How to deal with low-level disruption in the classroom

Tapping a pen, fidgeting, murmuring and passing notes are forms of low-level disruption. [iStockphoto]

According to Ofsted, up to an hour of learning every day is being lost to ‘low-level’ disruption.

Disruption can be high-level or low-level. Students fighting, or throwing a chair, hurling expletives at a teacher is generally considered high-level disruption. But tapping a pen, fidgeting, murmuring, passing notes, etc is low-level disruption. 

A low-disruptive behaviour basically means that it is not that detrimental to the teaching and learning process in a classroom setting and sometimes they may not be taken seriously enough. But they sure hamper the process and are not helpful at all.

For instance, a child arriving late and creating a fuss while settling down can disrupt the lesson for a few minutes. Or a whole-class discussion or experiment that threatens order may derail the entire lesson.

So how can educators prevent it from affecting the classroom especially in typical inquiry-based learning that CBC hopes to achieve? One sure challenge CBC is poised to present to its implementers - the teachers is low-level disruption.

Low-level disruption is basically the fidgeting, swinging on a chair, murmuring, and any unwarranted movement/behaviour by students that would cause mild disruption during a lesson.

This phenomenon is prevalent in inquiry-based lessons where learners engage in various activities with a view to construct or interrogate knowledge (as opposed to the lecture method where students sit and intently listen to the teacher).

The teacher, therefore, has to strike a fine balance between maintaining classroom control and allowing learners to express themselves within the confines of the task/activity at hand.

Low-level classroom disruption (LLCD) has been consistently emphasised as the number one behavioural issue in primary schools, having negative impacts on both the teachers and the pupils.

Low-level disruption occurs for many reasons and can impact classrooms in different ways. This is why it’s important to implement integrated approaches to disruption.

Give clear instructions

One of the most common causes of low-level disruption is when students are unsure of exactly what they need to do. This is why a teacher should try to concentrate on giving concise and clear explanations (can often be repeated several times but in different ways) before students start a given task.

Tactical maneuvering

When giving an instruction or explanation, physically move to stand next to the students who you feel are most likely to disrupt. A teacher’s mere presence there can sometimes be enough.

Vary the classroom activities

From “chalk and talk” to paired and small group learning – activities that involve listening, speaking and talking – these help to keep attention peaked.

Pace is important in teaching and although keeping things ticking along and changing the pace won’t solve the problem of low-level disruption, in an inquiry-based classroom, it can at least limit opportunities for students to switch off. Also, choice and access to preferred activities increases engagement and reduces problem behaviour.

Create opportunities to listen to all children

Create opportunities day-to-day, during normal lessons and learning, for children to be listened to as well, air their thoughts and give feedback. This helps them engage with the learning and feel included in it. Using children’s own special interests as the basis for activities can significantly increase engagement while reducing low level disruption in the classroom.

Increased student engagement in academic activities is an important component of increased on-task and appropriate behaviour in classrooms and it provides greater opportunities for access to higher rates of teacher praise and approval which add to positive behaviour management and a positive classroom atmosphere.

Seating plans

Seating is probably the most powerful tool at a teacher’s disposal. First, the obvious one, seat potentially disruptive students out of each other’s eye lines and as far apart as possible. Consider rows rather than pods for a class where low-level disruption can be a major hurdle.

Another classroom layout that can increase student attention and decrease distraction is the U-shape, according to Australian science teacher and blogger Emily Aslin. She says that a U-shaped desk arrangement allows teachers to see all students at one time, which can facilitate better discussions. It also allows for eye contact between teachers and students.


Low-level behaviour is often a result of boredom; preparation is the best tool for solving this problem before it even arises. The teacher’s ability to manage the classroom group through planned activities is a key element in developing constructive behaviour patterns.

It is evident then that most disruption will take place when a class lacks structure. Ensure lessons promote the involvement of all students so that they are more engaged, thus less likely to cause disruption.

A good strategy for this is to have several short activities within each lesson, rather than one activity drawn out over the entire session that may not engage all students, such as reading out of a textbook.

Create a calm, purposeful learning environment

We all need calm in order to learn. But creating a calm environment in class is a tricky thing to master, particularly if you have a class of children who have come up from a previous class where low-level disruption such as chatter was tolerated. Teachers should ensure they clearly define when group discussion or working is required and acceptable, and when it is most certainly not.

A calm environment is inclusive for many of the learners. Defining clear strategies such as proper turn-taking and even arguing effectively could be some of the ways to effectively reduce low-level classroom disruption while maintaining an inquiry-based lesson.

Clearly display timetables and key information

This is one of those little changes a teacher can make which helps with LLCD. Some children with dyslexic and dyspraxia traits struggle with organization, as do some with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Clearly displaying timetables and class activities during class helps all the learners feel involved in the school day and reduces any disruption in the classroom. The same is true for key vocabulary, facts, or concepts relating to what you’re currently learning in class. Sticking this information up for all to see on display boards helps remind children of prior learning, and to answer questions or tackle tricky tasks. With a clearly displayed timetable, children can look ahead to their favorite or least favorite activities, mentally prepare accordingly and get an insight into what is discussed or what is ahead.

The long and short of it is that the teacher must have a handle on themselves and the entire class for effective teaching and learning to happen. This is why classroom management is one of the key pillars of effective teaching and one of the pointers of an effective teacher.