Bad Behaviour in the ESL Class

You ever had that student?

That one student that just wants to make your life a living hell for the next forty minutes?

I have had many. The class clown to the little princess to that weird kid who doesn’t say a word to anyone at all. They come in all shapes and sizes.

More often than you can easily deal with bad behaviour by judicious use of some well-worn tactics. Other times you might need to raise the stakes a little. But you can approach it in ways that do not harm anyone and can restore order in the class.

The main problem for ESL teachers is the language and cultural barriers — which some students seem to revel in using against you.

Let me show you how to deal with these issues from the minor to the major and how you can avoid them as an ESL teacher.

Let’s take a look.


Common Types of Bad Behaviour


These are the most common types of bad behaviour in class:

  • Making stupid jokes
  • Making an unnecessary noise
  • Being rude
  • Laughing inappropriately
  • Not sitting upright
  • Sulky or sullen behaviour
  • Staring out the window
  • Drawing or doodling on their notebook
  • Using their own language when they should speak English

Of course, there can be more extreme bad behaviour:

  • Fighting
  • Throwing things in the class
  • Bullying
  • Pushing other students
  • Eating in class
  • Swearing or cursing (especially when they learn some choice English swear words)

These are the most frequent types of unruly or bad behaviour.

Now let’s look at how you can deal with it.


Common Ways to Deal with Bad Behaviour


There are three main ways to deal with bad behaviour. These are:

  • A harsh look
  • A simple punishment
  • A gentle reminder

You can use these in this order.

You use the harsh look first — students that often indulge in bad behaviour are well-aware of this look.

Then if the bad behaviour continues you resort to a simple punishment — we will look at these in more detail below.

And if the bad behaviour continues again, you give a gentle reminder. This is like saying remember what happened last time? Most students can pick this up.

Let’s look at these things in detail.


A Harsh Look


Otherwise known as The Look.

You give the student your best withering don’t-mess-with-me look. Usually, this is enough to stop the student in their tracks.

Practice in the mirror!

A Simple Punishment


If the look doesn’t work, or the bad behaviour continues or ramps up, you may have to resort to a punishment. This doesn’t mean flailing the student within an inch of their life. All you need to do is introduce something that inconveniences the student or the whole class. This could be enough to get everything back to order.

Simple punishments could be:


Hands Up or Hands on The Desk


All the students have to raise their hands in the air or put their hands on the desk. To the average student in school, this is a major inconvenience in their life so it is usually enough to quell any outbursts of bad behaviour.

Getting all the students to do it often makes the rest of the class give the student misbehaving a look of contempt. So they usually bow down from peer pressure.

They can only put their hands down or move their hands away from the desk once order is returned to the class.


Call out Student’s Name


This is another bad student standard. You don’t need to yell it out. Just call out their name with the right tone of authority and that is all you need.

I can remember my maths teacher catching me chatting to another student and him just saying in a low, slightly menacing tone: Buckley.

That was it. I turned away from the other kid and had my nose back in the book.


Move the Student


If you have a student who insists on being a pain in the ass for the whole class, you could move him or her to another part of the classroom. In classes I had, I often found there was a large space at the back of the classroom.

I moved the offending student there and let them sulk it out.


Write Names on the Board


This can work very well as no student wants their name on the board. Especially if it is a kind of class blacklist for all to see.

If you are teaching in Asia, you will probably find that there is a class monitor to help you. These students are often too happy to help you write the misbehaving student’s name on the board in their own language.

This could also lead to the local class teacher finding out. And they are never happy to see kids’ names on the board.

Talk to the Local Teacher


The final straw would be to talk to the local teacher or class teacher. But only do this as a final straw.

You want the students to be on friendly terms with you and vice versa. So if you talk to their class teacher they see this as snitching. Which in most schools is the ultimate crime.


A Gentle Reminder


So maybe you have carried out one or two punishments. Then you get the same old student playing up again.

There may be no need to dish out another punishment immediately. You might be able to just remind them with a little gesture.

Let’s take a look.




Using the countdown method can be highly effective. Countdown from whatever number you wish, but five is probably a good number to start.

It acts as a doomsday timer and students usually calm down by the time you get to one.

You might get the occasional student that tests you by laughing or smirking but that is when you also employ The Look.


Point to the Door


I have found that one of the best methods of retaining order in the class is to look at the troublesome student and point to the door.

You don’t need to say anything just point to the door.

This implies that you want them to leave. And where would he go? To shoot a couple of hoops of basketball all alone?

No, he would absolutely dread being out of class.

In some countries, if a student is seen outside the class this can mean big trouble for them.


A Little Chat After Class


This is the ultimate reminder of them all.

This is when you have to act like the only adult in the room and remind the student why you are there and why he is there. So you need his full cooperation.

If you are overseas, this could present a communication problem. I have used Google Translate to create a message to read: Do you want me to talk to your parents about your behaviour?

Then you will get a firm reply of No, no, no, no, no, no, no while shaking his head.

Job done and you may find the student on his best behaviour in the next class.


The Usual Suspects


As with everything while teaching, you have the usual students that shine in the class — and the usual students that always want to play around and make trouble for you.

Who are these kids and how do you deal with them?

Let’s take a look.


The Alpha Clown


I have encountered many a student who is half Alpha Dog and half Class Clown. I call him the Alpha Clown.

He sees his role as being the man who runs the class — he berates the students that want to study, he tries to impress the girls, and he wants to make the whole class laugh.

He does this by using you the teacher as the butt of all his jokes. So he will make a comment about the way you look, the clothes you wear, any mannerisms or expressions you use frequently.

Whatever you do in class, he will then do impressions and generally be a royal pain in the ass.


How to deal with him


Never crack. No matter what pressure he applies — and he will — never let him get to you.

I have found a long cold look and the kind of expression on my face that says what is stupid doing? Can work very well. But if the behaviour continues, it might be time to put his name on the board or have a quiet word after class.

Another thing to consider is that he might be bored. It’s just that he is more capable of showing how bored he is than the others. And if he is bored, chances are the other students are bored too.

This means it might be time for a high-energy activity.


Queen Know-It-All


Usually a girl in my experience, but can also be a boy — in which case King Know-It-All.

This is the student that knows all the answers and shouts them out and doesn’t let any other student answer. Usually has utter contempt for any student that displays the slightest sign of being incapable. She regards most other students as mere insects but often has a best friend in class who is there to do her bidding.

I had a student like this who insisted on answering every single question I asked and also made another poor student’s life a misery by berating him in front of the others. She would give him little English tests of her own, then when he got the answers wrong laugh at him.


How to deal with her


You want an ally out of her so never try to humiliate her with ultra-tough questions. Make an enemy of this ice-queen at your peril.

Use her as your own teacher’s assistant and whenever you need someone to explain in the students’ own language, she comes in very useful.

Privately, you could give her some reading material, maybe a book recommendation, and then ask her about it in two weeks.


The Silent Ghost


He comes in; he sits down; he doesn’t speak a word to anyone. Not even you. At the end of class he slips out, and he vanishes into thin air.

Whenever you ask him anything, he just stares back at you.

Is he learning anything? Can he understand you?

Yes, he is learning. All English students have different ways of absorbing information. He is just taking a different route.


How to deal with him


Use body language and gestures with him.

I had a student like this and I nearly caused a riot in the class when I showed him how to high-five. Once he got the hang of it, he was engaged with the class.

Alpha-Clown sulked a little but you can’t win them all.


The Terrible Twins


They are the bestest of best friends forever.

And they always sit together and do everything together. Every single exercise, every time there is a role-play the terrible twins are together giggling into their hands.

They don’t actually make trouble as such but the giggling can get old pretty quickly.


How to deal with them


Make it known to them in private that if they continue to make trouble, you will separate them. They will hate you for a week or so, but after that, all it takes is one look and they will behave.


The New Friend


This is the student who has misinterpreted your kind words and encouragement as a sign of true friendship. Thus he or she follows you around and maybe becomes a bit too familiar in class.

I had a student like this who would try to follow me to the bathroom.


How to deal with them


Unfortunately, a couple of harsh words might be needed to remind this student of boundaries and where they are. They sulk for a while but then attach themselves to one of their classmates.


The Actor


Usually a boy, but could on rare occasions be a girl. He is the natural show-off of the class. You can’t really class his behaviour as bad, because he can be quite endearing. It’s just that sometimes it gets a bit too much and you just wish he would stop.


How to deal with him


Use him for ALL demonstrations. If you need to see verbs acted out, he is your main resource sitting right there. He may show a bit of fake modesty — who, me? — but with a little encouragement, he will do your bidding. Because he can’t help himself.

I had a student who was The Actor, and I had an entire class on jobs where he acted out every single job I showed him for the class to guess in English.

As the saying goes… win-win.


Ways to Control Bad Behaviour


When you enter a class and you know you have that one student that is likely to kick off and cause disruption, there are a few steps you can take.

Let’s take a look.


Keep Them Close


It is wise to try to keep the offending student as close to you as possible in the classroom. This may be difficult in some schools as there may be a policy for the students to rotate around the classroom seating.

But if you can, keep the student close to you.

You can observe them, and they know they are being observed.

Stay in contact with the parents — this could be a real challenge in another country when quite often the parents may only wish to talk to a local teacher and not a foreign one.

Model Good Behaviour


Do you arrive to class on time, every time? Are you always civil and treat everyone fairly? Are you always prepared, always organised?

You must model the kind of behaviour you expect from the students themselves. One step out of line and they will quite literally jump all over you.

Make sure your rules are very clearly outlined and that you are following them at all times yourself.


Show Clear Expectations


Make sure the students have a very clear idea of what you expect from them. You can do this by using simple cause and effect — if you do this, then this will happen.


Use Empathy


It might be the hardest thing to do at the time, but when the worst student in the entire school is playing up to maximum level, put yourself in their shoes.

Why are they being like this?

What is making him cause disruption in such a way?

This can be very hard to do when the student in question is trying your patience.

But try.


Use Common Ground


What does the student like? What are their interests?

If the offending student likes drawing and doodling all the time in the class, ask them about it.

If they express an interest in sport, ask about that.

Try to access what their interests and likes are.


Avoid Labels


Try to avoid referring to the student as good or bad. Describe their behaviour as something that can be improved is better. This is more encouraging — for you and the student.

Use Their Skills


Quite often a student that may be hell in your class, could be the model student in another.

Or they might have certain personality traits that can be used to your advantage.

Like The Actor I talked about before — I used him to great effect in my classes. The other students loved it and he was in his element.

I also had a girl who loved to draw cartoons. That was pretty much all she was interested in. She was a major disruption in everything else so I often tried to get her to draw illustrations for me on the board to show what I was talking about.


Be Aware of Cultural Differences


If you are in a foreign country, you need to be sympathetic to the cultural differences that exist.

You might have a student who refuses to speak. This could be because of chronic shyness or fear of making a mistake.

Or they may not make eye contact with you directly. In some countries, students are instructed not to look directly at the teacher.


Teach Social Skills


Get the students to talk to each other, help each other and share. This could be hard work in some classes but it will pay off in the long term.


Teach Academic Skills


Like asking questions, asking for help. Make sure they know to raise their hand each time.


Talk to the Local Teachers


They may be able to reveal a ton of information on the student misbehaving in your class. And they may be able to provide much-needed help.


Discipline in Private


There is no need to humiliate any student publicly. You will gain nothing by doing this.

If you need to talk to the student, do so in private.

Never Blame


Do not be so quick to blame the student.


Never Ridicule


And never ridicule the student!


Give Them a Chance to Explain


Let them speak first and explain their behaviour. You might learn more than you expect.


Avoid Disruptive Groups


You can do this by assigning groups yourself. If you have one ringleader and his band of flying monkeys ready to do his bidding — separate them.


Work on Building Relationships First


This can be hard because after all, you are there to teach. But try to build relationships first. This will give you great benefit later.


Positivity at All Times


Set and create a positive tone in the class. Avoid being impulsive and compose yourself.


Take a Deep Breath


Try to stay calm and behave rationally. Do not let your emotions get the better of you.

Avoid Conflicts


Get to the heart of the problem and deal with that.


Always Be Respectful, Polite and Courteous


I think self-explanatory.


Treat ALL Students Equally


And of course show the same level of respect, politeness and courtesy to all the students.


Reprimand Quickly


If you have no choice but to reprimand a student in the class, do so quickly and do not allow it to continue. Avoid classroom drama.




Listen to the student and let them have the chance to speak.


Encourage Responsibility


Make the students responsible for their own actions and behaviour.


Practice ‘The Look’


Rid the class of any misdemeanours and playing up with the look. Or one highly efficient word.


Never Give Up


There will always be the student that tries your patience but you cannot give up on them.


Things to Do as an ESL Teacher


As an English teacher, you are in the privileged position of doing all kinds of things in the classroom. And there are some other final points we can look at.




Chances are if you have a student who is making trouble for you and playing up, he is bored. And if he is bored, there is a strong possibility all the students are bored.

If so, you could pull an activity out of your arsenal and let them all use their energy in a productive fashion.

Check my articles here and here for some ideas.


Group Work


Your students need to use the English that you are teaching them, so allow them to do so. They cannot use any English at all if they are just watching you at the front of the class droning on and on.

Put them in groups and the troublesome students have something else to focus on.

Make It Visual


Give the students something visual to look at and you will find there is less drama and acting up. You can use visuals for all kinds of things — from introducing nouns and verbs to exercise instructions.


Talk to the Other Teachers


You need to communicate with the other teachers and figure out what they are doing in their classes. If a science teacher is teaching a class on animals, you can do the same but an ESL version.


Sometimes Kids Just Want Some Downtime


We all have our down days. And kids are no different. They may have their off days when they just want to be left alone and no nothing all day.

So let them.


Let Some Kids Use Their Own Language


You might want to let some students use their own language. It doesn’t hurt.

Check my article here.

Learn the Culture


Try to learn as much of the culture of the country you are in as possible. Talk to the local teachers and observe what the students do in class.




There is always that one student, that one kid who seems intent on making as much trouble for you as possible.

You cannot let them win, you have to be in control all the time. And you have to be the adult at all times too.

Dealing with students who have bad behaviour can be extremely trying but we have to try to get to the root of why they are behaving in such a way.

Hopefully, some of the ideas and concepts we looked at above can help you not only deal with these difficult students but dissolve the problem and make them a productive part of the class.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Bad Behaviour in the ESL Class”

  1. Thanks for broaching this very delicate topic. Many teachers do not want to talk about these kinds of problems even though they are inevitable, especially among younger students. I think you covered all the points and the solutions. What is for sure is that you have to solve the problem or your whole class could go down the tubes for the rest of the year! The key word is engagement! If you can engage the troublemakers according to their talents they will work for you instead of against you.

    1. Yes, I totally agree, Leona. You have to make friends with the student – or at least be on friendly terms. The last thing any teacher needs to do is make an enemy of the student.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top