There’s nothing worse than starting off a new semester as a GA/TA – a semester you had so much hope for, that seemed so promising – with a nasty classroom conflict. Sometimes these conflicts are large and public and intense, which can alter the classroom environment and the way an entire class interacts. Other times these conflicts are small and localized among a specific group, which doesn’t mean they can’t be distracting.

If you’re experiencing a conflict in your classroom right now, there are strategies you can use to stem the tide of disruptive or even dangerous behaviour. First and foremost, consult with your supervisor and keep them informed about what you’re observing in the classroom. Outside of that, here are a few tips for both preventing and solving classroom conflicts:

Role Playing

Whether you choose to use this strategy at the beginning of the semester or at whatever juncture conflicts and distractions become a problem in your class, role-playing is a popular way to address conflict in professional and educational settings, and it can be pretty fun, too. The purpose of these activities is to get students to recognize a conflict, develop empathy for those involved, identify the sources of conflict, etc. Role-playing can take many different shapes and forms, but Bonwell and Elison (1991) suggest that all role playing includes the following:

  • Background details and role sketches: Identify a type of conflict (hopefully one you have experienced or particularly want to avoid). Jot down all of the events that led to the conflict. Also, consider all of the participants. What were their interests? Positions? Backgrounds? Write each detail out clearly to provide your participants direction.
  • The goal of the role-play: Students will need to know what the purpose of the role-play is so that they can observe with purpose and relate what they observe.
  • A facilitator: That’s you! Your job in leading the role-play is to keep the participants on task (or in role) and to encourage the reflection process by pausing for and posing questions. You’ll also be summing up the important parts of the activity to draw attention to the issues you intended.

You can find examples of scenarios in the readings at the end of this blog post.

Build Classroom Rules Together

Unlike the fabled social contract we hear so much about, this activity is an opportunity to build (or rebuild) a positive learning environment by creating explicit rules of conduct. However, this exercise is often most effective when students themselves get to help shape the rules. As Duequesne Unviersity explains, the important thing to emphasize in building any such code of conduct is the relationship between acceptable conduct and successful learning.  Here’s one example of what those rules might look like from a classroom at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Use Comprehensive Problem-Solving Methods

Easier said than done, right? And what does “comprehensive problem-solving methods” even mean? Well, according to Steven A. Meyers (2003), that might include several steps:

  • Engage the student directly and discreetly, inviting him/her to speak in private after the class.
  • Identify the problem underlying the conflict, which involves clear observations from you (the instructor) and encourages the student to provide insight.
  • Work on a list of possible solutions together with the student. Once the list has been constructed, review these solutions together and evaluate them openly and honestly for a solution that works for both parties.

Rude Students

Remember our old friend the Carnegie Mellon “Solve a Teaching Problem” generator? That tool suggests that a student’s rudeness may be caused by one of the following:

  • Students and instructors have different expectations about classroom etiquette. (prior experiences, culture, disciplinary culture)
  • The anonymity of the class reduces civility.
  • Students are confused, bored, or frustrated with the course.
  • There is no penalty or consequence for rude behavior.
  • Students are intentionally challenging the instructor’s authority.
  • Individual students have emotional/psychological problems.

Naturally, each possible cause carries its own possible solutions. Learn more about each here.

Read more on these and other ideas about addressing classroom conflicts in the resources below.

References and Readings

10 Lessons for teaching conflict resolution skills. Retrieved from

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University, One Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Washington, DC 20036-1183. Retrieved from

Dealing with conflict in the classroom. Washington University. Retrieved from

Disruptive students. The Center for Teaching and Learning, Georgia Southern University.

Meyers, S. A. (2003). Strategies to prevent and reduce conflict in college classrooms. College Teaching, 51(3). Retrieved from
Preventing and curtailing troublesome student behaviours. Duquesne University. Retrieved from
Shindler, J. (2008). A win-win approach to conflict resolution and potential power struggles. Retrieved from

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