Distractions are part and parcel of modern living, and so it is no surprise that our classrooms are also increasingly susceptible to sudden interruptions. How do you deal with the unpredictable? And how do you do it without losing your cool? Yasmeen Shahzad explores.

The class is on in full swing; students are enthusiastically taking part in a classroom discussion when suddenly the room rocks with a crash! All eyes look towards the culprit, who sheepishly says, “Oh sorry, my pencil box fell down!” And with the fall of the box, the tempo is gone.

Maybe this does not affect you and maybe you are one of those blessed creatures, who are able to restore the former enthusiasm to the classroom with the wave of a magic wand. Because as you look around, you reckon, that is just how life is these days, isn’t it?

A culture of distraction

Take just a moment and think about your life. Is there anything that you do in a quiet, smooth, uninterrupted manner? At home, whether you’re watching TV, cooking, having a meal or sleeping, the sanctity of an activity is usually not respected by others. People walk in and interrupt, the cell phone rings and you answer and it is quite the norm to find people responding to text messages, and checking Twitter and Facebook while writing reports on their computers. And if that wasn’t enough, they will get up to grab a snack before checking their phones again.

Let us look at the number of distractions in public spaces. People walk in late and disrupt plays and movies. They stand in front of you (blocking the view) deciding who will sit where. Friends, acquaintances, relatives and non-friends drop in at odd hours to disrupt family life. And these days ‘normal’ is two people having a conversation at a restaurant, who will stop midway, and respond to a text message or phone call. It’s a way of life and just the way things are done now.

So how and why do we expect that 25 + children in a room will sit with rapt attention and that not even one of them will feel the need to do something different from what everyone else is doing?

Did all of that just go down the drain?

Now let’s consider a scenario: there’s a science teacher who has studied hard for a lesson on photosynthesis over the weekend and wants to impart her knowledge to the students in the simplest and easiest way possible. The teacher has constructed an elaborate lesson plan for the class and is busy moving from the chart to the board and then addressing her students. Full of energy and eager to impart all her knowledge about photosynthesis she wants to make sure there is maximum comprehension among the students. She is seriously in the flow when …

Beep beep!

Someone’s cell phone goes off and threatens to break the flow of her lesson. With all her will power, she tries to ignore the beeping and continue with her lesson, but can she just let this disruption go? Especially in light of the fact that the Head has given strict instruction to the students that if they are found in possession of cell phones, the phone will be confiscated.

The science teacher, who had put a lot of hard work into preparing her lesson and woken up with such a zest to go to class, hears many voices in her head, the first of which is ‘My lesson plan!’ She thinks about the class that she will have to take to make up for this disruption. She thinks about the free period that she will lose.

And photosynthesis? Who cares about that now? And so the lesson is set aside, and the search for the disruptive and errant cell phone begins! The search is successful and is followed by the guilty party – amidst flowing tears – being marched to the Head’s office.

As teachers, you and I can come up with hundreds of scenarios that have caused distractions and disruption in our classes. To be fair we have to qualify that, because what counts as disruptive behaviour for one teacher may not be the same as what counts as disruptive for another. In any case, these statistics should interest a lot of you. According to a study of Microsoft employees, which was reported in the New York Times, it was found that it takes an average of 15 minutes to regain focus after an interruption. Considering that a lesson is about 40 minutes long, that is a lot of time.

Dividing your attention

So what is disruptive behaviour? It is the divided attention of an individual or group from the chosen object of attention (in this case that’s the lesson in progress) to the source of distraction. Some common disruptive behaviours are:

• Aggressive behaviours (bullying, hitting, damaging property)
• Defiant behaviours (going against the person in control, in this case, the teacher)
• Social disruptions (interrupting, talking with peers, peeping into desks, roaming about unnecessarily, passing notes to each other)
• Emotional disturbances (feeling unwell, frequent visits to the health room, throwing tantrums – these usually decrease with age)
I feel that teachers these days have a job description, which requires them to go beyond their teaching or facilitating skills. We are also required to have an inbuilt ability to adapt as per the needs of each student or situation. And so we are also required to be investigators, attentive listeners, counsellors and so on.

The root cause

Sometimes the reason for a certain type of behaviour is environmental. For instance, some children take time to adapt to new surroundings, so they may become disruptive because of the sudden transition from the home (familiar surrounding) to the school (unfamiliar surrounding). Some children may feel overwhelmed because they are meeting too many strangers and sometimes very young children act up simply because they are imitating their peers, who may be doing the same.

At other times, it is important to look at the psychological causes behind disruptive behaviour in the child. For example, there may be a genuine health or mental disorder that the child is dealing with. The child may also be dealing with problems in their home or they may simply be bored.

Individuals who opt to become teachers usually pride themselves on having huge reserves of patience. Some of us also take pride in the fact that we never lose our temper. However there are times when we come across students who drive us to our wit’s end. What should be done in such cases?

Staying on top of things

The first step in managing a classroom successfully is to chart out a list of classroom norms and rules at the very beginning of the term. It is advisable to involve the students in the making of this list of norms or rules, so that they own it and will therefore be more amenable to following it, since it is not something that has been arbitrarily imposed on them. Discuss with them the reason for each rule. And to keep these fresh in everyone’s mind, write them out on a chart and place the list in a visible place for instant reference.

Teachers should also develop the habit of questioning themselves when developing lesson plans. Try to put yourselves in the student’s shoes and imagine how he or she would feel sitting in a class while the plan is being implemented. Will he be excited and interested in the information you are giving and in the activities that will clarify the concept? Or will he be bored and distracted by a monotonous drone? On a personal note, I have tried and tested this ‘technique’ of questioning myself many times and inevitably find that I end up tweaking my lesson plan or even changing my strategy completely. I also find that I am automatically inclined towards incorporating active learning techniques into my lesson.

Sometimes changing student’s seats also helps in lessening distraction. This is especially true if two very chatty friends are sitting together. You may feel like a killjoy doing this, but you’ll be doing both the students and your class a favour.

Also try and make direct eye contact with the student who is being disruptive. This will help them settle down and make them realise that someone is watching them so they are on guard regarding their behaviour.

Staying silent and waiting for the buzz in the classroom (which inevitably follows any kind of distraction) to die down by itself is another technique to keep things under control in the classroom. This is a personal favourite of mine, mainly because it always works.

Apart from the distractions inside the classroom, there are noises from outside that can draw your or your student’s attention away. Schools are usually very happening places and at any point in time there may be other classes having their P.E. lesson outside or if the music room is close by, that can also divert everyone’s attention. The obvious thing to do, of course is to close the door or the window, however you should encourage your students to focus on their work and in effect learn to ‘tune out’ the noise. If you do the same, many students are likely to take a cue from that and tune out the noise also.

When dealing with a disruptive student, keep your reproach short and direct. If and when a student decides to display his latest act, reprimand him directly as soon as you notice that he is up to no good. Stick to the point and adopt a normal tone (so don’t scream, because that will just snowball the distraction). Simply say, ‘Please stop that and go back to your sums.’

Remember to take the time to appreciate good behaviour when you come across it. If a class has a lesson that goes by without a single incident, try to remember and admire them and be specific in your praise, such as, ‘Thank you for working so quietly today, despite the noise of the bulldozer outside.’

If you find that there is a particular student who is especially disruptive and persistently so, it may be time to have a chat with him or her to find out what the issue is.

The most important thing to do is to stay calm and in control in the face of distractions in the classroom, which are almost inevitable. No matter how disruptive the behaviour, no child deserves to be labelled or ignored. And if you find yourself at a loss, ask the management to help you out or even call in the parents to help you get to the root cause.



The writer, Yasmeen Shahzad is an IECE graduate (2010-2011) and teaches English to Classes 4 and 5 at the P.E.C.H.S. Girls’ School.

November 2012