As educators, we’re charged with fostering a classroom environment that is conducive to learning; however, students’ maladaptive behaviors, known as classroom incivility, can impact learning. Student behaviors that impede learning range from not paying attention to threatening violence. Faculty can also contribute to toxic learning atmospheres through such behaviors as ignoring difficult classroom situations, showing favoritism, and making poor pedagogical choices. Thus, relational problems between educators and students often contribute to classroom incivilities. Group stage theory addresses relational issues by explaining how behaviors develop and change over time. Corey et al. (2018) proposed that groups go through forming, initial, transition, working, and final stages. Using these stages as a framework, we outline measures to prevent and mitigate maladaptive classroom behaviors.
The forming stage of development occurs before the class starts and involves construction of the syllabus, course assignments, and classroom policies Policies that discourage certain behaviors (e.g., use of social media in class), provide direction for student emergencies (e.g., car trouble), and govern academic matters (e.g., late examination requests) are recommended. Such policies place responsibility on the student, while also encouraging proactive behavior.
The initial stage of classroom development occurs during the first several class meetings and centers around the theme of getting to know each other. This is the time to set boundaries and academic standards that are based on the policies created during the forming stage. Additionally, the initial class meetings should focus on relationship building.
Instructors can prevent incivilities by engaging in friendly chats with students to personally connect with them before class. Although it may be challenging for large classes, simply learning students’ names shows a desire to form a friendly and professional relationship and discourages students from staying anonymous, a factor that increases the likelihood of incivility (Frey-Knepp, 2012). Activities during the initial stage, such as icebreakers, help students get acquainted with each other while introducing them to the course. A discussion about appropriate classroom behaviors sets the tone of the class. Activities where students develop “class guidelines” create classroom expectations. Students are less likely to break their own guidelines if they have a stake in creating them. Additionally, questioning methods transform students into active learners so asking open questions throughout the class meeting that are clear, specific, and balanced distributes conversation. Faculty should ask questions that students will likely answer such as questions based on past discussions. Asking follow-up questions creates a dynamic classroom environment and promotes higher-order thinking.
Conflict marks the shift into the transition stage. An increase in uncivil behavior may occur before or after exams and before major projects and takes the form of questioning grading methods, overanalyzing certain test items, or debating classroom policies. These incivilities may feel like a personal affront to faculty; therefore, educators should be mindful of how they react to these incivilities to avoid contributing to the tension. Expressing negative emotional reactions and behaviors can undermine trust and perceptions of fairness. Instructors should strive to communicate respect, listen empathically, and show concern for their students.
When confronted with incivilities in the transition stage, there are several direct strategies to employ. First, educators can use friendly reminders. For instance, if students use cell phones in class, a verbal reminder could reinforce the no cell use class policy. Students needing assistive technology should be exempt from these reminders. To address side conversations, looking toward those speaking acknowledges what is happening, and using an approach statement can also convey a willingness to do something to change it. For example, when perceiving that students are not following a lecture, an instructor might say, “I’m noticing several of you have stopped writing and look confused. What can I do that would make this material more understandable?”These pro-social behaviors model appropriate classroom behavior and build stronger working relationships with students.
Groups move to the working stage when they have navigated the conflictual storm of the transition stage. The working stage is the optimal period of classroom functioning. Incivilities are minimal when professors are sensitive to student anxiety during times of high stress, and students have learned to ask for clarification when confused about assignments or class procedures.
Situations such as an exam being interpreted as unfair may send the class back to an earlier stage of development. If the instructor avoids the conflict, the class may stay fixed in the transition stage, where meaningful instruction is lost. Issues related to disengagement via low energy and silence could surface. When energy is low, dyads or small groups can inject novelty and energy into how course information is imparted. Additionally, the use of “rounds” can be applied during this stage. When unusual silence occurs in the classroom, the educator might say, “I think each of you has something valuable to say. Let’s go around the room and have everyone comment on what you found meaningful about today’s readings.”
This stage occurs during the final class meetings and after the course ends. The focus during this stage is on meaning making and the transfer of learning for the student and self-evaluation for the instructor. Educators should construct activities that promote and evaluate student understanding. Examples include thoughtful process questions and reflective journaling. After course completion, the instructor must review policies related to attendance, tardiness, and late assignments. At that time, changes can be made to course material, instructional methods, and class policies that will accommodate future students’ needs.
Without a clear strategy, managing student incivility in the classroom can be a daunting task. Because classrooms are by nature relational, conceptualizing the progression of a course through group developmental stages provides a framework from which incivilities can be understood. Using this context, educators can anticipate, manage, and ultimately offset the impact of incivilities on learning.
Corey, M. S., Corey, G., & Corey, C. (2018). Groups: Process and practice (10th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Frey-Knepp, K. A. (2012). Understanding student and faculty incivility in higher education. The Journal of Effective Teaching, (12)1, 33–46. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1092106
James Cook, PhD, and Laura Harrawood, PhD, are core faculty in the clinical mental health counseling program at the University of Phoenix.
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