What we can learn from lockdown about ‘disruptive students’

Fresh insights from seeing some students thrive in an on-line environment

Deputy Head of Middle School

When a student is disruptive to the point where the lesson can’t continue, it’s usually accepted that they should be removed from the classroom.  We know that to be removed from the classroom often means being removed from the teaching and learning.  This absence widens the gap, which can impact engagement and behaviour in future lessons and so the cycle continues.  It’s the “I want them in, but what about the others?” battle that leaves us conflicted.

A changed attitude

Too often, I have collected an ‘on-called’ student from a lesson and showed them to a seat outside my room where they stare blankly at a task that they have little understanding of and even less inclination to attempt. Their requests for help with the work are often met with the response that I am already very busy and that they chose to withdraw themselves from the support they are now asking for when they ignored their teachers’ reminders to correct their behaviour. 

The feeling of guilt I experience after this is what tends to prompt my next line of questioning, which has been described by students as one of my ‘lectures’. 

“Why have you ended up sitting outside of my room on your own, when everyone else is in the classroom learning?”

“How are you going to catch up on all of the important learning you’ve missed today?”

“Are those students currently inside the classroom more deserving of an education than you?”

Sometimes I’m met with shrugs, sometimes promises for future change and sometimes silence.

Greater engagement on-line

During this period of lockdown and online school, I noticed that I was hearing a number of anecdotal stories about students that are typically on the ‘on call’ list, engaging more with online lessons than they did in the physical classroom.  As I continued to hear this, I asked teachers in Years 6,7, 8 and 10 to purposefully observe the behaviour of some of these students and provide feedback. A few weeks in, this is what we noticed:

  1. The students that were often late to lessons in school were usually the first ones to arrive at hangouts, the last to leave and attendance was excellent.
  2. They were positively contributing in lessons although they tended to stick to their preferred method of communication, whether that be on the chat function or audibly.
  3. Students were seeking clarification on tasks set and asking teachers outside of the lesson for feedback and support (this was sometimes prompted or led by parents)

Why are they finding it easier to engage?

It’s difficult to know for certain what the causes are although here are some of the suggestions from teachers and support staff :

  • Students have fewer peer distractions and less peer feedback that rewards misbehaviour (e.g. stealing attention, getting laughs, etc.)
  • Students are aware that I can mute, or remove them from the call – although I pretty much never have to do that because they really get no benefit from that at all (as opposed to in school where there is sometimes a ‘kudos’ benefit, or a break from learning benefit, when they are removed from the classroom) 
  • Students with parents close by often feel less able to misbehave because they don’t want their parents to see their ‘in school persona’
  • It felt to us like the improvement in attitude and engagement was partly linked to the lack of influence from other strong characters in a room – online they are not having to entertain or live up to an image others have of them
  • Because the students’ mics are muted, the usual distractions in a lesson cannot interrupt others – the teacher or other students who are speaking. Students are unable to talk to each other so that’s not happening as an interruption. Things like tapping, eating, wearing a hat or hoodie are not an issue online, therefore can’t become flashpoints or distractions
  • The expectations are clear online as they are in school, but the consequences are instant. There is not the same opportunity for refusal from students
  • Parents are also extremely thankful for our support and have been maintaining closer contact with us
  • It’s made me realise how many of these students genuinely love school (even if they don’t always realise it)!

It would be useful to receive feedback from parents and the students themselves to offer further insight into what could be described as transformational.

Next steps

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that disruptive classroom behaviour results in a lot of lost learning time and these findings from lockdown have made me more confident that we can now do something more about it.

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