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Surviving Disruptive Classroom Behavior In A Training Session

Leslie Ciborowski
President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

The disruptive participant can sink your training faster than you can say, “Please Don’t Do That.” Whether it’s someone who tries to dominate the conversation or someone who continues to send emails in class, the disruptive participant’s action affects all the participants who can observe the behavior. It not only becomes a distraction that you have to compete with, it often leaves the other participants feeling resentful and frustrated – two emotions that are not ideal for learning.

Survival Essentials

To survive this disaster in the making you have to know what all the potential disrupters are and have multiple strategies to address each one.

Ignoring the behavior and hoping it doesn’t happen a second time is never an option.

All behaviors make sense to the person acting out, trying to understand their motivation is a waste of energy.

How other participants perceive how you handled the situation plays a major role in their overall satisfaction of the training.

Constantly remind yourself not to take the disruption personally.

The First Responder

Regardless of the question, the first responder doesn’t wait to raise their hand, If there are more than two seconds of dead air, the first responder jumps In both lips moving. While there are many reasons why this behavior shows up, the reason behind the behavior is irrelevant. As a trainer, you have to deal with the behavior, regardless of the intent.

The key is using a strategy that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm, embarrass them or insult them.


  • Before asking a question, say, “I need to hear from some people who haven’t spoken yet.”
  • Request that people raise their hands so you can call on them. Call on the first responder, but only after two other people have spoken first.
  • Instead of having an open floor conversation, ask tables to discuss the question and then share their answer with the entire group.
  • Speak to the first responder during a break and ask for their assistance. Say “You are doing all the heavy lifting in the class.” I need everyone to participate, and when you are willing to do more than your share, others will just sit back and let you do it. What I’d really appreciate if you’d wait until two or three others share before commenting.” Reinforce that their contribution is valuable and that you want to hear what they have to say
  • If, after the break, the first responder stops talking, call on them to make sure they understand you want to hear what they have to say. 

The Filibuster

A Filibuster is a person who takes five minutes to say what someone else will share in 30 seconds. As a rule, they become defensive if you try to “interrupt” their soliloquy and clearly have no appreciation that they are sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

While the rest of the class finds The Filibuster annoying, they will become even more annoyed with the trainer if this challenging situation isn’t handled with the utmost diplomacy. This means the trainer cannot show their impatience either with pithy comments or not –so- subtle body language. Trainers must never embarrass The Filibuster, to do so will break the trust of the entire classroom, and that is the ultimate Worst Case Scenario.


  • When it’s time to ask a question, say you need to hear from five people in five minutes. Tell them you are going to give them a couple of minutes to think about their answers and then you will call on five people who can have the floor up to 60 seconds each. Include The Filibuster in this group.
  • Talk to the person on a break and ask for their help. Explain that you are on a tight schedule and that as much as you would love for everyone to be able to share everything they want, you have to facilitate the conversation. Ask what signal you can give when they are talking to let them know you need them to wrap up their thoughts so others can share. By asking them how you should handle the situation you not only get their buy-in, but you avoid having them shut down for the rest of the training.
  • Ask them to scribe the comments of fellow participants during a conversation.

The Multi-Tasker

Often, the multi-tasker finds themselves scheduled for mandatory training during a week where their regular job demands are crushing them. The multi-tasker is constantly jumping out of the room to take phone calls, continue working on their computer after a break is finished, and does the smartphone prayer-answering texts and emails under the table throughout the class.

While it’s hard not to be sympathetic to someone who is in this situation, the effect on the rest of the class has to be the trainer’s priority.


  • During a break, have a conversation with the student and ask if they can reschedule the training for a different time. Unless you work for the same organization and have any kind of authority, this strategy usually falls flat. The training is mandatory. There aren’t any other openings for the rest of the year. The interruptions are coming from their manager.
  • Refer to the checklist the client completed in #5 Worst-Case Scenario Murphy’s Law sharing the minimum requirements for attendance as well as what you as a facilitator are expected to do when a participant is not meeting the minimum requirements. This can be shared during opening comments so participants know ahead of time that they can’t come and go as they please.

The SideBar Conversationalists

By far one of the most common distractions and often the easiest fix, depending on the setup of the room. Sidebar conversations can occur when you are presenting or when others are participating in a group discussion.

While it is tempting just to say, “I need everyone’s attention” or “Let’s refrain from sidebar conversations,” this approach can backfire. Yes, teachers in Junior High School may get away with this but when you are working with adult learners, it’s best to avoid tactics that have the potential to make them feel as if they are being admonished in front of their colleagues.


  • Stand by the people who are having the conversation and conduct the class from that location. This strategy works every time. However, there are times that the room is set up in a way that prevents you from standing behind the sidebar talkers – think of a room that is set up in rows, and your conversationalists are in the last row up against the wall.
  • Call on one of the sidebar conversationalists either to share their thoughts or become the scribe.
  • Have the room break into small groups by counting off 1, 2, 3, 4, and separating the two for the group discussion.
  • After a break, ask people to change the location of where they are sitting this is usually not a popular choice)

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Leslie Ciborowski
Leslie has over 25 years experience in the training industry. Her responsibilities have included sales, hands on management and software training, curriculum development, needs analysis, usability testing, and project management. Her strong training background, organizational skills, and exceptional development expertise, augment her extensive sales and marketing abilities.