How do I handle disruptive behavior?


We've been doing circles at my school as a study skills course since the start of the year. It's been challenging when students act out, not respecting the talking piece. It impacts the rest of the group and their willingness to share. Do you have any suggestions of how to handle disruptive behavior of this kind? 

– Tina Stiver, 7th Grade Social Studies teacher and 6th grade Study Skills Course facilitator, Lincoln K-8, Warren, Ohio

Disruptive behavior can sidetrack even the best-facilitated circle, and can happen even when the keeper has done everything “right.”

I try to reduce the incidence of disruptive behavior by carefully setting the stage. This includes purposefully inviting participation and encouraging meaningful sharing. 

When first introducing restorative circles to a group of students, especially in middle school, I try not to speak too much. I’ll say something about why we sit in a circle, emphasizing its democratic nature, as well as the power of the talking piece in promoting equity of voice. Depending on the group’s attention span, I may decide to open with a fun team-building activity to get students on board.

But regardless of the group, I’ll send a talking piece around, early on, whether it’s for a one-word check in, a reflection, or a story-telling go round. I’ll consider going first to model and set the tone, before sending the talking piece around for others to share. I know that ultimately the power of the circle lies in inviting everyone in (everyone and every part of everyone) while the talking piece gives all of us a chance to speak while others listen. 

It often only takes one person in the circle to share meaningfully of themselves to show what is possible in circles. In so doing, this person gives others permission to share meaningfully of themselves. But more than that, it shows others that it’s okay to get personal. 

To get to this place of personal sharing can take some time. Students need to get used to the circle process, make sure they can trust it, make sure it is safe. Once they do, and once students begin sharing meaningfully, disruptions are less likely to happen.

Unfortunately though, if some students act out, it may leave others less willing to share of themselves, get personal, take a risk. It can make the space unsafe and needs to be addressed.

Of course, this is hard to do when, as the keeper, I don’t have the talking piece. So I may use nonverbal cues, or a gentle “shhh” sometimes, to quiet a disruptive voice. But I try not to intervene in any other way until the talking piece comes back to me. I try my best to respect the talking piece in the same way I ask my students to do. This requires patience, biting my tongue and sitting with discomfort at times. 

By respecting the talking piece in this way, I model but I also give others in the circle a chance to take on the disruptions by calling on their peers, redirecting them or asking for their attention. When this happens, we know that students are starting to take responsibility for the circle, making it theirs. 

Early on in the circle process, however, it’s usually up to the keeper to address these behaviors. It’s up to the keeper also to model how to address them. So when the talking piece comes back to me, rather than reprimanding or lecturing students who disrespect the talking piece or act out in other ways, I try to speak from my personal perspective, encouraging the student who is off task to reflect on the impact of their behavior and become more introspective. I might talk about how I feel uncomfortable sharing when others in the circle are having side conversations, are making comments, or when their body language shows they’re not interested. Giggling especially stops me from sharing because I suspect people are mocking me. I may say something along the lines of: “I wonder if others in the circle feel this way as well.” This pulls in the rest of the circle participants as we start to address problematic behavior together – all in the course of the circle process. 

I sometimes consider (out loud) that people might be behaving this way because they themselves are uncomfortable with the sharing that’s taking place. That’s okay, I tell them. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and it’s okay not to share as a result of that discomfort. But I ask participants to think about how their behavior might affect others and to please give careful consideration to what they put into the circle – both in the way they speak and in the way they act. Rather than telling students what to do, I give them a chance to reflect on and change their behavior of their own accord.

In short, the most persuasive way to get students to participate fully, thoughtfully and compassionately is to give them time, space and, more than anything, a choice; a choice over when they’ll speak and how they can best participate in the circle.

For the keeper, all this can be hard work. It requires patience as well as trust in the process and in our students. It may mean sitting with discomfort. But it’s well worth it, much of the time. I’ve seen students take ownership of the circle process and help address disruptive behaviors with peers, when we give them time and space to do so. I’ve even seen students reflect on their own disruptive behaviors, and admit to either discomfort with profound personal sharing or to lagging skills. It’s transformative when this happens.

As we address safety in the circle, we encourage sharing. 

When the more quiet students finally choose to speak, it can be an empowering and reassuring experience for all.  When they see that what they share in a circle is respected and understood, they may even surprise themselves and their teachers by speaking up not just in the circle but in other settings, including academic classes. Their silence can been broken by the attention and care they receive in a circle, and we end up seeing a whole new side of a student we never really knew or understood.

Do you have questions about using restorative circles in your school? Send them to: sends e-mail)