How To Handle Students Who Dominate Discussions

Smart Classroom Management: How To Handle Students Who Dominate DiscussionsDo you have two or three students with their hands up all the time . . .

While the rest of your class sits on theirs?

Not good.

Because it’s a clear sign that a majority of your students don’t feel safe enough to participate.

It also means that learning is suffering—right along with enjoyment of your class.

Now, it’s common to assume that those few outgoing students are the problem, that if only they weren’t so aggressive, then others would be willing to participate.

So, in response, many teachers will tamp down their enthusiasm.

They’ll pretend they don’t see their hands in the air. They’ll ignore them and call on students who aren’t volunteering.

They’ll even pull them aside and say, “Hey, maybe don’t raise your hand so much and give others a chance.”

But this is a misguided approach and a detriment to your classroom. Because those few students are doing nothing wrong.

In fact, they can serve as role models for the rest of the class.

So the problem isn’t a few extroverted students. It isn’t bored and disinterested students (although that can be a factor). It isn’t quiet and shy students.

It’s you.

No, I don’t mean that you’re at fault. It’s just that the ability to fix it and get everyone involved is within your control.

You see, class-wide participation is a function of how well you protect your students from interruption—and not just during discussions, but all the time.

If you’re struggling with classroom management to any degree, then it’s a foregone conclusion that you’re also struggling with holding healthy discussions that encourage everyone to have a say.

They go hand in hand.

Most students need to feel safe enough to share even their most off-the-wall ideas before they’ll test the waters of participation.

Others may give it a go the first few weeks of school, but as soon as they begin to feel uncomfortable, they’ll clam up.

The few with their hands up all the time are the rare breed who are immune to what others think or say about them.

They’re also filling a void. Meaning, if the rest of the class would participate more, they would participate less.

The upshot is that to improve participation class wide, you must first convince your students that they can voice their deepest thoughts and opinions without being interrupted.

It seems like a small thing, but interruptions make students feel belittled and their ideas insignificant.

But providing that sense of security doesn’t happen on its own. It also doesn’t happen through lectures, community circles, or heart-to-hearts with your class.

It happens naturally and predictably when you establish a set of rules that cover every potential interruption.

The rules we recommend here at Smart Classroom Management do just that. But they’re only worth the paper they’re printed on.

It’s your commitment to safeguarding the sanctity of learning, through your consistent adherence to your classroom management plan, that will have the most profound effect on participation.

It’s important to point out that this feeling of security is a prerequisite only—the critical first step. Once it’s in place, then your ability to teach compelling lessons steps to the forefront.

So many teachers have it backwards.

They focus their attention on making their lessons more interesting—often under the advisement of a well-meaning administrator—yet neglect the one thing that students need first and foremost:


Make your students feel safe to take chances, step out of their comfort zone, and contribute their innermost point of view.

And they will.

PS – I’m often asked how to deliver lessons that captivate students (and that don’t take forever to plan). I lay out my exact method in The Happy Teacher Habits.

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15 Responses to How To Handle Students Who Dominate Discussions

  1. Jessica Jones November 12, 2016 at 9:06 am #

    I have two questions and a comment.

    What do you do about a couple of negative kids who poison a class?

    What comments can you give about the humor in class? I find that when I was in California it was normal or welcome. In Texas, it isn’t the norm, so I don’t use it. The students don’t respect humor.

    Also, what effect do you think clothing has in gaining respect? I think it helps a little.

    • Michael Linsin November 13, 2016 at 11:36 am #

      Hi Jessica,

      When you get a chance, please read through the Difficult Student category of the archive. You’ll find your answer to your first question there. As for the second, I haven’t found that to be the case. I think kids are kids. Finally, to some degree, but there are several variables. I’ll be sure to cover this topic in the future.


  2. kala November 13, 2016 at 1:15 am #

    Dear Michael,

    Thanks for another great article.

    A question,

    What is your opinion about assigning classroom ‘student monitors’ who are like ‘teacher assistant. Some teachers ask them to watch over the class time to time.. like write down the names of students who are off task or chatting to loud or distracted etc.
    I have tried it but was not too happy about it as it started a barrage of complaints like ‘ Johnny wrote my name and I wasn’t off task, or Sally wrote my name when I did nothing etc.
    Thanks for your comments on this,


    • Michael Linsin November 13, 2016 at 11:37 am #

      Hi Kala,

      I don’t think it’s a good idea for many, many reasons.


  3. Luic November 13, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    Your solutions are so negative towards the teacher. Perhaps you intended to grab attention. But I did not like reading “It is the teachers fault”. In your next line you explain yourself. You state that the teacher has the ability to fix the problem. Well yes and no. We can create environments that encourage safety and positive participation to a certain degree. Some students do not choose to follow those rules. Some are immature and cannot seem to follow the rules and the tendency to blurt out is hard for them to control.

    • Michael Linsin November 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

      Hi Luic,

      I believe (know) that anyone, using our approach, can create the peaceful, well-behaved classroom they want. It is totally within your power, no matter where you work or who is on your roster. You are not at the mercy of your students. You’ll never read on this blog or hear me say that there isn’t a solution, that you have to accept misbehavior, disrespect, disruption, and stress. Students are 100% responsible for their behavior. But it’s within your power to fix it, change it, and be the leader they desperately need.


  4. MF November 13, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    Hi, thanks for your help. You tell us to make the environment safer. But I am trying everything I can yet still at a loss. What can we do, in terms of concrete solutions, to make this happen?


    • Michael Linsin November 13, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

      Hi MF,

      I’ll quote the article: “It (feeling of safety) happens naturally and predictably when you establish a set of rules that cover every potential interruption.” Please be sure to read just below the sentence as well.


  5. Kevin November 13, 2016 at 7:20 pm #

    Great topic. So important. During circles, those who comment or roll their eyes are holding down the comments of others. I am working on his through the respect angle. A few students can ruin the entire group. I am considering a way to remove those who do this without spoiling the flow. Very touchy. Once again, you have managed to be right on the mark.

  6. Hess November 14, 2016 at 9:17 am #

    I use a few techniques from Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion” for this situation as well.

    First one is called “Cold Calling”…basically you just prep the students that you are NOT looking for raised hands with any questions or comments for a particular discussion. You will be calling on students at random. This tells the eager kids that the hand raising is not going to get them recognized, and tells the ones that don’t want to raise their hands that they are going to need to have something to say.

    As mentioned, a feeling of safety is paramount. In the event that you have a student who gives a wrong answer, Lemov suggest a strategy called “Right is Right” where you guide the student to the correct answer…this provides a teaching moment for the whole class where you see where the misunderstanding was, and also preserves the student’s sense of safety because it ultimately ends with the student producing the right answer, and also correcting any similar misunderstandings among the class so, in effect, their answer “helps” the whole class. Teachers are doing their class a disservice by only telling a student they are wrong and looking for another hand to answer.

    The other common teacher pitfall is wait-time from the teacher after asking a question. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the lesson, we’re looking for quick answers so we can keep moving. But building a purposeful 5-10 second pause after asking a question will allow students to arrive at the answer, and just need more time. Otherwise, you are teaching students that only the fastest thinkers get recognized, and that invites others to become passive observers in the classroom instead of active participants. This takes some purposeful practice on the teacher’s part, it’s an easy habit to let slip.

  7. Sara November 14, 2016 at 8:33 pm #

    Thank you for this article, Michael. But when my “talkers” are absent (sick or other reasons), the rest of my class participates like a dream. Well thought inputs, original viewpoints. However, when the talkers are in, the others won’t bother. I also sense that the rest are irritated by the talkers: eye rolls, sighs. So, is this a problem other than safety? And is it within my abilities as a teacher to deal with it?

    These are non-native speakers of English, and the talkers are by far the most eloquent in English, and fastest thinkers. Yet, others, as I said, would participate amazingly when the talkers are absent.They won’t raise hands after the talkers though. What do I do?

  8. Sara November 14, 2016 at 9:00 pm #

    As a second thought, Michael, I think that my case above IS a safety issue after all. I recall that when my other students say something, my talkers can disagree and correct them. Without interrupting and while raising their hands. The talker’s corrections are correct. Yet, I can see how belittling it can be to other students to be corrected by a student. I try to tie the ends in such circumstances and say something like “Earlier scientists debated this along the lines that you mentioned too”, trying to validate both sides. Yet, I am afraid the ones with weaker English do not want to risk potential impromptu debates with the talkers. Can I do something to fix the situation?

  9. Heidi November 21, 2016 at 11:31 pm #

    A strategy I have used in my high school math classroom is drawing names. First I tell my class they have a certain amount of time (usually about one minute) to try the problem on their own. Then I draw a name for who works it out on the board. (Either they write or they tell what to write.) I never belittle the student for a lack of knowledge, but neither do I allow them to get by with “I don’t know,” as an answer. If they are confused, I break it down into the smallest piece that they do understand and walk them through the problem as needed. No other student is allowed to answer for them. I have learned a lot about student, common pitfalls and have been able to diagnose common areas of confusion using this strategy.

  10. Retno November 30, 2016 at 4:05 am #

    I have a question, how to make “silent students” become the active ones. I have tried to motivate them by giving additional points for those who are active….but they don’t change. They like to stay in their silentness…

    • Michael Linsin November 30, 2016 at 9:27 am #

      Hi Retno,

      I wish I could give you a few pointers in this forum, but the topic is too big for the time I have to respond to comments. However, I wrote an entire chapter about shy students and how to get them to participate in Dream Class.