Strategies for Navigating Challenging Classroom Situations

Learn how to respond effectively to challenging situations in the classroom by preparing yourself with a range of responses to draw upon

Strategies for Navigating Challenging Classroom Situations
  • Getting Started
  • Planning
  • Classroom & Behavior Management

Strategies for Navigating Challenging Classroom Situations

To respond effectively to challenging situations in the classroom, prepare yourself with a range of responses to draw from. This resource offers potential responses to situations including when students are overly talkative or won’t pay attention; bullying; aggressive physical behavior; non-participation; and phone use during class.


If you’re struggling with a group of students who won’t stop talking, do some self-reflection. Are there places in your lesson where your directions could be clearer or your transitions tighter?


Have an activity in your back pocket that students can engage with individually (such as freewriting or drawing), should you need to pull a student aside to address a particular behavior or bullying. This will help keep the focus off of that student and allow you time to address the situation. Making sure the activity is related to the content of the lesson will allow for the student to seamlessly re-enter the group which can also help to mitigate further disruptions.


A creative learning environment is different from a regular academic class. Teaching Artists and other Classroom Professionals may have to adjust expectations for behavior when defining boundaries and consequences.

Remote Teaching and Learning Tip:

Transitioning online can change the dynamic of interaction and communication. If you are planning a remote residency or workshop, or your classroom has transitioned online, check out our GIVE resource for Remote Learning: Adaptations for Classroom and Behavior Management.

Navigating Common Behavior Challenges:

Below we offer suggestions to keep in your back pocket for navigating these common behavior challenges in the classroom. Each challenge has three suggestions, in order from:

  • MILD: A small intervention needed
  • MEDIUM: Student(s) need more support to get back on track
  • HOT: A significant shift is needed to maintain a healthy classroom environment

Keep in mind, what works for one class and one student might not work for another. These are suggestions; your response should be shaped by your knowledge of your students and classroom community.

If your students won’t stop talking…

  • Use a verbal cue or a non-verbal cue to get students back on track.
  • Increase your proximity. Stand near the students.
  • Make eye contact with the student(s).
  • Instead of talking over classroom chatter, talk very softly. This will lead the students to lean in and listen.
  • Make a general statement that you need everyone’s attention.
  • After the lesson, self-reflect to see if there was any downtime or room for students to be bored.

  • Use a verbal cue or a non-verbal cue to get students back on track.
  • Increase your proximity. Stand near the students.
  • Make eye contact with the student(s).
  • Instead of talking over classroom chatter, talk very softly. This will lead the students to lean in and listen.
  • Make a general statement that you need everyone’s attention.
  • After the lesson, self-reflect to see if there was any downtime or room for students to be bored.

  • Use a verbal cue or a non-verbal cue to get students back on track.
  • Increase your proximity. Stand near the students.
  • Make eye contact with the student(s).
  • Instead of talking over classroom chatter, talk very softly. This will lead the students to lean in and listen.
  • Make a general statement that you need everyone’s attention.
  • After the lesson, self-reflect to see if there was any downtime or room for students to be bored.

If you notice bullying in the classroom…

  • Remind the class of the classroom agreements in the moment.
  • Separate the students immediately.
  • Make mindful groupings and pairings based on what you know about the students.
  • Be consistent in your messaging about kindness and empathy.
  • Extend a silent pause.
  • Increase your proximity to the student who is behaving in an aggressive manner.

  • Review your classroom agreements at the start of each class. Discuss what happens when the group doesn’t follow these agreements, calling specific attention to agreements that deal with kindness and respect.
  • Talk to the Classroom Professionals after class if you notice something that looks like bullying. Learn more about the school policies on bullying. Discuss potential consequences with the Classroom Professionals if the behavior persists.
  • Discreetly pull the student or group of students who are being bullied aside, and ask them what’s happening.
  • Assign a co-teacher the role of watching for bullying during your lessons.

  • Alert the school staff (a classroom teacher, counselor, or assistant principal). If applicable, tell your organization.
  • Schedule time with the Classroom Professionals to learn more about behavior modification plans that may already be in place. Learn how you can support this plan in your own lessons.
  • Work with the teachers to impose consequences for persistent aggressive or unsafe behavior.
  • Assign a reflective task to the student whose behavior is making others feel unsafe.

TIP: Avoid calling attention to the bullying in front of the full class to ensure the student being bullied does not experience additional trauma.

If a student becomes aggressive or physical with you or another student…

  • Remain calm and proceed to MEDIUM. Aggressive physical behavior always requires an immediate, purposeful response.
  • After the moment passes:
    • Redirect everyone’s attention to a focused activity that you facilitate.
    • Establish a “Cool Down” Corner where a student may voluntarily go to if a situation arises or escalates.
    • Ask the student what happened and make a plan for the future.

  • Tell the student(s) to stop their behavior and create space. Something clear like “Keep space” or “I need personal space” is useful.
  • Ask the student(s) if they would like a moment to step away and cool down.
  • Do a group breathing exercise if the classroom community needs a moment to reset.
  • Document and share behaviors with the Classroom Professionals and follow up with your organization.

  • It is not your role or responsibility to physically restrain a student whose behavior is aggressive, or break up a fight. If you notice a student’s behavior becoming aggressive or violent, immediately alert the Classroom Professionals or a School Administrator. Be aware that they may be obligated to engage the school safety officers. Assist Classroom Professionals in moving other students to a safe space in the room or in the hallway.

TIP: Be prepared. Devote a few minutes in your initial planning meeting to ask Classroom Professionals if there are any significant behavior challenges you should be aware of with certain students. Discuss ways to support these students by avoiding potential triggers (situations, language, or certain classmates that may exacerbate feelings of anxiety, frustration, shame, etc). Ask Classroom Professionals if they have any de-escalation strategies already in place for students to feel supported in self-regulating.

If a student doesn’t want to participate…

  • Help the student find an authentic way to participate in the class: “Can you draw this? Write this? Turn this into a body shape or movement?” etc.
  • Give the student a responsibility that helps them feel valued and important. Potential roles could include handing out supplies, cuing the action, documenting, etc. Students can also play a variety of roles in planning, preparing for, and executing the culminating event, if applicable.
  • Focus on building a relationship with the student. Find out what they enjoy doing. If a student sees you taking an interest in them, they may choose to take an interest in what you are doing.

  • Talk to the student, and ask why they do not want to engage in the activity. This should be done as an aside and not in front of the full class.
  • If a student is sad, hungry, tired, or needs to participate in a way that might look different, you (with input from the Classroom Professionals) may simply want to accept and work with those needs and choices.
  • Ask the Classroom Professionals what strategies they find useful when engaging this student.
  • Use positive reinforcement.
  • Have a “Restart Area” for the student to prepare or regroup.

  • An intervention at this level may only be necessary if a student’s refusal to participate is deterring other students’ full and authentic participation. If this is the case, schedule a meeting with the Classroom Professionals to strategize on how best to handle the individual student. In the worst case scenario, a student may need to move to an alternative room or activity during the residency period. But the door  should always be open for that student to return to meaningful participation.
  • Institute a pre-planned intervention that has been discussed during the initial planning meeting, or subsequent meetings. The Classroom Professionals may need to intervene at this point.

If a student starts using a cell phone in the classroom…

  • When you first notice, announce a general reminder to have cell phones stored away. Kindly ask the student to put the phone away.
  • Most schools have a no cell phone policy. Ask the Classroom Professionals to reiterate the policy aloud. Reinforce that it also extends to your classroom.

  • Issue a warning that the student will be asked to turn their cell phone in to the Classroom Professionals.
  • If it becomes necessary to implement some sort of cell phone collection at the beginning of your session time, consider building it into the opening and closing rituals so that it feels more positive and purposeful.

  • Depending on the residency type, have a cell phone bin. Students will need to put their phones in the bin at the top of class.
  • Plan ahead with one of the Classroom Professionals that they will confiscate a cell phone if necessary.

TIP: Do not attempt to grab a cell phone from a student. Respect the student’s ability to make choices, and involve the Classroom Professionals as needed. Remember that you are a visitor in the space.

If your students aren’t paying attention…

  • Positive reinforcement.
  • Remove distractions: Wait to pass out materials or have students move into groups until you’ve finished explaining the directions. If the activity is multi-step and requires multiple materials, pre-plan to explain directions and hand supplies out in chunks (rather than all at once at the beginning).
  • Announce a general prompt to pay attention.
  • Have a silent pause while standing at attention.

  • Ask the student to repeat the directions for the activity. A prompt for this can be “Mic Check!”
  • Stop talking and wait until you have students’ attention.

  • Take a brain break. Even when you are pressed for time, it’s worth spending two minutes on one of these activities to help get everyone back on track.

TIP: Check out a variety of virtual brain breaks

If your students are having trouble getting along in small group work…

  • Pause to name what you’re seeing and remind students of community agreements.
  • Highlight positive observations.

  • Name that you’re noticing the group having a hard time and ask them, “What do you think is needed for this to work?” Help them implement the solutions they name.
  • Intervene and guide the group, providing a model for how to interact.

  • Ask for the Classroom Professionals’ support to rearrange groups

If you perceive self-harm or other high-risk situations requiring immediate attention…

  • Refer to the Classroom Professional most involved in the student’s learning, unless absent or non-responsive. They will manage all other referrals within the building including counselor, family, and/or administration.
  • When sharing the situation with the appropriate Classroom Professional, include fact-based, observable details of the incident in sequence and any interventions you tried that were effective or ineffective.
  • Determine the scale of your concern and report the situation by the end of the same day. Anything related to physical, emotional, or online safety, and anything that gets reported to families, however, should be reported immediately after the teaching period.
  • Speak verbally to the teacher first and then, follow your organizational protocol: tell your supervisor, and/or send an email with all details to date and confirm that you reported the situation.
  • Report your concern to Classroom Professionals or School Administrators no matter your perspective, expertise, or whether you agree with the school response. While schools do not always suitably ameliorate a situation in the best way, there are many mandated channels of training, protocol, context, and compliance for student welfare.

External Resources