Redirecting When Class Goes Off Course

Every educator has been there (or will be at some point!). Class was going well, but before you know it, you're entirely off track. Everyone is talking about something other than the topic, or maybe a side conversation is happening while you’re teaching, and your students have gotten distracted. Perhaps a few people disagree and their disagreement is now the focus of the class. Whatever the case, class is not proceeding as you expected, and you find yourself scrambling to try to get it back on track.

Why a Class May Veer Off Course

Before we address how to manage a class that’s gone off course, it can be helpful to understand why it may be happening. After all, once you understand the problem, you’ll be better able to address it.

One of the main reasons why classes can veer off course has to do with the fact that adults have fairly short attention spans. You might think that this only applies to younger people, but research has shown that adult attention spans last an average of only 15 to 20 minutes. As such, when your class goes off track, it may simply be because the students in your class are unable to continue to pay attention to what you had been asking them to focus on for the past 20 minutes, and so their attention has naturally shifted to something else.

But this isn’t the only reason why a class may go off course. There are many reasons why this may happen, including social and emotional reasons, environmental triggers, as well as the way the material is being presented and the content of the lesson itself. In order to get to the bottom of why your class has gone off course, it can be helpful to ask yourself a series of questions to gain a greater understanding, such as:

  • Is the room comfortable? What is the temperature? Too hot? Too cold?
  • What is the emotional mood in the class?
  • Has the class gone off track because they are excited about the topic, are they arguing, or do they seem anxious to change the subject?
  • Are just a few students dominating the discussion and moving it off track?
  • Has the class become boring or too predictable?
  • Is the topic too complicated or have you covered the material too quickly?

Identifying the problem as specifically as possible will help you apply the correct remedy. For example, if you notice that if class veers off track when the room is too hot (pregnant women can get easily overheated!), opening a window might help students focus better. Or, if just a few students are dominating discussions, calling on other students, or changing activities (journaling/freewriting, small break-out group discussions) might help.

When to Redirect

Is it always important for you to redirect a class when it’s gone off course? The answer is yes and no.

Sometimes going off course is actually a good thing. If your students are excited about a topic and want to take their excitement in another direction, it’s okay to let that happen, at least to some extent. For example, if you are talking about water birth, and your students are exchanging information about which facilities have water birthing options, and where the best place is to rent a birth pool, you can let that happen, at least for a few minutes. This might be valuable to other students, and it shows enthusiasm for the topic at hand.

However, sidebars like this can also take over the class and take time away from other instruction. So while you want to honor your students’ interest and enthusiasm, you don’t want it to change the course of your class too much or for too long. There is a lot of material to cover in a childbirth education class and every second counts. And, students may have poor experiences in class if it feels chaotic and disorganized. It’s important for students to feel like they are coming away from a class with a few clear lessons, pieces of useful data and actionable next steps.

Strategies to Get Class Back on Track

When class inevitably goes awry, consider these strategies to help you get back on track:

Do a Relaxation or Breathing Exercise

When things feel chaotic or out of control, even in a classroom setting, your nervous system can go into overdrive. Relaxation exercises—such as progressive relaxation, or visualization—along with deep breathing exercises, are powerful ways to downregulate the nervous system. Bonus: they are great options for use in early labor, so you can double the impact.

Get Everyone Up and Moving

Taking things down a notch in class doesn’t always mean sitting down. Quick exercise breaks can calm the nervous system and energize people who are tired or bored. Do some simple stretches or yoga postures with your students. If you have birth balls present, you can have your students gently rock on the balls.

Take a Break

When things go off course in class, it often means that students need a break. So give them one, even if it isn’t in your lesson plan. A quick break to go outside for fresh air, eat a snack, take a drink, take a walk down the hallway—all of these can be useful when you are trying to reset the mood in the classroom.

Get More Focused

Sometimes things go off track when clients feel overwhelmed by the material. If you think clients are confused, break down complex ideas in your lesson into one or two key takeaways.

Encourage Socialization

Having parents connect with one another can really help, especially if there is any tension in the room. Ice breakers and getting-to-know-you activities don’t have to happen only at the beginning of class—you can do them anytime to encourage bonds and to lighten the mood.

Switch Topics

Many of us like to plan out our lessons carefully and stick to them. But sometimes you need to switch things around, especially if your class is going off course. Consider skipping ahead in your lesson plans. You can always come back to the current topic at a later time, with a fresh approach.

Try a Different Learning Method

If class seems to veer off course when you are lecturing, consider employing a more active type of teaching method, such as small group work, having the students teach the class, and hands-on learning activities. Studies have found that students are more likely to have trouble when lecturing is the main type of teaching style, as compared to more active kinds of learning methods.

The Bottom Line

It can be stressful when your class seems to veer off course. Keep in mind that this happens to us all—you aren’t alone. You also aren’t powerless when it comes to addressing it. Keep the above tips in your teaching toolkit for those times that your class seems to be going in the wrong direction. You’ve got this!


Wendy Wisner, Freelance Writer and Lactation Consultant (IBCLC)


Cooper AZ, Richards JB. Lectures for Adult Learners: Breaking Old Habits in Graduate Medical Education. Am J Med. 2017;130(3):376-381. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2016.11.009

Ferlazzo, L. Ways to Handle a Class That Has Gotten Out-of-Control. EducationWeek. 2018

Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, et al. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(23):8410-8415. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

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