How to Deal With a Student Who Wants to Derail Your Lesson

Dear Kid Whisperer,

Any thoughts on what do to with the student who is an ‘A’ student but likes to ask questions to derail your whole lesson? I have tried one-on-one conversation, parent phone call, limiting his questions per class as well as changing his seat, emphasizing positive behaviors, and using consequences. What am I missing? -Elizabeth, Hoboken, New Jersey


I have been there as a teacher and I was that student. I actually remember my friends asking me to get the teacher off-track so they would take a break.

The reason this savvy kid is still intentionally being a jerk is that he has found a loophole: he can mask his intentional disruption of the class as authentic inquiry into the subject matter, however thinly veiled this might be. For anyone out there thinking, “Aww, he’s just asking questions so he can learn, everyone can learn, but not in the same way and blah, blah blah…” I say that you, Elizabeth, know when he’s jerking you around, so you, Elizabeth, get to decide when this nonsense needs to stop.

This smart, savvy kid is weighing the amount of attention (from peers, parents, and you) and work avoidance he gets versus the amount of suffering that occurs when he derails the class. Parent calls home and long conversations will also make the behavior worse because they increase the level of attention.

Once you minimize the attention, neutralize the work avoidance, and maximize the suffering, he will get… wait for it… WORSE!

That’s right, his behavior will get worse because being a little jerk has worked for him for a long time: he’s not just going to stop. He will do what has worked (being awful) for most of his life, so he will try just being a jerk more and with more enthusiasm. You will just have to stick to your guns and keep using consequences delivered with calm empathy.

What you are doing now is too time consuming and complicated. You are a teacher: your life is complicated enough. First, here is one simple intervention:

When he asks a question that you know to be attention-seeking or “class-stopping” instead of information-seeking, simply say, ONCE, “I only answer information-seeking questions.” After that, for the rest of the year, when the kid (or anyone else) asks these kinds of questions, simply ask the following question: “What kind of questions do I answer?” And immediately move on. Don’t even look at him as soon as you know that the question is not information-seeking.

At first, this intervention probably won’t stop the negative behavior, so you will have to use consequences that will allow him to solve the problem that he caused. Here is how I would make it so derailing the class is no longer worth his while. Notice I deal with the problem later during non-instructional time, with no kids in the room.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, boy. It really stresses me out when you purposely try to stop our lessons.

Kid: I was only trying to ask a legitimate question regarding the lesson at hand.

Kid Whisperer fights the urge to explain that World War II was in no way impacted by the use of weaponized flatulence.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, boy. I’m simply going to ask that you de-stress me by doing something for me. I have been stressed about having to clean the front and back covers of all of the books in the classroom library and deep cleaning the shelves. So instead of me doing it, you will. You can go back to having this time for yourself as soon as you have de-stressed me. Thanks.

Kid: But I don’t want to.

Kid Whisperer: I know, and I appreciate you doing it anyway.

When a behavior causes the kid to suffer instead of getting what he wants, he will stop… right after getting worse!