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Dealing with challenging situations

Dealing with challenging situations
We have previously discussed how you can set the tone with your students. Hopefully, you now have a general idea on how to establish norms and rules with your students, and they are clear about the etiquette you expect from them and how to balance out control with being friendly and accessible. Preventing problems from arising is much easier than managing a problem that occurs. However, you may have to deal with difficult situations. Of course, all teachers face challenges, but student assistants might find it difficult to have the authority that teachers have. Also, they often lack experience on how to deal with this.
For example, students who challenge your position, who do not go along with the task you were doing with the group, or who come to class unprepared all pose a challenge to the instructor. Dana, what challenges have you faced? Well, in my group, I have had to manage a student who didn’t see the point of the course and others who acted out when I left the room. I was able to deal with the situation professionally and to stop their behaviour by attending to their individual needs. Talking to these students after class, or in extreme cases, reminding them of their influence on the rest of the group’s learning experience often helped to keep the atmosphere in the group positive.
So one way to consider these challenging situations is to consider whether the problem is personal or interpersonal. You should handle a problem that involves one student differently than a problem that affects other students. A personal problem really only affects the one student. For example, a student misses the deadline for an assignment. This only affects him or her, not the others. You can address personal problems individually, and in general, outside of class. It might be a good idea to ask the student what is going on or to explicitly state that you noticed that his or her behaviour is not acceptable.
However, some personal problems might lay outside your circle of influence, and the best thing to do is to report them to the course coordinator, study advisor, or a counsellor at the university.
Personally, I will usually ignore a one-time occurrence. Someone for can forget to put their phone on silent, or something can cause them to come to class late one time. A personal situation can result in someone not being able to prepare for class once. A student will usually be aware of what they did wrong in one-off occurrences. That makes it fairly easy to deal with. When necessary, the student can make up for what they missed by showing by means of a written assignment that they learned what was covered in that session. Most course coordinators allow for that.
It’s only when a problem becomes interpersonal that you really need to take action to prevent the one student’s behaviour from affecting the entire group. An interpersonal problem could be two students whispering to each other during class. This distracts the instructor, but it distracts the other students as well. Not addressing this sends the other group members the message that it is OK to disrupt class. Repeat offences and situations that impact the entire group need to be addressed as quickly as possible. You want to nip something in the bud before it blossoms into something larger. How do you do this? Well, when you deciding what your response to a destructive behaviour should be, you need to think a little before you act.
Calling someone out in front of the group can easily backfire. It might stop the negative behaviour, but if will probably also negatively affect the classroom atmosphere, as it might embarrass the student, which will also affect other students negatively. In an upcoming video, I will discuss why it is important to foster a safe and inclusive learning environment and how to do it in more detail. And how do you manage when someone’s unprepared? Someone is clearly unprepared, I usually catch them in the break or at the end of class and talk to them. Depending on the circumstances, you can have the student complete a makeup assignment– as agreed with the course coordinator– or to ensure that they read the material.
When two students are talking during class, a good way to stop them is to ask them directly– for instance, by name– if they have questions about the material. If they do, great. You can answer their questions. If they do not, you can ask them to save the conversation for the break so that they do not prevent others from hearing what is being discussed. Another tactic is walking over to where the students are sitting whilst you keep talking. That will usually get them quiet. Or make use of your body language by simply looking at them. The thing to keep in mind is to stay professional.
An unprofessional response to classroom incivilities will negatively impact the group and will undermine your authority and not strengthen it. We’ve just discussed a few possible options for how to deal with different classroom challenges. Hopefully, you feel better equipped to manage situations that you might find challenging. In the next step, we will discuss some scenes with disruptive behaviour in class. Hopefully, you will not experience them yourself. But if you do, you’ll know what to do.

In this video, Stacey and Dana will discuss some challenging situations they have faced and will provide you with some guidelines on how to deal with them. They will make a distinction between personal and interpersonal problems.


  • Lucas, S.G., & Bernstein, D.A. (2014). Teaching psychology: A step-by-step guide (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Wilson, J.H., & Hackney, A.A. (2006). Problematic college students: preparing and repairing. In Buskist, W. and Davis, S.F. (eds.), Handbook of the teaching of psychology (pp.233-237). Oxford, England: Blackwell.
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