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Dealing with Distressed and Disruptive Students

A Message From the Lesley University Counseling Center

As a member of the Lesley University community, you will come into contact with students who are experiencing personal distress or difficulties in coping with college. Students may reveal problems to you through personal communication or indirectly by their general behavior. It is important for you to be able to distinguish between students who may be disruptive and students who are truly in distress.

How to Address Issues That Arise in the Classroom

It is essential to establish a classroom environment conducive to optimum learning while minimizing the possibility of disruptive behavior. To facilitate such an environment, instructors should:

  • Serve as a model by demonstrating appropriate, respectful, and responsible behavior in all interactions with students.
  • Inform students of standards and expectations for classroom conduct and possible consequences for disruptive behavior early in the semester.
  • Identify possible triggers in the course material or triggering situations that may come up in class.  Be prepared to address issues that may arise individually with students or in the group setting.

Being aware of distress signals, methods of intervention, and sources of help for the student can help you feel more in control of situations that may arise and put you in a better position to be helpful.

  • Distress Signals

    Here are some of the more prevalent signs of someone in distress. This list is intended to provide basic information only.

    • Depression. While we all may feel depressed from time to time, "normal" depressions may consist of only one or two symptoms and usually pass within days. Clinically depressed people will exhibit multiple symptoms for a longer period of time. Some of these symptoms are sleep disturbances, poor concentration, change in appetite, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, withdrawal, poor hygiene, loss of self-esteem, and preoccupation with death.
       
    • Agitation or acting out. This would represent a departure from normal or socially appropriate behavior. It might include being disruptive, exhibiting restlessness or hyperactivity, being antagonistic or emotional volatility (crying easily, losing temper). This would not include Asperger’s Syndrome which is an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.
       
    • Disorientation. Some distressed students may seem "out of it." You may witness a diminishment in awareness of what is going on around them, forgetting or losing things, deteriorating appearance, grooming, misperception of facts or reality, rambling or disconnected speech, and behavior that seems out of context or bizarre.
       
    • Drug and alcohol abuse. Signs of intoxication during class or interaction with University officials are indicative of a problem that requires attention.
       
    • Suicidal thoughts. Most people who attempt suicide communicate early messages about their distress. These messages can range from "I don't want to be here," to a series of vague "good-byes," to "I'm going to kill myself." Take all suicidal references seriously.
       
    • Violence and aggression. You may become aware of students who may be dangerous to others. This may be manifested by physically violent behavior, verbal threats, threatening e-mail or letters, harassing or stalking behavior, and papers or exams that contain violent or threatening material.


    While it is not expected that you be a "watchdog" or that you provide a thorough assessment, you may be the first contact for a student in distress and in a position to ask a few questions.

  • Intervention Guidelines for Distressed Students

    Dealing with students who may express a problem, but are not disruptive in class:

    Remember that you are the student's advisor, instructor, etc. Though you may be a licensed clinician, that is not your role with the student.

    1. A student may come to you with a problem or you may notice a problem from their behavior. If you notice a problem, but the student has not asked you for help, approach the student in writing or orally and suggest a meeting after class. If you would like a consultation regarding how to talk to the student prior to your meeting, contact the Counseling Center.
       
    2. When you meet with the student, indicate in a supportive manner that you have noticed that the student seems "troubled/upset" or "tuned out."
       
    3. If the student is willing to discuss their problems with you, listen attentively without making too many responses or suggestions. Discuss referring them to the Counseling Center.  You may need to set limits with the student and explain that you can not take a therapeutic role with them.
       
    4. If the student does not want to discuss any personal matters with you, gently indicate that counselors are available in the Counseling Center at no cost to the student. Give the student the location and phone number of the Counseling Center. You may want to offer to accompany the student to the Counseling Center if you are comfortable with this action and/or offer to call the Counseling Center to say that the student will be making an appointment.
       
    5. Know your limits. You will be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and referring them for further help. Some students will need much more than you can provide. Respect any feelings of discomfort you may have or any feelings of wanting to help more than is appropriate and focus on getting them the assistance they require. You can do this by reinforcing them for confiding in you, being accepting and nonjudgmental, and indicating that seeking professional help is a positive and responsible thing to do.
       
    6. It is helpful if you call the Counseling Center and give us a heads up about anyone you refer.  Receiving that information is helpful for us. Unfortunately, we legally can not share any information with you, including confirming or denying if a student has even made an appointment.
       
    7. If a student is expressing suicidal or disturbing thoughts in a paper or in their artwork, share this information with the dean or Dean of Students.
       

    Dealing with severe disruptive behavior in class:

    If in your judgment a student is exhibiting hostile, belligerent, or out-of-control behavior you need to take immediate action.

    1. Safety first. Always keep safety in mind when you interact with a disruptive student. Maintain a safe distance and a route of escape should you need it. If danger to you or the student seems imminent, call 911 and then call Public Safety at 617.349.8888. If no phone is available, quietly send another person to the nearest office or emergency phone to call.
       
    2. Avoid escalation. Distressed students can sometimes be easily provoked. Never embarrass a student in front of other students. Take a calm and matter-of-fact approach. You may want to ask the disruptive student to leave the class. Be supportive but firm. Avoid threatening, humiliating, and intimidating responses. When a student is hostile and defiant it is best to avoid a confrontation. One can always remind them of rules at a later time.
       
    3. Redefine the problem. Instead of defining the problem as the disruptive behavior (e.g. "You are constantly interrupting me and your classmates"), redefine the problem as your experience of the consequences of their disruptive behavior. ("I cannot maintain a positive and open class discussion when I am being frequently interrupted.")
       
    4. Remain calm and respectful. Use "I" statements ("I couldn't finish my sentence" or "I would like to finish making my statement") rather than "You" statements (e.g. "You interrupted me again." or "You need to stop interrupting me."), so they will feel less defensive.
       
    5. Set limits. Set the limits in how you'll respond to their disruptive behavior rather than set limits on their behavior itself. This makes the criteria for action your experience rather than their behavior which can be debated by the student (e.g. "If I feel unsafe or I experience you as being aggressive, I will ask you to leave the room" rather than, “You must stop your yelling and aggressive behavior.”)
       
    6. Describe the behavior in neutral, objective, specific, and concrete terms. Don't be judgmental, subjective, or too general.
       
    7. Clarify your intentions related to your motives and goals. ("I want us to find a way so that we both can feel heard by the other.")
       
    8. Use good judgment to protect your safety and the safety of others. Do not attempt to keep the perpetrator from leaving the classroom. You may want to dismiss all students from the class. Avoid escalating the tension or conflict.
       
    9. Ask them to stop. Ask the student to stop their threatening or dangerous behavior.
       
    10. Call Public Safety. If the student refuses to leave, or the behavior escalates, call Public Safety at 617.349.8888.
       
    11. Document the situation. Do this soon after the incident. Keep any emails from the student. Write an email to the division director or Dean of Students. Keep the documentation objective, detailed, fact- and student-based.
       

    Do Not

    • Ignore the issue or behavior
       
    • Promise privacy or to keep something secret
       
    • Avoid talking directly to the student about your observations
       
    • Assume that the student is aware of your concerns
       
    • Offer more help than you are willing or qualified to provide
       
    • Make negative comments or implications about behavior
       

    Your own reactions can become valuable clues to let you know that you can ask for assistance to intervene with a distressed student.  

    • Feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation
       
    • Feeling angry at the student
       
    • Feeling scared and intimidated by the student
       
    • Having thoughts of "adopting" or otherwise rescuing the student
       
    • "Reliving" similar experiences of your own
  • Post-Intervention

      Ask it the student followed through with the referral if one was made. Remember, the Counseling Center cannot provide information about a student without that student's written permission.

      Ask the student how they are doing. It is important to maintain your connection with the student.
       
      Continue to expect the student to be involved in class activities unless there are circumstances that prevent them from doing so, for example, hospitalization.

    Who to Contact

    If any faculty or staff have an urgent concern about a student, contact Nathaniel Mays, the Dean of Student Life and Academic Development. During the day and after normal working hours, the best way to reach him is by his cell phone at 617.894.2765.
     
    If the emergency involves verbal threats to one’s self or others, physical violence, or necessitates a student going to the hospital, or Nathaniel cannot be reached, please contact the Public Safety person on duty. The main number for Public Safety is 617.349.8888 or x 8888 on campus. On the Doble Campus, they are located at 34 Mellen Street.
     
    On the Porter Campus, Public Safety is located in the lobby of University Hall, on duty 24 hours and can be reached at ext. 8390 (617.349.8390).
     
    On the Brattle Campus, Public Safety is located in the lobby of Burnham Hall, 99-2, and can be reached at 617.871.6029.


    Students May:

    • Be ‘odd'
    • Be ‘creepy’
    • Have a psychological condition
    • Have a disability (and disclose/not disclose)
    • Have different opinions than you
    • Challenge your opinion or information
    • Have a criminal history
    • Be entitled or self-centered
    • Have different cultural expectations

    Students May Not:

    • Significantly disrupt the educational environment so that others can’t learn
    • Engage in or threaten violence towards others
    • Steal, cheat, harass, etc.
    • Fail to comply with directions of University officials
    • Violate the standards of the university

    Resources on Campus

    Counseling Center (the number to give to students)
    617.349.8545   
    3rd floor, Doble Hall
     
    Magi McKinnies, Director
    mmckinni@lesley.edu
    617.349.8546

    Center for Academic Achievement and Access Services
    (physical, sensory, or mental health)
    Dan Newman, Director
    dnewman@lesely.edu
    617.349.8572
     
    Academic Advising, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
    Diep Liu, Director
    dluu2@lesley.edu
    617.349.8416
     
    Academic Advising, College of Art and Design

    Julie Stanwood, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs
    julie.stanwood@lesley.edu
    617.349.8022
     
    LD/ADD Academic Support Center
    Kim Johnson, Director
    kjohnso7@lesley.edu
    617.349.8462
     
    Dean of Students
    Nathaniel Mays
    nmays@lesley.edu
    617.349.8539
    617.894.2765 (cell)
     
    Public Safety
    617.349.8888