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Student Misbehavior in Distance Learning and What We Can Do About It

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

We are all familiar with the common ploys students use to get out of working in class, but now with distance learning, the kids are way ahead of us. I work from home and my husband is a mathematics teacher at the same school that my two teen daughters attend. Their school moved to distance learning over two weeks ago and I have witnessed a lot of shenanigans. While my husband tries to teach algebra one daughter is doing handstands and yoga in front of the computer for PE while the other is watching Macbeth for English. I have also noted the lengths kids will go to to avoid classwork and outsmart their teachers. (WATCH MY VIDEO ON THIS TOPIC AS WELL!)


One study by Li & Titsworth categorized the naughty behaviors as follows:

1. Seeking Unallowed Assistance (cheating)

2. Aggressiveness (being rude, bullying, or recording teacher and making fun of them)

3. Lack of Communication (going AWOL)

4. Internet Slacking (sleeping and multitasking)

This is the most common of these misbehaviors and looks like:

  • Logging on to the class session, merrily greet their teacher during roll call, set an alarm for the end of class, and promptly fall asleep.

  • Turn off their camera, mute themselves, and then go on their phone to play video games or message with friends.

  • Simply leave the class after attendance is taken, knowing their teacher is struggling with the tech interface and won’t notice or know what to do.

  • Log into a class on their computer and mute themselves. Then log into Facetime with friends and happily chit chat throughout the class until the teacher calls on them. Then they quickly unmute, answer the question, and mute themselves again. When parents get suspicious the teen says she is doing, “group work.”

If Teachers Catch Them, They Say…

“I didn’t have the code to log in!” “My connection was bad!” “My camera doesn’t work!” “My microphone isn’t working!” “My computer crashed!” Whenever they get caught they blame it on technical difficulties, which could actually be true.


It feels nearly impossible to keep up with what our kids are doing. Yes, when I walk in the room and my 13-year-old is giggling with earbuds in and a Korean face mask on (literally happened 2 minutes ago) I sort of get the clue that she is not in class. She also appears to not be studying. Even if I had all her passwords and knew how to log into the 3 different platforms her teachers are using to teach her, how could I possibly keep up?

Parents know that we can’t really monitor our kids and our kids know it too.

Here are some rules, as feeble as they may be, that we have established in our house:

  1. Have a workspace in a common area of the house (kitchen table) and only use your bedroom when you are in a live class. We can’t have 3 live class meetings going on in the same room at the same time.

  2. School is school. Breaks are breaks. When you are supposed to be in class or supposed to be studying. Don’t multitask. Don't eat in bed. Take lots of breaks and do what you want, but don’t pretend to be working when you are not.

  3. Take lots of physical movement breaks, walk the dog, go ride your bike, climb a tree in the park. Heck, how about washing your own dishes after making your first breakfast, second breakfast, and elevensies?

  4. Do you need your cell phone in your room? For class? Nope. There is zero reason a kid would need their phone for class unless they don’t have a computer.


Teachers and school administrators are in uncharted territory and are doing the best they can to continue educating children, coming up with innovative and engaging activities.

My husband actually SHAVED HIS HEAD this weekend and leaked it to students so the rumor would spread and they would be motivated to log in on Monday.

Here are a few things to make it harder for kids to slack and easier for parents to support you:

1. Send home instructions on what parents can expect, a sample schedule for a day (with movement breaks included), and information on how they can log in and monitor class attendance and grades.

2. Schools should monitor how much work is being assigned by teachers and make sure it is not excessive.

3. The whole school should use the same learning platform. Use Google Classroom & Google Meet, or Zoom, or whatever. Multiple platforms is too hard to keep track of for kids and it makes it impossible for parents to monitor.

4. Send calendar invites to the students that are repeating with the link to the meeting. Don't post it on your website or send it in an email. A calendar invite should suffice.

5. Transfer your Perfect Attendance rewards to the online environment - students who log in and participate in all of their classes earn points, tickets, and rewards just like always.

6. Do virtual community circles in class to increase kids' sense of belonging (try this free script to do a Virtual Coronavirus Community Circle!)

Possible Consequences for Misbehavior

At this point in the game, I don’t know that schools can come down too harshly on these behaviors. Except in cases of rudeness, bullying or other socially aggressive behavior, we should tread carefully. We don’t want to spend too much energy ‘catching’ misdeeds but instead focus as much as possible on creating community and trying to get the kids to learn what they can. Here are some suggestions for consequences:

1. Email the student regarding concerns. Tell them that the next time you will need to copy the administrator and parent informing them what the student is (or is not) doing.

2. “Detention” could be a scheduled Zoom or Google Meet with the school administrator and student to talk about barriers to online learning. If the problem persists, invite a parent to this online meeting as well. You may find the student needs support academically or technically that you can provide.

3. Invite parent to sit with student during class. Caution: The Parent needs clear instruction to observe only. A few unfortunate cases have surfaced of parents lurking in the background criticizing teachers or students. Not cool.

4. If the issue is with several students in the class, hold a Virtual Restorative Circle with the class to addressing “How does Non-Participation Impact Our Classroom Community?”

Students avoiding schoolwork is not new. Given that this distance learning could go on for some time it is probably worthwhile for us to pursue how to engage our students more effectively. In fact, 90% of our energy should be spent on positive engagement and less than 10% on chasing down misbehavior. Still, its good to know what they are up to!

What are you doing to increase engagement and learning in your online class?


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