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Responding to Students in Distress

Many times you may be working with a student who is disruptive and/or distressed and it can be difficult to assess what route to take with the student and who to contact about the situation. We have created the Distressed Student Response Guide for both campuses and learning centers that can assist in working with the student.

Addressing Classroom Disruption

The classroom is a special environment in which students and faculty come together to promote learning and growth. It is essential to this learning environment that respect for the rights of others seeking to learn, respect for the professionalism of the instructor, and the general goals of academic freedom are maintained. Occasionally, faculty members find that they cannot provide effective classroom instruction because of disruptions.

1. How should "disruptive" behavior be defined?

We define "disruptive" behavior as behavior a reasonable person would view as being likely to disrupt or interfere with teaching in the classroom or operations of the College. This behavior can occur in and out of the classroom and include things such as loud or prolonged side conversations; exaggerated movement of papers, books, or other materials; use f disruptive mechanical devices; repeatedly leaving class early or coming to class late; unnecessary or repetitive questions or comments which seek to delay the normal instruction process; or resorting to physical or verbal threats.

2. How can disruptive behavior be discouraged?

The first step is to state reasonable expectations in advance and clarify standards for the conduct in your class. For example, if you want cell phones turned off in class, say so in your syllabus, and on the first day of class. Clearly explain the reasons for your expectations, and invite student comments and suggestions.

3. How should I respond to classroom disruption?

Faculty members have broad authority to manage the classroom environment. Overall, key factors in responding to apparent disruptive or uncivil behavior are clarity in expectations; courtesy and fairness in responses, making sure students have an opportunity to discuss the incident with you in a timely manner, progressive discipline in which students are given an opportunity to self-correct their behavior.

It is strongly advised to keep records of dates, times, and objective details of when there is disruptive behavior from a student for when/if the faculty or staff member decides to file a formal incident report about the student.

4. What should I do in the face of persistent disruption?

A student who persists in disrupting a class may be directed by a faculty member to leave the classroom for the remainder of the class period. The student should be told the reason(s) for such action, and be given an opportunity to discuss the matter with the faculty member at a later date. This is a serious step and should not be taken lightly.

5. When should I call the Department of Public Safety?

You should call the Department of Public Safety 567-661-7575 whenever you believe there is any threat of violence or other unlawful behavior, including a student's refusal to leave class after being told do so.

6. Should I act immediately or wait for a pattern of misbehavior to occur?

Disruptive behavior will normally not stop on its own; often times the behavior will continue or worsen. A fundamental tenant of progressive discipline is to document and respond to 'small' incidents sooner rather than later.

7. At what point should I submit and incident report for disruptive behavior?

After you have talked with the student about their behaviors without improvement, have removed them from any portion of class due to their disruptive behavior, or there is immediate concerning behavior you should submit an online incident report so the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards can discuss the incidents with the student, reinforce your classroom expectations, and enforce the Code of Student Conduct. When you submit the report, include any records of dates, times, locations, or prior conversations you have had with the student about their behavior.

Working with Troubled Students

As a staff member or faculty member, you are in a good position to spot someone who may be emotionally distressed. While some of this is to be expected, especially during stressful times of the year, you might notice someone acting in a way that is inconsistent with your normal experiences with that person. You may be able to be a resource in times of trouble and your expression of interest and concern may be a critical factor in helping the individual reestablish emotional equilibrium.

Possible Signs of Distress

  • Marked change in academic behavior
  • Has trouble eating or sleeping
  • Engages in disruptive behavior
  • Has frequent conflict with others
  • Expresses intent of harm to self or others
  • Indicates others are planning to harm him/her
  • Exaggerated emotional response that is obviously inappropriate to the situation
  • Undue aggressiveness, agitated or extremely upset
  • Expresses anger or revenge
  • Depressed or lethargic mood
  • Excessive confusion
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Dependency (individual hangs around or makes excessive appointments to see you)
  • Strange or bizarre behavior indicating loss of contact with reality
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Isolation from friends, family, or classmates
  • Gives away prized possessions
  • Prepares for death by making a will and final arrangements

The Do's in Helping a Distressed Student:

  • DO speak with the student privately
  • DO let him or her know you are concerned about his or her welfare
  • DO express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms
  • DO tell him or her you are willing to help
  • DO listen carefully to what he or she is troubled about
  • DO help him or her explore options
  • DO suggest resources
  • DO make a referral to the appropriate campus department
  • DO point out that help is available and seeking such help is a sign of strength and courage
  • DO respect the person's value system
  • DO maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations
  • DO recognize your limits
  • DO document the interactions with the student

The Don'ts in Helping a Distressed Student:

  • DON'T promise confidentiality
  • DON'T judge or criticize
  • DON'T ignore the unusual behavior
  • DON'T make the problems your own
  • DON'T involve yourself beyond the limits of your time or skill

This content was adapted from the Office of Student Life at Ohio State University


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