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Defusing Difficult Online Students

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All teachers encounter students who are difficult or disruptive. Online students are no exception. Dealing with a disruptive online student, however, can be challenging for educators.

Unlike brick-and-mortar classrooms, where teachers can assess the body language that indicates a student’s state of mind or demeanor, online teachers often have no warning that a student is angry or upset. They can be taken by surprise at a student’s behavior.

Online Disruptions

If you are new to the world online teaching, you may be wondering how a student can be difficult or disruptive in an online learning environment. This type of behavior often shows up in email communications.

For instance, a teacher may be reading emails from students, answering their questions, clarifying an assignment, or simply encouraging them. Then the teacher comes across a combative and disrespectful message from a student who is angry or upset. It can be shocking.

The anonymity provided by the computer screen can empower students to say things to question the validity of course content or a teacher’s knowledge or professional skills.

Many times, students speak to their online instructor as they would a peer. They challenge the teacher’s authority in a situation, making unreasonable or unacceptable demands regarding grades and assignments.


Keep Your Cool

Dealing with these students requires patience, skill, and a lot of self-control. It is important to respond in a calm and professional manner, avoiding the urge to send out a harsh reply reminding the student who’s the boss in your classroom.

Rather, the first thing to do is take a deep breath and let those reactive emotions go. Remember that once an email is sent, you can’t take it back. Parents or others involved in the student’s academics will likely read your reply; thus your response becomes public information.

In addition, these types of situations may initiate more formal action. All emails then become official documentation of the situation.

Create a Teachable Moment

As an online educator, I like to use situations with difficult students as a teachable moment, reaching out to the individual and modeling a more positive way to communicate.

Many difficult or disruptive students view the online teacher as nothing more than a tutor. Therefore, it is important to keep a formal tone in your emails. I never use, or allow my students to use, “text talk” in any communication. Doing so creates an informality that is not appropriate.  

Set Communication Expectations

A delay in communication oftentimes escalates the situation. As students become increasingly agitated, they send progressively angrier emails.

To defuse this type of situation, I set clear expectations at the beginning of a class regarding communication. I provide a timeline in which students can expect replies from me. I tell them that if I can’t respond immediately to an email, I will respond within a 24-hour period.

It is important for online teachers to reply to students, parents, colleagues, and clients in a timely manner.  Doing so establishes your presence in the class, and that alone can defuse a difficult situation.

Take a Closer Look

I try to determine the cause for a student’s behavior. Sometimes the belligerence is a smokescreen for insecurity or anxiety regarding an assignment or in taking an online course.

In dealing with these students, I look beyond the disrespectful email and respond to the real need without getting caught up in the drama. Many disruptive students just need encouragement and reassurance from their teacher.

Addy’s Attitude

Addy was an angry student. She came into one of my online health classes with an attitude. Addy hated school and teachers, and she let me know she’d never done well in her classes, so she was sure she wouldn’t do well in this one.

To respond to Addy, I simply followed my normal routine. I sent her a welcome email and let her know I would be there to help her throughout the course. I stated my expectations for her and let her know what she could expect from me.

At the end of the class, students received a survey to provide their opinions of the course and their experiences with their online teacher. Addy wrote this:

“I never did good in school until now. I hated it. But I knew Mrs. Tuttle cared about me because she gave me feedback on every assignment, even when I did good! She answered all my questions and was there for me.”

If you are a teacher, you know how much this feedback means coming from a student. Not all situations with difficult students will turn out this way, but when they do, it reminds us why we teach. Now, when I get a belligerent email, I think of Addy and take a moment to look a little deeper.

PTuttle_biohyllis Tuttle is a Health Teacher Facilitator for Lincoln Learning Solutions. She has more than 35 years of experience in education with a focus in Science and Health. Phyllis has 10 years of experience teaching online and writing science and health courses for online education.