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Responding to Disruptive or Threatening Behavior

How can you respond to disruptive or threatening behavior? 

The Office of the Dean of Students has created this resource guide to help instructors of all types identify disruptive and/or threatening behavior and suggest appropriate responses and additional resources available on campus to assist in these types of situations. 

General Tips

  1. Recognize your authority to address the situation
  2. Remain calm and respond in a calm manner
  3. Reiterate classroom and/or discussion ground rules
  4. Be consistent with addressing ground rules to all students regardless of viewpoint
  5. Address unknown or uninvited individuals or groups who come to the classroom
  6. Address inappropriate comments, attacks, or other disruptive behavior while it is occurring
  7. Recognize the difference between “difficult dialogue, passionate debate” and behavior intended to disrupt the classroom ground rules
  8. Ask disruptive individuals to leave the classroom
  9. Document the issue

Levels of Disruption

Involves non-threatening,
low-level disruptive behavior that can be
resolved informally with the student.

Behavior Includes

  • Arriving late or leaving class early in a manner that disrupts teaching.
  • Responding inappropriately to discussion or topics covered
  • Not following directions
  • Interruptions and/or speaking over the instructor or other students
  • Emotional stress around particular topics, behavior subsides when stressor removed or topic changed
  • Apparent mood shifts: Depressed, manic, inappropriate actions
  • Inappropriate debating and contentious arguments
  • Non-verbal signs of stress: agitated, tense, uncomfortable, clenching teeth or fists, arms crossed tightly across body, shaking of head etc.

Immediate Response

  • Address the behavior
  • Reiterate classroom group rules
  • Evaluate for disability or medical referral
  • Notice when differences in opinion become polarizing

Involves seriously disruptive behavior including behavior that continues or escalates after being addressed by the instructor. Student exhibits clear distress and while threats are made or present, the threat is not realistic or plausible. There is no reason to believe the threatener is likely to follow through with the threat, however, the conflict is escalating.

  • Continuation of disruptive behavior even after being addressed by the instructor
  • Refuses to comply with instructor’s directives
  • Responds in an inappropriate or disturbing manner (in person, email, phone call) post classroom incident
  • Shouting over instructor or other students • Bullying or intimidating behavior • Unusual, erratic or bizarre acting
  • May be destructive, harmful or threatening to others • Veiled threats
  • Exhibits lack of trust for authority, “us” versus “them” statements • Unable to regulate emotions, cognition, behavior
  • Poor self-care

  • Address the behavior with the disruptive student
  • Reiterate classroom ground rules
  • Evaluate for disability or medical referral
  • Take a short break to diffuse the situation
  • Request that the distruptive student leave the classroom

Involves behavior or language that is threatening and violent. The student is clearly disturbed and has a detached view of reality. The student is at risk for harming self or others.

  • Credible verbal or physical threats; specific and concrete
  • Performs acts of violence • Behavior prevents the class from continuing
  • Belligerent towards instructor’s directives; perceived as overly rude or intimidating
  • Unknown or uninvited (individual or group) and refuses to leave or interferes with the instructor’s ability to teach
  • Student follows-up with threatening or disturbing email or phone call
  • Psychotic breaks, hostile or aggressive
  • Suicidal or exhibits self-injurious behavior
  • Display of a weapon


Resources Icon Download a PDF of the brochure Responding to Disruptive or Threatening Behavior in the Classroom produced by the Office of the Dean of Students.