Every instructor has had the unpleasant experience of dealing with that one individual, usually sitting in the back row, who disrupts the entire class. Often these "problem learners" are the last ones to class, the ones returning late from breaks, and the first ones with an excuse why they have to leave early.
Typically, they will carry on conversations with their neighbors while you are lecturing, stand in the rear of any small groups that you demonstrate to, and engage in disruptive horseplay during hands-on training. Not only are they a distraction, they are a training "accident" waiting to happen.
How can you deal with them? The mistake many trainers make is to not deal with them at all, hoping instead that they will eventually assimilate into the group. Sometimes that actually does happen, and when it does, that's a good thing. But, more often than not, the truly disruptive learner just does not want to be there, and he or she wants to make sure that everyone around knows it. These individuals must be dealt with, for the good of the rest of your class.
Why They Do It
Why are these individuals the way they are? We don't have time – or the need – to go deep into their psyche. However, it seems clear that, on some level, they seek empowerment, as they are used to being in charge of whatever particular environment they happen to be in – or at least they think they are. Many of them are unhappy in general, and they are often the officers that create the most disturbances in their day-to-day workplace. When sent to class, they attempt to dominate that environment too, and that is where you encounter them.
This is an exceedingly difficult problem to solve, and one that can be delicate. Often, these people will be the focus of disdain from their fellow trainees, since they can have a significant negative impact on the ability of those around them to learn, and to succeed in your class. However, if you deal with them too harshly, the psyche of the class can quickly turn against you, siding with the miscreant out of some misguided sense of loyalty to their fellow student.
In the final analysis, it is often nothing more than the fact that the disruptive student does not really perceive any vital need for the information that you are trying to impart to him or her. Like most adult learners, they must see an immediate, personal need for your information, or they will quickly lose interest (if, indeed, they were ever very interested to begin with).
How to Handle Them
Of course, your primary goal should be to win them over, at least in the beginning. Establishing a relationship with them, having a personal chat with them on a break, or otherwise connecting with them on some other level is often enough to gain their trust, or at least their interest. You can also try calling on them with a "softball" question that you know they will be able to answer, and even have a short dialogue with them in class, steering your conversation in such a way that you allow them to sound authoritative and knowledgeable in front of the class.
If being nice doesn't work, you might have to resort to a little underhandedness. Casually asking them to sit in a different location in the classroom (privately) can establish your authority with them. Make sure you have a good reason for doing this, as they won't want to be ordered around for no apparent reason. Perhaps you "need" them to move so you can more freely access part of the room, or you "need" to reconfigure the back row for some reason, or whatever. The fact that you direct them in some way, and that they comply, begins to establish your authority.
If they are talking while you are lecturing, try looking at them while you talk. Lower your voice so that the class has to strain slightly to hear you. If they are interfering with their classmates' ability to hear, one of the class members might deal with the problem for you.
Another tactic that I use all the time – and it works – is to walk around and stand next to them while lecturing. Don't focus on them directly, just move close to them while you continue your lecture. This will focus the attention on you, and by extension, upon them. Once you are standing right by them, ask the class a question, then interact for a few seconds with whoever answers. This will continue the extension of attention. You could even put your hand momentarily on their shoulder, in a friendly fashion. Consider asking them a question, and waiting – sometimes pointedly – for them to reply.
If none of these things work, talk to them privately on a break. Ask them if there is a problem, then perhaps ask for their help in managing the class. Hint that they are part of the problem. Gauge how forceful you need to be on their response. Ultimately, you may have to ask them point-blank to quiet down. Tell them that other members of the class have complained to you privately. Creating imaginary peer pressure in this way can have a significant effect.
Your final step, if nothing else works, is to address them directly in front of the class. Start by asking them if there is a problem. Make it clear, politely of course, that they are a distraction. Again, structure your approach based upon the reaction you get from them. Also watch the reaction of the rest of the class. If you see signs of negative reaction to your efforts, back off and deal with the matter privately on the next break. Approach the person on the break and – again, do this privately if at all possible – tell them that they will have to stop their behavior or leave class.
Your final "big gun," if nothing else works – and this should be very rare – is to tell the person that you will be calling their boss on the next break, and asking that they be removed from the class by their department. In 22 years of training, I have only had to threaten this once, and have never actually had to do it. The student that makes it to this level on your personal unhappy-meter is dense indeed.
Ultimately, you must ensure that there is a viable learning environment for the bulk of your class. If you can do that gently, that's the best way to go. If you can't, be prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that your students have the best chance of learning in your classroom, without annoying distractions.
Stay safe, and wear your vest!