Weighing responses to a minor behavioral infraction

Imagine you are faculty member sitting in an assembly surrounded by students. As usual, you are enjoying the performance on stage, but you are also monitoring the behavior of the students seated in the audience around you. After a while you become aware that a student a few seats down the row from you is fidgeting with something. Maybe they have their cell phone out, maybe they are doodling on their seat with a pen or pencil, or maybe they have a book open and are trying to complete some soon-to-be-late homework.

What is the correct response? In particular, I’m interested in the choice a faculty member faces to either confiscate the phone/pen/book immediately, or to try to quietly get the student’s attention and communicate — probably via a raised eyebrow and cold stare — that they need to put the item away and act like a more respectful audience member.

Confiscating the distracting item sends a clear message and alters the behavior immediately. Also, it leads to a conversation after the assembly when the student wants the item back. That conversation is an opportunity (“teachable moment”) for the faculty member to talk to the student about what it means to be a respectful audience member and to reinforce the rules regarding phones etc. Students sitting nearby and witnessing the offending item’s confiscation also receive a strong message that this behavior won’t be tolerated, and that helps students understand that there are boundaries that must be respected.

On the other hand, there is a lot to recommend the other course of action. If instead of confiscating the item we draw the student’s attention to their behavior, we put the ball in their court. We ask the student to take a silent inventory of their own behavior in the moment and think about how they might correct it. In essence we treat the student more like an adult and ask, “How do you want to represent yourself as a citizen of our community right now?” The student will likely appreciate that they were given the chance to correct their behavior before having their item snatched out of their hand. While this approach makes it harder to guarantee a conversation after the assembly is over, perhaps an equal amount of teaching can occur with just that raised eyebrow and cold stare. This is a more constructivist choice since it places the responsibility for teaching/learning on the student himself.

The situation I’ve provided is an artificial one, and in most cases the imaginary faculty member can employ both approaches: try to correct the behavior with a stare first, then confiscate the item when the stare doesn’t work. But I find that faculty members tend to be either the sort of professionals who routinely employ Approach One or Approach Two. Sometimes I am in the middle of using Approach One with a student when a colleague from another row will swoop in and implement Approach Two. This leaves me feeling like I am perceived to be “light on crime” when in fact I am trying to address the situation in a manner that seems the most useful for the student’s growth.

I wonder if readers have reflections to share on this situation.

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