How Do I Navigate Hot Moments in the Classroom?

How Do I Navigate Hot Moments in the Classroom?

A group of people discussing at a table.

Class discussions can get tense for a variety of reasons: the topic is sensitive or controversial and triggers strong emotions; personal experiences related to the topic differ widely; people may experience an actual or perceived threat to self; or different ways of communicating lead to miscommunication or even a breakdown in communication. When this happens students and instructors may react in non-helpful or even harmful ways, such as ignoring the situation, shutting down, interrupting, acting defensively or angry, using sarcastic or belittling comments, or adopting an aggressive or highly argumentative stance.  Here are some strategies that may help you and your students work through conflict and tension by moving from reacting from a gut-level to responding purposefully.

In general, make sure you: Recognize. Attend. Care. Empathize. It is critical that you recognize when tensions arise. Pay attention to classroom dynamics as well as verbal and non-verbal communication signals. If a moment gets hot, attend to it at once before it gets out of hand. Demonstrate caring, compassion, and empathy. Your students will look to you to see how you handle the situation, so it is important that you model conflict resolution skills.

Manage Yourself

You cannot effectively attend tense situations if you feel anxious, threatened, angry, or simply frozen.

  • Ground yourself. Take a few deep breaths. Touch something and focus on the feel. Count to 10.
  • Use self-talk. If you doubt your own ability to manage the situation, remind yourself, “I can handle this…” or “I’ve negotiated tough situations before.” Reframe how you interpret students’ behaviors so that you feel more compassionate. For example, say to yourself, “Maybe they don’t know how what they just said impacted others. I wonder what I can do to help them work through this conflict.”
  • Hit the pause button to buy yourself some time. Engage your students in a silent writing activity, asking them to reflect on what is happening and what they wish would happen to resolve the situation.

Help Students Process the Situation

Take the time to model conflict resolution.

  • Mindful breathing is an immensely helpful grounding practice. Invite everyone to take a few deep calming breaths, saying silently “breathe” on the breath in and “relax” on the breath out.
  • Listen for and acknowledge feelings. Name what you are observing: “I notice some folks appear to be upset with what has just been said. Let us remember to…” If you feel it is safe for you to do so, consider disclosing your own emotions and ask if others are feeling the same way.
  • Encourage reflection. Ask students to take a minute to reflect on the kind of conversation that is taking place, how they are feeling, and what they wish would happen to improve the situation. If you have set up participation agreements, ask students to reflect on those and name what they themselves and the class need to work on.
  • Relate in and make a connection. Let students know that you understand how hearing an unfamiliar perspective that conflicts with your own may be difficult and cause a range of emotions. If you can, share a personal story of how your perspective was changed as you learned more about a difficult topic.
  • Assume good intentions and share the impact. Focus on what the other person actually did or said and what the impact was on you: “I was surprised when you said/did [this]. I felt… Can you tell me more about what you mean?”
  • Model using a communication framework, such as LARA which is a dialogue method for moving through conflict. It asks people to use a process of Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Ask. Teach students to paraphrase what they heard someone say before asking a question or adding their own thoughts. You could also ask for volunteers to summarize what they have heard so far before continuing the discussion.
  • Use the conflict as a learning opportunity. Remind students of how the discussion contributes to their learning goals. For example, you might reinforce that communicating across multiple perspectives is a key goal of the course.  Or, you might emphasize that the class may have to work on active listening skills.
  • Ask students to be specific. Point out when a student seems to be asking a rhetorical question, saying: “That seems like a rhetorical question. Is there a question you’re genuinely curious about that I could answer?” Guide students to move beyond generalizations, asking them: “Can you share a specific personal experience related to what we are talking about?” or “Can you put some bones on that idea for us?” Move students beyond assumptions, saying: “It sounds like you assume…. That is a broad assumption. What in your personal experience makes you think that?”

Follow-Up

Students leave with the experience of what just happened in the classroom; so, it is important to provide opportunities that allow them to work through a difficult conversation outside of class and on their own time.

Assign journal writing. Reflection is an integral part of the learning cycle. End the class by asking students to reflect on the discussion by writing a quick exit ticket or asking students to do a writing assignment (journal, discussion forum) as homework. Read about how How College of Nursing professor Hyeyoung Park uses exit tickets to check in with students and foster learning for more ideas.

Check-in with the class. Email the class and encourage students to reach out to have an individual follow-up chat with you. If you noticed that certain students were particularly upset or if you had students who were disruptive, reach out to them individually and ask them to meet up with you so that you can figure out together how best to move forward.

Write your own reflection about the class session. What went well? What was most difficult? How could you have responded better? How would you respond if a comparable situation happened again?

In rare cases you may want to report the incident. If you believe the incident is a violation of the Code of Student Conduct you are encouraged to submit a Student Conduct Referral to the Student Conduct and Community Standards Office. You could also use the Climate Incident Report  for reporting climate incidents that have negatively impacted you and the community, and/or are contrary to the University of Massachusetts values and codes of conduct.

Image created by Christina Morillo for Pexels.

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