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Working with Distressed and Disruptive Students

A Message From the Lesley University Counseling Center (LUCC)

As a member of the Lesley University community, you may encounter students who are experiencing personal distress or difficulty coping with being in college. Students may express 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 experiencing distress.

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. 

How to Address Issues That Arise in the Classroom

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

  • Inform students early in the semester of standards and expectations for classroom conduct and possible consequences for disruptive behavior.
  • Serve as a model by demonstrating appropriate, respectful, and responsible behavior in all interactions with students.
  • Identify possible content in the course material or situations that may come up in class that may be activating to students. 
  • 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 students may experience feelings of depression from time to time, it can be the case that the student is experiencing one or two symptoms which may pass within days. People with clinical depression will experience multiple symptoms for a longer period of time. Some of these symptoms may include sleep disturbances, poor concentration, change in appetite, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, low energy, and suicidal thoughts.
    • Agitation or acting out. This would represent a departure from socially appropriate behavior. It might include being disruptive, exhibiting restlessness or hyperactivity, being antagonistic or exhibiting emotional volatility (crying easily, losing temper). This would not include Autism Spectrum Disorder, which 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 their 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 alcohol intoxication or drug use during class  are indicative of a problem that requires attention.
    • Suicidal thoughts. Often, 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 and immediately report them to the Director of Counseling and the Dean of Students.
    • 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-mails/letters, harassing or stalking behavior, and papers or exams that contain violent or threatening material. 

    While it is not expected 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

    Guidelines for encountering students who may express a problem, but are not disruptive in class:

    Again, as a reminder, 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 something about their behavior that concerns you. If you notice a problem, but the student has not asked you for help, approach the student in writing or verbally 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 | Lesley University.
    2. When you meet with the student, indicate in a supportive manner that you have noticed that the student seems "troubled,” “upset,” or “distracted.” 
    3. If the student is willing to discuss their problems with you, set appropriate expectations around the conversation.  Listen attentively without making too many suggestions. Discuss referring them to the Counseling Center.  You may need to set limits with the student and explain that you cannot take on 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 (3rd Floor, Doble Hall, 617-349-8545). 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 being accepting, nonjudgmental, and indicating that seeking professional help is a positive thing to do.
    6. It is helpful if you contact the Counseling Center and give us information about the referral you are making.  It is important that you know that legally, we cannot share any information with you, including confirming or denying if a student has made an appointment, without the written permission of the student. You can always follow up directly with the student.
    7. If a student is expressing suicidal or disturbing thoughts, immediately report this information with the Director of the Counseling Center and the 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.  At times, distressed students may 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 setting limits on their behavior itself. This makes the criteria for action your experience rather than their behavior (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 student from leaving the classroom. You may want to dismiss all students from the class. Avoid escalating any 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.  Email the department director or the Dean of Students.  Keep the documentation objective, detailed, fact- and student-based.
    12. Let students know that you are not a “confidential resource” and that you will need to share information with the Equal Opportunity/Title IX Coordinator if the student tells you about incidents of discrimination, harassment, or sexual violence.  

    Do not: 

    • Ignore the issue or behavior
    • Promise privacy or confidentiality
    • 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 indicating that it may be helpful to ask for assistance to intervene with a distressed student.  These reactions may include:

    • 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 if 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 you learn that any student has attempted suicide while enrolled at Lesley or recently before matriculation or you learn of any student’s stated plans or intentions to die by suicide, you must immediately contact Nathaniel Mays, Dean of Students or Tracy Greenfield, Director of Counseling Services.  If you are unsure whether the information you learned indicates a student has actual plans or intentions to die by suicide, please immediately contact Nathaniel or Tracy.

Nathaniel: 617-349-8539 (office) or 617-894-2765 (cell) or nmays@lesley.edu
Note: Please feel free to contact Nathaniel at any time.

Tracy: 617-349-8637 (office) or 617-349-8545 (main #) or tgreenfi@lesley.edu
Note: If Tracy is not in the office, contact the Counseling Center at 617-349-8545 during its normal business hours, which are Monday through Friday 9:00 am – 5:00 pm during the academic year.  The Counseling Center’s hours are limited during summer and winter breaks. 

In emergency situations, immediately call 911 and then contact Lesley’s Public Safety Office at 617-349-8888.

If the emergency involves verbal threats to others, physical violence, or necessitates a student going to the hospital, or Nathaniel cannot be reached, please contact the Public Safety person on duty. 

617-349-8888 (Ext. 8888) is the emergency contact number for Public Safety for all three campuses.

On the Doble Campus, Public Safety is located at 34 Mellen Street.
On the Porter Campus, Public Safety is located in the lobby of University Hall.
On South Campus, Public Safety is located inside the entrance of Sherill Hall, 89 Brattle Street.


Be aware that students may:

  • Be struggling with a mental health issue
  • Have a learning disability (and disclose/not disclose)
  • Have varying perspectives
  • Challenge your opinion or information you provide
  • Have varying cultural beliefs or experiences

Students are not permitted to:

  • Cause disruption in the educational environment that disrupts others' learning experience or ability to learn
  • Engage in or threaten violence towards others
  • Fail to comply with directions of University officials
  • Violate the standards of conduct and policies of the University

Resources on Campus

Counseling Center  
3rd floor, Doble Hall 
Disability and Access Services
(physical, sensory, or mental health) 
Holly Aldrich, Assistant Director
LD/ADD Academic Support Center 
Dean of Students 
Nathaniel Mays 
617.894.2765 (cell)

Equal Opportunity & Title IX
Valerie Yeakel
Equal Opportunity and Title IX Coordinator

Public Safety