How To Handle Interrupting Students

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re chatting with a fellow teacher and out of the corner of your eye you notice one of your students rapidly approaching.

But instead of waiting for you to end your conversation, the student enters into your personal space and blurts out a question.

You’re likely taken aback by such behavior. Perhaps you get angry with the student or maybe even a little embarrassed in front of your colleague.

But here’s the thing.

If your students feel comfortable enough to interrupt you while you’re having an adult conversation, then chances are you’re being interrupted in your classroom as well.

Maybe your students leave their seats and approach you without permission. Maybe they call out in class without raising their hand. Maybe your lessons are too often a frustrating cycle of fits and starts.

Whatever the situation, interruptions are both a cause and a symptom of poor classroom management. And learning suffers greatly because of it.

Some teachers may tell you that interruptions and other similar impolite behaviors are societal or generational problems of which they can do little about.

Not true.

You can most definitely do something about it, and while you’re at it increase the learning in your classroom tenfold.

Here’s how:

Be specific.

It may sound strange, but it’s important to define for your students what interrupting is—because, believe it or not, more than a few won’t know. Give examples using the specific interrupting behaviors you’re seeing in your classroom.

Explain why.

Simply and directly explain why it’s wrong to interrupt, why it’s disruptive to learning, and why it isn’t allowed in your classroom. Knowing the why of your expectations will always result in better buy-in from students.

Role-play interrupting behaviors.

Sit in a student’s chair and play the part of an interrupting student. Choose a student volunteer to play you teaching a lesson. Run through a few scenarios, showing the absurdity of interrupting, calling out, and approaching the teacher without permission.

Note: If your students are laughing, then you know you’re doing it right.

Model what to do instead.

Now show your students the required alternatives to interrupting. Show them the ease of raising one’s hand, the politeness of waiting patiently for you, and how much more peaceful and conducive to learning it is without interruptions.

Reward those who do it right.

No, you’re not going to give out prizes to students who don’t interrupt. What you will do, however, is respond quickly to those who raise their hand and wait to be called on.

Note: This sends a clear message to students that raising your hand and waiting patiently is the fastest way to get noticed.

Don’t respond to those who interrupt.

If a student interrupts, calls out, or stands in front of you repeating your name, don’t respond. Because for every time you do you create an avalanche of more of the same behavior.

Enforce a consequence.

Instead of responding to interruptions, or even reminding students to raise their hand, look them in the eye and say, “You have a warning” or whatever consequence your classroom management plan calls for.

Interrupting Is Unfair

Interrupting is like cutting in line; it isn’t fair. Yet many teachers encourage such impolite and disruptive behavior by answering and responding to interruptions—which is the same as giving your stamp of approval.

This leaves the quiet, the shy, and the polite on the sidelines, while opening the floodgates to everyone else.

You often hear the complaint, “My students are so needy. They just crave my attention.”

No, they don’t.

What they crave and what they need is a way to ask a question or voice a concern without having to fight, scratch, or compete with their classmates.

So give them that way. Follow the guidelines above and give all your students equal access to you, and by extension, equal access to their education.

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17 Responses to How To Handle Interrupting Students

  1. Bryan May 29, 2011 at 10:42 am #

    Hey Michael,

    Thanks for the post. As a substitute teacher I always remind kids to raise their hand to speak. I like how you included how a teacher should explain why we raise our hands.

    Here’s a question: What does a teacher do when he/she needs to move on in a lesson b/c of time and there are still kids with their hands up?

    Thanks,

    Bryan

    • Michael Linsin May 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

      Hi Bryan,

      If your students have clarifying questions or questions regarding their understanding of your lesson, then you shouldn’t move on.

      Michael

  2. Bryan May 31, 2011 at 12:17 am #

    Thanks for responding to my question Michael. I like how you mentioned in your book to ask at the end of every lesson, “Are there any questions?”

    What if you were having a class discussion and many students had their hands up to share something (personal exp. related to discussion)? There are times when I had to move on and they were visibly upset that I didn’t get to them.

    Bryan

    • Michael Linsin May 31, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

      Hi Bryan,

      Giving every student an opportunity to have his or her questions answered is important. Sharing personal stories, however, isn’t. To keep your students sharp and your school day snappy and moving forward, you’ll rarely have time for it. If your students get upset by this, they’ll live. You can get to those students next time you end a lesson earlier than expected and have a few extra minutes.

      Michael

  3. marymichael June 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Students nowadays are very vocal. They are fond of interrupting teachers as if they are not embarrassed to do so. This article is very helpful to me in dealing with this kind of student.

  4. Michael Paul Goldenberg June 16, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    Ever seen teachers in conversation where a student has something urgent to ask/convey and no matter how polite, patient, etc., that student is, the teacher(s) will not make eye contact or acknowledge that the student is waiting and that what s/he has to say/ask might actually have some urgency? Ever hear a teacher yell at students for putting up their hands when the teacher is “clearly” busy (be it speaking to someone, teaching, or what-have-you?) I know I’ve seen it many times as an instructional coach.

    Courtesy is a two-way street, and students don’t have the market cornered on rudeness, thoughtlessness, or selfishness. When teachers don’t model the behaviors they expect, don’t practice what they preach, and aren’t at all sensitive to the legitimate intellectual needs of students, expecting the onus of manners to be entirely on kids is unreasonable and unfair.

  5. mc January 4, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    A suggestion I have for students wanting to share is to let them share with their partners. Oftentimes, you can let them do this first, and then randomly call on a few students to share their stories with the class. This way they all get a chance to talk, and the random selection makes it fair for everyone. It also has the added bonus of making participation and paying attention mandatory, since a student never knows when he or she might be called on to share with the entire class.

  6. Michelle September 23, 2014 at 9:12 am #

    My kids really ARE so needy (I teach in the gulf and most are being raised by nannies with little power to discipline and they crave attention like little sponges after the watery syrup of love). Still I do my best, but am struggling in this first few weeks with a difficult class. About once every two days half of the class is in detention, because for some kids there’s constant playing on chairs, calling out, rude noises, speaking loudly in Arabic inbetween transitions. Super rude. It’s like they kind of learn one day and then they feel like testing me again. I think (hope) it’s getting better, with most students anyways. I just make it clear again and again that it’s not acceptable, and that it will result in an undesirable consequence. (while also rewarding the kids who are being good and doing things promptly with thank yous) As a first year teacher and even a bit in second year I really struggled with not responding to kids who were calling out, though I knew I shouldn’t. I’m getting much better at that now, and this is just a good reminder of how I need to stick to my guns and make this happen. After all literacy centers with guided reading start next week and I CANNOT have kids interrupt that, not to mention it’s disruptive to everyone’s learning!

    • Michael Linsin September 23, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

      Hi Michelle,

      I think there are other areas we can help you in. If you get a chance, visit our archive. You’ll find hundreds of articles covering every classroom management topic imaginable.

      :)Michael

  7. Tammy February 7, 2015 at 8:56 am #

    Hi, I am a teacher in The Bahamas. I just discovered this blog and it couldn’t have been discovered at a better time! I have a question. When ignoring call-outs, should I give them a warning right away? Also, I tend to have my call outs after they have been ignored shout “but I said that!” Normally, I just say, “but you didn’t raise your hand” is there something else I should be doing?

    • Michael Linsin February 7, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

      Hi Tammy,

      Yes, you should give a warning immediately. As for your second question, I highly recommend you spend some time in our archive, beginning in the Rules & Consequences category and going from there.

      Michael

  8. Student helping Teacher May 3, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

    This was very helpful.

  9. Janelle August 25, 2016 at 10:55 pm #

    Hi I have a question. I work with 4th through 6th graders in an after school program .It’s my first week and my first time being g with older kids. I have no problem working with younger age children.My question is what kid of consequences should or are appropriate for their age? I usually say they will be with the younger kids for a day. But mostly take away their electronic time. What consequences for children that interrupt and do not listen while at meeting. Do you also give tips on how to get there attention? Since I don’t have a loud voice .

    • Michael Linsin August 26, 2016 at 7:52 am #

      Hi Janelle,

      All of your questions have been written about exclusively on this website. I recommend spending time in the archive, beginning in the Classroom Management Plan category and going from there.

      Michael

  10. Sara November 3, 2016 at 8:42 am #

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for this post!

    How to deal with students who monopolize the discussions? Properly, by raising hands, but still do. I have two students whose hands go up with every question, and without (they want to share their own examples). They are also the ones most eloquent and knowledgeable. So no one really wants to speak after them.
    I feel that this affects the class negatively. I am afraid that this can also be interpreted as favoritism on my side, if I let this go on. Yet, they don’t break any rules technically, and their answers are to the point. What should I do?

    • Michael Linsin November 3, 2016 at 11:26 am #

      Hi Sara,

      Your question is too big for the time and space I have here, but I’ll put it on the list of future topics. Stay tuned!

      Michael

      • Sara November 3, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

        Thank you! Will be looking forward to it.

        Best regards,
        Sara