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How to manage behaviors in the college classroom and promote student retention and success

Updated on June 29, 2015

In the past, college was often an experience that was reserved for the privileged or the gifted but the current trend promotes college for all. Never before in our history have so many students had access to higher education. With this new exciting development brings new opportunities as well as new challenges. Although many students are college-ready and eager to begin their academic careers there are a significant amount of students who are academically unprepared, have had unfavorable k-12 experiences, and are unaware of how to behave appropriately in the academic environment of the college classroom.

Faculty and administrators alike are shaking their heads with dismay at the undesirable, disrespectful and sometimes volatile student behaviors that are displayed in college classrooms.

Although college faculty often have expert knowledge in their content areas and possess advanced degrees they are rarely trained in how to prevent, reduce and respond to negative student behaviors. As a result, faculty are often unaware of preemptive classroom practices and instructor-student interactions that can promote respect and reduce negative student behaviors

Below are several approaches instructors can implement to lessen unfavorable behaviors and encourage a mutually respectful classroom climate that encourages cooperation and student success.


Relationships and Interactions

Josh McDowell’s statement, “Rules without relationships leads to rebellion” is right on spot to describe where the problem sometimes stems in the college classroom. Healthy instructor-student relationships and interactions are the cornerstone of vibrant, productive classroom environments that promote student success. Students are far more likely to attend class, respectfully cooperate, actively participate, and persist if they have healthy instructor-student relationships and a sense of safety, trust and belonging in the classroom.


Students who believe their instructors sincerely care about them and their progress are more likely to put forth effort in the class, show respect, persist and succeed academically. Instructors can show care for students by inquiring about their progress, responding to questions both in and out of class, providing timely feedback, demonstrating empathy for their struggles and advocating for their success.

Assume positive intent

Instructors should engage with students in a way that demonstrates they assume the positive intent of their students. It’s important students feel instructors believe they have good intentions, care about their classes and are serious about their education.

Instructors often mistakenly assume that some negative student behaviors are intentional, sometimes rationalizing that students don’t care about the instructor’s professorial status, class content or course assignments.

Instructors sometimes misinterpret behaviors as disrespectful and read them as a personal affront. For example, an instructor might conclude a student didn’t hand in an assignment because they didn’t care enough about the course when in reality the student might have a deep regard for the class but was unable to meet the deadline of the assignment because of unanticipated life events such as a their child being ill, an unexpected shift was required at work or other similar situations.

When instructors assume positive intent of their students it impacts how behaviors are perceived and increases the chance for productive instructor-student interactions.


Mutually respectful interactions

When instructors show students respect, students are more likely to reciprocate.

College students are adults, young adults, but nevertheless adults and should be treated and spoken to in the same respectful manner in which any other adult would be addressed. Disrespect can be conveyed in language, tone of voice, facial expressions or body language and can easily be detected by students, which is often disparagingly received.

Instructors who purposefully or unintentionally communicate with sarcasm, judgment, and shame or believe in hierarchal levels that position students at the bottom, sabotage the learning environment and the opportunity for mutual respect and engaged learning.

Skilled instructors are intentional about showing respect and are aware of the impact it has on student responses, the overall environment in the classroom as well as student persistence and achievement.


Instructors should not ignore or tolerate students’ negative behaviors; they should instead aim to anticipate and prevent them.

Instructors should consider aspects of the class that might prompt potential unwanted behaviors such as too much dead time, slow pace, technology failures, or a lack of class policies that address cell phone usage, attendance, arriving late and eating in class and other similar issues.

While it isn’t possible to anticipate and prevent every action that might prompt negative student behavior the goal should be to foresee and avert them before they begin.

Proximity to students

To encourage a sense of community and keep students on task, instructors should be in close proximity to students by moving around the classroom. Physical barriers, such as podiums and lecterns create a distance that disconnects instructors from the class and out of touch with the climate of the classroom. Additionally, it’s important for instructors to closely and actively participate with class activities and discussions so they are seen as an integral part of the classroom community.

The power of words

Respectful, judgment-free interactions with students reduce the chances for defensive responses and oppositional behaviors. Savvy instructors know that it’s not what they say, but how they say it that prompts a response of cooperative action or defensive opposition. To build rapport, elicit cooperation and reduce defensive responses instructors can implement the following actions with students:

  • Talk privately

When instructors need to address student behaviors they should talk to students privately instead of addressing the issue in class or in front of other students. Talking to students privately before or after class is an approach that will prompt mutual respect and produce positive instructor-student interaction.

  • Speak quietly

When addressing undesirable behaviors or deescalating situations, instructors should slightly lower the volume of their voices and speak in a normal, stable yet gentle tone. Speaking quietly often calms tense situations and puts students at ease. A raised pitch is an alert to heighten a response and intensify a reaction. Few things will escalate a problem quicker than a high pitched or raised voice.

  • Use I-statements

Its important instructors try to remove the word “you” when interacting with students. Using the word “you” can make routine comments seem judgmental and often puts students on the defensive, which frequently requires a self-justifying or self-protecting response.

When instructors use I-statements they own the experiences they are having with the students instead of making a personal judgment on the students’ behaviors. For example, an instructor might say, “I didn’t receive your assignment” instead of, “You didn’t hand in your assignment.” Although both sentences say the same thing removing the word “you” reduces the potential for students to feel defensive or argumentative.

  • Communicate during class

When it’s necessary for instructors to communicate with students during class about negative behaviors they should avoid calling students out publically. Instead, instructors can consider using a written note to address issues with an I-statement. While the instructor is teaching and moving around the classroom a sticky note that addresses the issue can be discretely placed on the student’s desk. For example, the note might read, “I’m concerned about your hearing and that the sound from the ear buds are distracting other students. Could the ear buds please be turned off until after class?” Students will recognize the instructor’s concern as well as their attempt to keep the communication private and will most likely repay the respect by turning the ear buds off.


Its important instructors remember that using approaches to prevent, reduce and respond to negative student behavior doesn’t mean instructors should ignore or tolerate the behaviors but utilize preemptive classroom practices that encourage a sense of belonging, cooperation and respect.


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    • Mary Belknap profile image

      Mary Belknap 

      3 years ago

      Your practical advice reminds me again of so many incidents I have dealt with in the past 40+ years in classroom management. A loving, caring approach always students want to know how much we care about THEM! So many youth have no one in their lives who care. Thank you for sharing your ideas.


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