Dealing with Disruptive Students

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Our Founder & CEO Ross talks us through a recent lesson he took.

My student comes in for their lesson. We start off with technical exercises as we always do. I find consistent structure is the key. We watch a video of one of the songs that he’s working on – Fallin’ by Alicia Keys.

‘What did you like about that?’ I ask.

‘I dunno’ he shrugs.

‘What was the story about?’

‘I dunno.’

His shortness is a little tricky. So I move on.

‘What are you most excited to play me this week?’

This is a useful phrase I often use to deduce what my students have actually been working on. It feels less accusatory than asking my pupils how much practice they’ve done that week.

‘I’m mostly excited about moving onto a different song.’ he remarks pointedly.


So he’s totally gone off this song. That’s hard because we’re so close to finishing this piece! He’s nearly there. We continue working on a couple of sections, but my student keeps tapping away on the kit whilst I’m encouraging him to work on various bits of it. I’m getting steadily more wound up. Finally, I stay calm and say:

‘Well, if you’re not going to listen to what I’m trying to help you with, you may as well be working on this on your own. I’m going to go and get a drink. I’ll come back and see how you’ve got on in a couple of minutes.’

This is a tactic I try to employ when things get a little heated, or the lesson isn’t going anywhere. It’s often best for the child if you do, and as the responsible adult I’m here to make the best decisions for him. I get a drink and re-enter the practice room a few minutes later. Oddly, my pupil is far more engaged now that I’ve left and come back. He’s realised that his behaviour had been unacceptable, so I don’t even need to tell him off. That’s always a plus!

We then started talking about why he wasn’t willing to count out loud to get some of the rhythms right. When he does it, he always gets it right! But, for some reason, he refuses to do it. He claims to not know why he doesn’t want to count aloud. I’m going to give him two options – sometimes children genuinely can’t find their words or they can’t diagnose their feelings. He has to tell me which option he thinks is true:

‘Is it that you don’t believe me when I say that this is really going to make a difference, or is it that you just don’t like counting out loud?’

‘The last one. I just don’t like counting out loud.’

‘That’s fair enough. It’s not my favourite way of doing it either! But, if I’m going to be totally honest with you – sometimes we have to suck it up and do the things that we don’t like so that we can do the things that we do like!’

We have a laugh turning this into our own little mantra. He engages and we get on with finishing the song.

I know I’m not the perfect teacher. We’re all human and we all have good days and bad ones. But I’m chuffed that I got through to him and we were able to work effectively together without either of us escalating the situation.

I met a teacher who was once dealing with a group of nightmare students who were holding the door shut to prevent them from reentering the room. In trying to get back in, the door was rammed into children’s bare feet. Another teacher got so annoyed with a student playing their instrument whilst he was talking, that he got a cowbell out and hit it every time the student tried to say anything for the following five minutes. It’s safe to say we never want to get to that stage. We must remember that we can always leave. It’s often best for everyone. 

Here are some useful tips to help us through the tougher times:

In this Article

Give Yourself a Break

First off, it’s important to acknowledge that we are people with finite patience. Especially when working with children, we’re working with people that don’t necessarily understand that you’re a ‘normal’ person. In some ways, they take us entirely for granted. They expect us to be there – week in, week out. To be a consistent, reassuring and unchanging aspect of their schedule. Just how confident they are in you means that they’ll assume you’ll be feeling the same each week, no matter how they’re doing.

But of course, we have really bad days as teachers. Whether we’ve been up all night due to family, or balancing work has become extremely stressful, we’re not always going to feel the same. But because we’re capable and total pros, we’ll do our best each week regardless of external and emotional pressures. Sometimes it can get too much, and when it does – leave. You are always allowed to leave the room when you need some space. It’s better for you and the pupil.

Understand the Reason

Try to understand the reason for the behaviour. There’s always a reason for bad behaviour – generally the hard truth is that they’re not engaged or enjoying the lesson. It’s not always your fault though! It could be that they’re tired. They’re having a tough day. Hopefully you would’ve already been informed of any special needs or behavioural issues the child has. Perhaps they haven’t practised, or they’ve forgotten what you taught them last week and they’re frustrated with themselves. Often when students feel overwhelmed, they lose interest. The tasks and challenges ahead of them feel impossible. There’ll be pressures from all angles for the child to jump through the hoops set out for them, and sometimes that can get a little too much for them. 

Creative Engagement

We’re constantly told that our pupils need to progress to the next level within a certain timeframe, but this pressure can often have a detrimental effect. It’s good to remind ourselves that we do not always have to worry about progress. Sometimes, there seems to be so much pressure on both the teacher and the student that the child comes to the lesson scared or even resenting their tutor, making teachers feel as if they’ve failed them.

Tackle their engagement and take on the challenge of engaging students in alternative ways: You can get creative by bringing in worksheets, playing one of their favourite songs or watching Rock & Pop music videos. By sharing the enjoyment of music, you can both really connect. Expose and challenge the child with different genres of music, or bring in sheet music from a particular era! Sight read through a couple of bars of Funk & Soul and talk about harmony and style. By simplifying the amount you’re attempting to achieve in the lesson, you may be met with less resistance. You may also be surprised when the inspired student practises and the following week you’re both flying.

Lesson Structure

If your lessons have the same structure each week, the child knows how the lesson will be shaped. By making the first third of the lesson exercises and technical work, and then the other two thirds pieces, the student is likely to remain calmer because they already have a template for what’s expected of them. When introducing new material or a more advanced technique, try to only add one new element at a time – even though it could be challenging, it feels achievable. All too often the pupil will lose focus if they feel that too much is being expected of them and the work ahead is insurmountable.

Positive Language

As you and your student only see each other once a week, often the first part of the lesson is settling down, reconnecting and reminding each other where you are in your musical progress! Generally, the children prefer to focus on their instrument and get on with their work rather than be faced with questions about their week. So rather than asking ‘how was your week?’ or ‘how much practice did you do this week?’ – the most useful gauge is the non judgemental review of ‘what are you most excited about playing me this week?’ You can normally decipher what they’ve actually been working on from their answer! Simple language positivity can be actioned too, so instead of saying ‘please stop playing’ you can say ‘I’d like you to listen for a minute please.’

Speak to the Student

Depending on the age of the pupil, it’s a good idea to speak to the student themselves. You can let them know that behaviour like that isn’t acceptable. Try to speak to them as calmly as possible. If they’re ultimately frustrated at themselves, it might be a good idea to play a piece they love and are familiar with to restore confidence.

Ask the Parents

Keep parents in the loop from the earlier stages of any disruptive behaviour. Lots of teachers will wait until behaviour gets out of hand, but it’s best to tackle things early. This way, you don’t have to be too heavy handed with it! A short message explaining any difficulties via text or email means that you have any correspondence on written record. However, if you don’t see any improvement, you could ask the parents to talk to their child about their behaviour. You have no obligation to continue teaching the student if you don’t see an improvement. It’s worth remembering how you felt as a child if a teacher ever spoke to your parents about your behaviour – it’s likely to have a big impact.

A Change of Tutor

Sometimes, some students can benefit from a change of tutors, and if the disruptive behaviour continues then there’s no harm in suggesting it could be beneficial for both of you. Learners all respond differently to different methods, and even if you’re able to be adaptable, perhaps another tutor would be a better fit.

Ultimately, we’re all human. We all have bad days – students and teachers alike! Remember that during a lesson, you can always leave the room and take a break. Structure can serve as a framework for teachers as well as students. Give yourself permission to take the pressure off when it comes to progress, and to fall back on favourite pieces or music videos to reinspire. Remember that you can often speak to the child, but to always keep the parents in the loop. Practice Pal is here to support you – you’ve got this.


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