The subtle art of instructional judo
Examining the motivation behind disruptive students, and addressing their needs in the EMS classroom
Have you had a student who challenged your instructional authority? Have you experienced a student who is wrong but insists they are correct? Ever wonder how you can manage that student who constantly disrupts class conversation?
Whether in a classroom or skill lab, these types of student behaviors frequently disrupt the flow and delivery of education. Let’s examine what motivates students to exhibit these disruptive behaviors, as well as simple strategies to manage as well as minimize these disruptive student behaviors.
Redefining the difficult student
Students who exhibit disruptive behaviors tend to come off as being high maintenance and needy. When a student exhibits disruptive behavior, it is easy to immediately throw them into the category of being a “difficult” student.
Rather than thinking of that student as difficult, redefine them as a “needing” student rather than a “needy” student. In most cases, students tend to become disruptive when their perceived needs are not being met by you, the instructor. By making this effort to redefine “needy” into “needing,” you can more objectively address the student’s needs rather than the behavior that is disrupting the education delivery.
The value of “stopping”
One of the problems with disruptive students is their behavior eats up valuable instructional time. When a student is exhibiting disruptive behavior, instructors frequently attempt to re-direct their behavior into the topic that is being taught. If this is your first-line strategy, then you know it is not always effective.
A more effective strategy is to literally stop instruction once a student exhibits disruptive behavior. This provides the instructor an opportunity to clarify and validate the student’s need before implementing the appropriate strategy.
The correct know-it-all
Any instructor who has spent time in the classroom or skill lab has encountered a know-it-all. This individual openly and/or indirectly subverts the instructor’s authority throughout the educational lesson. As mentioned in the previous section, it is important to consider this student’s need behind acting out as a know-it-all.
In their own mind, the know-it-all believes they are as smart, if not smarter than the other students in the class, which sometimes includes the instructor as well. If the instructor fails to acknowledge their perception of his or herself, the student will continue to exhibit know-it-all behavior. If the know-it-all’s interjection is fundamentally correct, stop the instruction. This strategic pause will allow the instructor to openly praise how valuable the know-it-all’s interjection is to the entire class. By doing this, the instructor is acknowledging how wonderful the know-it-all already believes his or herself to be.
When the instructor openly acknowledges the wonderfulness of the know-it-all, they will no longer feel the need to behave in a know-it-all manner. As a side note, it is important the instructor does not come off as sarcastic and/or condescending. This may potentially offend the student resulting in a confrontation.
The incorrect know-it-all
The need for an incorrect-know-it-all is the same as a correct-know-it-all. In this situation, the know-it-all interjects information that is incorrect. Unfortunately, a responsible instructor cannot acknowledge the value of a comment that is incorrect. Once the student exhibits the incorrect-know-it-all behavior, stop the instruction. This provides the instructor an opportunity to clarify if the student truly interjected an incorrect concept.
If the student verifies that his/her incorrect comment was stated as they intended, do not attempt to correct their wrong perspective. Typically, any attempt to openly correct this student will result in pushback with escalating conflict. An effective strategy in this situation is to turn the incorrect-know-it-all’s need into their weakness. This is achieved by simply asking the students within the classroom or skill lab group if they believe the incorrect information makes sense. By doing this, the instructor solicits the peer group to interject on the know-it-all’s incorrect perspective.
At this point, the incorrect-know-it-all will typically back off and wait for a better opportunity to display their wonderfulness. When this happens, and the know-it-all’s interjection is fundamentally correct, the instructor needs to stop, and openly praise how valuable the know-it-all’s interjection is to the entire class. Again, by doing this, the instructor is acknowledging how wonderful the know-it-all already believes his or herself to be.
The enthusiastic distractor
The enthusiastic distractor brings a unique challenge to the classroom or skill lab. These individuals tend to be academically stronger than other people within the student audience. Their perceived need revolves around the desire to ensure concepts are correctly seated within their brain. Therefore, they tend to continually ask questions, because they are constantly searching for self-validation.
When a student exhibits enthusiastic distractor behavior, stop the instruction. This provides the instructor an opportunity to narrow down the specific need behind the enthusiastic distractor’s question. Once the need is verified, the instructor should deliberately validate the student’s logic as being correct and well seated. By doing this, the student receives validation from a content authority. The intent is to elevate the enthusiastic distractor’s confidence within their self-validation process. Be patient; this may take several passes before the student becomes internally comfortable and eases away from exhibiting enthusiastic distractor behavior.
Lessons for the EMS instructor
Dealing with disruptive student behavior can be a challenge for the classroom or skill lab instructor. At first, implementing the strategies illustrated within this article can feel awkward and non-intuitive. In a sense, it requires the instructor to step outside of themselves by checking their ego at the proverbial instructional door. With practice, it will become more natural to acknowledge your students’ needs rather than reacting to their disruptive behavior. By doing so, you will reap the benefit of minimizing these behaviors before they can disrupt the education you are facilitating.
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This article was originally posted Mar. 11, 2020. It has been updated.
- Deering, C., Shaw, S., (1997). Dealing with Difficult Students in the Classroom. Nurse Educator. Volume 21, Issue 5; p19-23.
- Kuhlenschmidt, S., (1999). Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Behavior. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 77; p45-57.
- Shalaway, L., (2005). Learning to Teach…Not Just for Beginners: The Essential Guide for All Teachers. Scholastic.