Five tips for dealing with combative students in the online environment



Whether one teaches at the university, secondary, or elementary levels, all teachers encounter combative students. Mary Bart (2012) writes, “Even if you do everything right, there will be students who push your buttons.” However, many teachers struggle with how to handle disciplinary problems with these students. The following are methods that I find effective when dealing with a challenging student either in my online university classrooms or in email interactions with traditional, ground students:

1. “Never let them see you sweat” and “kill them with kindness.” Though clichéd, these words apply to handling combative students. When a student sends a rude message, never respond in kind, even though it may be tempting to do so. Take a breath, and then compose a professional response. (Note: If a student is combative to the point of threatening the instructor or others with physical harm or verbal abuse, be sure to report the student to the appropriate school authorities. Safety is of the utmost importance!)

2. “It’s not all about you.” Usually, students who respond to us negatively have underlying issues, and we are merely the unfortunate targets at that moment. In fact, Dobmeier and Moran (2008) assert that all people tend to “act-out negative emotions when they are experiencing stress and learners may act-out in learning activities because they are among the few places where they can act out without severe consequences” (p. 32). As humans, our initial reaction to criticism is to take it personally. However, if we allow ourselves to take a step back and view the situation from a broader perspective, we often can see students projecting their own issues onto us because we are an easier target than the real root of the problem.

3. Stick to school and instructor policies. For example, if the school has a late policy and a student wishes to challenge her grade based on it, one might respond in part with, “Unfortunately, university policy does not permit instructors to accept assignments more than 10 days late.” That takes the focus away from the instructor and makes the instructor seem less culpable. For instructor policies, refer the student to the syllabus. If the instructor requires students to sign a statement that they have read and understood the policies outlined in the syllabus, be sure to remind them of that fact when they are pleading for an extension.

4. If a student complains about the assignment within the actual assignment, address it, but do not stoop to the student’s level. For example, one of my students could not meet the word count requirement of the assignment and decided to rant about it in the paper. The following was my response:

This will not count toward your word count to fulfill the grade completion requirements. If an essay’s points are fully developed and include all elements (in-text citations and reference page, for example, which your essay lacks) and the essay happens to do so in under 750 words, most instructors will not be strict about the word count/will not deduct points. Your first draft should only contain content pertaining to your essay topic.

The above comment addresses the student’s concern while implicitly letting them know their comments were not appropriate.

5. Be kind, but firm. Whether one teaches online, face to face, or in a hybrid modality, it is important to convey a tone of kindness and firmness. We are there to teach students; that means we are not their friends, colleagues, or doormats, and we deserve to be treated with respect just as much as students do. Students tend to respect instructors who have clear expectations and are consistent in the enforcement of their policies.

The above tips are just that, tips. It is impossible to predict all possible scenarios an instructor might encounter in the classroom, which is both one of the positive aspects and challenges of teaching. It is my hope that these tips will help instructors, especially those who teach online, deal with disruptive students effectively.

Bart, M. (2012). Dealing with difficult students and other classroom disruptions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Dobmeier, R., & Moran, J. (2008) Dealing with disruptive behavior of adult learners. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 22 (2), 29-54.

Author Bio: Dr. Victoria Smith is an online instructor of English at Grand Canyon University.