Disruptive Students: Personality Styles and Recommended Responses

sleeping in class

In a perfect world, college students would always be eager, well disciplined, and respectful.

In the real world, some students come to class late, miss deadlines, or fall asleep during lectures. Others monopolize class time, make insulting or abusive comments, and even physically threaten or intimidate other students and professors.

In extreme incidents, there is even the occasional student who poses a dangerous risk to the entire community.

A supplement to the Coping with Seven Disruptive Personality Types in the Classroom whitepaper, this quick reference guide explains how to recognize typical styles of troublesome behavior and exactly what to do in response.

#1: Explosive Style


  • Characterized by volatility, shouting, profanity, bullying, making threats
  • Most suffer intermittently and are harmless
  • Others may get out of control repeatedly and pose a threat

Remember: Safety first

  • Ask student to quiet down, return to seat, leave
  • If student persists, dismiss class and contact security
  • Document incident and send to designated dean or judicial affairs office
  • Prior warning required by due process

Exceptions to free speech

  • Decibel level
  • Obscene or abusive language
  • Relevancy to topic
  • Time—no long, effusive monologues

#2: Antisocial Style


  • Characterized by cheating, stealing, forging documents, exploiting others
  • Also known as sociopathic style
  • Can also physically hurt or even kill others
  • Suffers from deficient or flawed conscience
  • Plays by a different set of rules
  • Has own set of amoral values and precepts
  • Low regard for law or codes of conduct
  • Perceives others’ good qualities as vulnerabilities to be exploited
  • Charm, wit, intelligence, charisma enable them to be engaging and seductive


  • Regarding cheating, honor codes can work well
  • Regarding plagiarism, define it in the syllabus
  • Make penalties proportionate and spell out rules each semester
  • Apply rules to all students in equal measure

#3: Passive-Aggressive Style


  • Appears at first to be passive and compliant
  • Later demonstrates strong elements of defiance and dissension

Form of defiance:

Chronic lateness

  • Probably form of resistance


  • Strict rules and adverse consequences usually improve attendance and punctuality
  • Keep records; mention in syllabus that a certain number of late arrivals counts as an absence, and a certain number of absences contributes to a lowered grade

Form of defiance:

Sleeping in class

  • Rude and unacceptable


  • Ask to discuss after class—rule out medical problems like diabetes or narcolepsy
  • Warn that they will be asked to leave immediately if caught sleeping again

 Form of defiance:


  • Usually unconscious and unintentional


  • Discussing may motivate some to overcome pattern
  • Mention campus counseling service as resource
  • Give periodic unscheduled quizzes
  • Compliment and show interest when students submit assignments and keep up with readings

#4: Narcissistic Style


  • Arrogant, self-centered, self-entitled, tendency to devalue or denigrate others


  • Remember that college hired you based on qualifications
  • Do not answer personal questions unless doing so provides a relevant and positive contribution
  • Self-entitled students do not respect boundaries; safeguard privacy by maintaining your own boundaries

#5: Paranoid Style


  • Suspicious, likely to level unfounded accusations and feel picked upon
  • Blames own limitations and failures on others
  • Emboldened when instructors are cowed into submission by their demands


  • If dissatisfied, they should find another instructor or immediately stop harassing you

#6: Litigious Style


  • Prepared to file a lawsuit at the drop of a hat


  • Follow due process procedures (issue warnings, verbally and in writing; cite Code of Student Conduct and possible consequences)
  • Allow them to contest allegations in a hearing

#7: Compulsive Style


  • Preoccupied with orderliness and perfectionism
  • Exerts emotional energy to control others
  • Constantly checks for instructors’ imperfections
  • Inflexible about rules and moral principles; can be critical and intolerant


  • Feel free to remain imperfect
  • Remind them you are a qualified instructor and expect to be treated with respect and dignity

This content is based on an Magna Online Seminar delivered by Dr. Gerald Amada, which was then turned into a whitepaper. Dr. Amada is the author of eleven books and more than 100 articles and book reviews on the subjects of mental health, psychotherapy, and disruptive college student issues.

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