Distressed and Disruptive Students: A Guide for Faculty

Working with college students has always been both challenging and rewarding. College life is stressful at times for all students, but today, many students are juggling additional burdens with fewer supports. As an instructor or advisor, you may be the first person to recognize a student in distress, yet you may be unclear, and a bit uneasy, about if, when, and how you should discuss your concerns.

How do I recognize a student in distress?
Every student is different, but here are some common “red flags:”

  • obvious changes in mood or behavior
  • tearfulness, depressed mood
  • threatening behavior and/or stalking
  • extreme restlessness, agitation
  • change in grades, class attendance, work habits
  • obvious anxiety, panic or avoidance behavior
  • coming to class drunk, high, hung-over
  • direct or indirect expressions of hopelessness/suicidal thoughts
  • disturbing material submitted in class work, papers, exams
  • evidence of self-inflicted harm: scars, cuts, burns, etc.
  • poor hygiene/inappropriate clothing
  • bizarre or unusual behavior or speech
  • significant weight changes
  • irritability, outbursts or disruptive behavior

How can I help/intervene?

  • Don’t ignore the situation.
  • Talk with the student privately;be specific about the behaviors you’ve observed that are troubling.
  • Express your concern and offer assistance (which is typically a referral to the Talley Center for Counseling Services or other campus resource).
  • Whether or not the student accepts your assistance, please consider reporting your concerns to the Dean of Student Life, 654-1200.  Reporting allows the Dean of Student Life to track at-risk students, as others may share your concerns and may report as well. If there appears to be a pattern of concerning behaviors, the Threat Assessment Team within Student Affairs (sometimes called Students of Concern Committee at other institutions , can review the situation and intervene.   Remember, students in distress are not punished or sanctioned – your report simply allows the University to offer supportive resources to students who may not seek out such services on their own.
  • Become familiar with the Talley Center for Counseling services, as well as other campus resources for students, so you can speak knowledgeably.
  • Reassure the student and strive to destigmatize help-seeking.
    The counseling centerworks with many students on a variety of issues, from everyday stress to more serious psychological issues. Our staff members are clinical psychologists experienced in working with college students and young adults. Knowing when to seek support is an important skill, not a sign of weakness or failure. Remind the student counseling services are free and confidential and do not become a part of a student’s University record. Even if you refer the student, we cannot share any information with you or others, including whether or not s/he made or kept an appointment, unless s/he gives us permission (although there are a few, limited situations involving serious threats to the safety of the student or others, in which we are allowed to break confidentiality).
  • Offer to help the student make an appointment. In rare instances,you may wish to walk the student over to the counseling center, located in Lee Hall.
  • Let the student know that counseling services are voluntary. Students are free to discontinue sessions at any time, and/or free to see another counselor.
  • Document, follow up, and check-in with the student.

Call the Talley Center for Counseling Services for a consultation if you have questions or you yourself would like assistance.

What about a student who is disruptive?

Disruptive behavior falls on a continuum. It amounts to more than strong emotions or opinions expressed during the course of academic debate. And, it is more than the expression of controversial and/or extreme points of view. Individual instructors vary in the range of behavior they tolerate in their classrooms; generally, however, “disruptive behavior” is that which interferes with teaching and learning. The persistence, severity, and nature of the behavior are key factors in determining if it is disruptive. Examples include:

  • talking when others are speaking
  • verbal badgering, frequent interruptions
  • sleeping or eating in class
  • cell phone use/text messaging in class
  • chronic tardiness or early departure from class
  • cursing or using derogatory and demeaning language
  • monopolizing class time or discussions
  • refusal to heed written or oral directions
  • stalking
  • verbal or physical threats
  • erratic, or otherwise odd or unusual behavior
  • excessive noise-making
  • intoxication/drug use
  • physical aggression to people or property

How should I respond to disruptive students?

Plan ahead; try to prevent problems before they occur. Determine the standards you wish to enforce in your classroom or office. Include specific behavioral guidelines in your syllabus and discuss your behavioral expectations in class as each semester begins.

Consider your response to continued disruption. What consequences will you impose if the behavior continues? Additional warnings? A referral to Judicial Affairs? Will your response depend on your assessment of the student’s situation? What if the behavior appears related to the student’s emotional or psychological status?

Give notice to students who behave in a disruptive manner. Don’t ignore the behavior and hope that it will stop. Inform the student (usually in private) that his/her behavior has violated the rules for acceptable behavior in your classroom. Be specific and concrete. Use examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior you have directly observed. Inform the student of the consequences of continued disruption, including the potential for judicial action.

Document your interventions. If you counsel a student about his/her behavior, make a record including the date, names of those present and what was said, as well as the student behavior that was objectionable. Keep your department chair informed as well.

Seek help, support, and consultation. You are not alone; there are many resources available on campus.

Consult with your colleagues. In addition to support and ideas, a colleague may be willing to sit in when you meet with a student and act as an informal witness to what is discussed.

• Judicial Affairs & Community Responsibility           540.654.1660
Learn more about student conduct standards, about when a complaint is appropriate and the procedures to follow when making a referral.

• Office of Disability Services                                           540.654.1266
A documented disability, including a psychiatric disability, does not excuse disruptive behavior nor preclude student compliance with classroom conduct standards. If a student’s disruptive behavior relates to a psychological or physical disability, learn more about how to foster acceptable behavior within the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

• Office of Student Life                                       540.654.1200
In certain situations involving disruptive behavior that may relate to a psychological and/or substance abuse issue, the Dean of Student Life may invoke the UMW Mental Health Policy. This administrative action requires the student to complete a psychological evaluation. The policy helps the student access resources that will help him/her to meet behavioral expectations. The process is not a sanction, but complements the judicial system and the Honor Code.

• Human Resources                                          540.654.1046
Your classroom or office is your workplace. Learn more about how to maintain a healthy, safe workspace for yourself as well as a productive learning environment for students.

University Police                                                 540.654.1025
It is possible that a student’s disruptive behavior may be chargeable as a legal offense. University police officials can assist you in determining how and when to use the legal system as a safeguard or remedy.

What if the student appears dangerous?

Your safety and the safety of your students is paramount.  If a student is behaving in a verbally aggressive manner, remain calm, do not raise your voice or confront the student. Politely request that they respect your physical space and speak in a conversational tone if s/he wishes to continue speaking with you.  It is always OK to set limits on student behavior, if done appropriately.  Don’t touch the student or move closer to him/her or turn away.

If a student actually makes a threat or becomes physically aggressive, contact the University Police immediately.

Other Resources:

Student Handbook – see Student Code of Conduct

NACUA (National Assoc. of College and University Attorneys) FERPA & Campus Safety Guidelines.   NACUA Notes Vol. 5  No.4.  08-06-07.

Amada, Gerald. Coping With the Disruptive College Student: A Practical Model. Asheville: College Administration Publicat’ns, 1994.

Amada, G. “The Disruptive College Student: Recent Trends and Practical Advice”, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, Vol 11(4), pp 57-67, 1997.