructor. Disruptive students enter class late or exit early — often interrupting the flow of lecture or discussion. Defiant students make unrealistic demands for accommodations and refuse to follow assignment requirements. Instructors may feel at wit’s end balancing how to please one student while remaining fair to the rest of the class. Disturbed students display behaviors that instill anxiety or fear for physical safety on the part of others.

Whose Problem Is It?
Campus officials need to recognize that the faculty and students are worried about uncivil behavior in the classroom. Faculty members have been left, for the most part, to their own solutions in addressing classroom incivility. It would be more effective — and reassuring to the faculty and students — if campuses put into place a more systematic or "whole campus" approach.

Addressing incivility from an administrative as well as from an instructional approach can prove more effective than leaving faculty members to figure it out on their own. For example, well- written student codes of conduct with clear guidelines can help a faculty member determine when incidents need to be reported to administration.

Providing faculty members with a list of offices and specific individuals to whom they can refer a student or receive support for problems is another way administration can join with faculty in resolving situations before they escalate. Ultimately, the best way to handle issues of uncivil classroom behavior is to have specific classroom policies and administrative/campus policies in place before incidents arise.

Instructional Issues and Strategies
The classroom is the front line when battling student incivility. And sometimes it may well feel like a front line.

"I can’t believe this class. The instructor has no control. All the students keep acting up and I don’t feel I am learning anything. It’s like elementary school. I wish she would take control."

— A sophomore in a community college science class

Classroom dynamics are a marriage of content requirements, instructional methods, the professor’s personality, and student group chemistry. When all elements are working in concert, there is positive synergy between teaching and learning. This interaction, however, is easily disrupted if one of the elements is missing, not adequately attended to, or threatened.

Uncivil behavior in the classroom can destabilize the teaching and learning process. Unacceptable behavior represented anywhere along the student behavior continuum, from disengaged to disturbed, focuses attention away from the instructional priority at hand and may begin a ripple effect and spread to other students. It is incumbent upon instructors to address incidents of uncivil behavior as quickly as possible. Students need to feel that they are able to learn free from annoying disruptions and, more importantly, that they are in a safe environment.

Three steps are available to instructors to help offset uncivil behavior in the classroom.

Create behavioral standards. Professors can no longer assume that there is a commonly understood set of behaviors that will be adopted within the classroom. Countless articles and news accounts recite the daily infractions of civility in American society. Therefore, it is naive to assume that a uniform set of standards will automatically prevail in a college classroom. In addition, on college campuses, instructors vary in what they consider to be acceptable. For example, some instructors allow students to enter class late, while others do not allow tardy entrances into the classroom. It becomes clear that behavior guidelines need to be made explicit. Clarity of classroom standards can be achieved through a discussion of instructor and student expectations on the first day of class, or by a list of rules within the syllabus.

Enforce consistent standards of behavior. Address any act of uncivil behavior as soon as it arises. When the incident involves a single student, a private discussion with the student outside the classroom is often the best course of action. If several students are involved, a classroom discussion to remind students of behavior norms may be more appropriate. If behavior patterns persist and seem either emotionally charged or antisocial in nature, a referral to the appropriate campus office or official may be the best solution.

Examine your teaching style. If certain types of student behaviors keep resurfacing in the same instructor’s classes, then it is important for that instructor to examine his or her instructional methodology and teaching style. It may be that something he or she is doing is inadvertently sparking or allowing for this reaction from students. Standards that are too strict may cause an increase in defiant behavior, while lax standards may incite disrespectful behaviors. Also, some instructional methodologies can be selected to mitigate uncivil behaviors. For example, classroom practices that create an active learning environment will increase student engagement and interest and thus should reduce disengagement and disinterest.

It’s also important for faculty members to discuss classroom behavior issues with their peers, and administrators should encourage the use of faculty development days or departmental meetings for this purpose. The topic also should be part of new faculty orientations and workshops.

Administration Issues and Strategies

"I am here because no one else has helped. It seems like nobody cares that I have been pushed around without any justification. All I want is to understand why everyone is saying no to me."

— An undergraduate at a comprehensive university in the Midwest

When a faculty member cannot resolve a disruptive student’s behavior at the classroom level, the student should be referred to the appropriate campus official. The person presenting the complaint, be it a student, a staff or a faculty member, will probably be frustrated and even angry because the situation has not been resolved. By the time the complaint hits the office of the dean or the vice president for academic affairs, the problem has usually become more complicated and has a greater potential for conflict because of the inability to solve it in the early stages.

Most colleges have policies that address different issues of incivility. For example, at Northeastern Illinois University, the "Student Conduct Code" includes a series of policies and procedures that deal with grade appeal, other appeals and grievances, as well as a classroom disruption policy. These documents are accessible to students and faculty and are distributed during orientations. In addition to these administrative procedures, the university has a counseling center, a campus safety office, an officer who oversees harassment cases, a lawyer who can provide counsel, and other resources. Everyone should become familiar with campus policies and resources, including knowledge of what services are available.

The following are some key questions for faculty and administrators:

  • Are there policies in place to address different types of disruptive behavior? If so, how is this information disseminated?
  • Does everyone know about the policies? Are they easily available and accessible?
  • Do campus officials have a plan in place to act quickly when faced with a serious situation?
  • Can the institution provide personal protection to a faculty member who has been threatened?

It is important that faculty members understand the position the administration will take and the strategies it will employ in cases that have escalated beyond the classroom. The typical administrative response to different kinds of uncivil behavior is usually the following:

  • First, the applicable policy should be observed and no time should be wasted in following the specified procedures.
  • Second, depending on the nature of the complaint, the administrator may also have to deal with emotional aspects. For example, a death threat may require giving emotional support to the person who received it, in addition to ensuring personal safety. Threats that imply bodily harm should never be underestimated.
  • Third, it is essential to communicate with all the involved parties, keeping them informed of every step taken to address the situation.
  • Finally, administrators and faculty members need to review policies and procedures to determine if adequate guidelines are in place to handle uncivil classroom behavior. The time to have mechanisms in place is before a crisis occurs. It is also important to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the guidelines.


"It is helpful to talk about these problems and hear what strategies other instructors use. You don’t feel like you are the only one."

— A junior faculty member at a community college

Talking about incivility and other forms of disruptive behavior is essential. It should not be a hidden campus secret. It must be acknowledged so everyone is prepared to deal with these kinds of behavior and situations in an effective manner. Campuses should be able to learn from such experiences in order to develop practical strategies to counter behavior. Being student-centered means creating clear expectations at every level and providing the necessary support so that the best communication, one that addresses different circumstances, even unpleasant ones, takes place.

*All quotes are from interviews conducted by the authors with students and faculty members affected by classroom incivility.

Virginia Gonzalez is a professor of counseling and coordinator of special programs at Northampton Community College. Contact her at

Estela Lopez is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern Illinois University. Contact her at

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