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Unusual, Disturbing or Suspicious Behavior
Working with Students with Behavior Problems
Students are disruptive for many different reasons. Some disruptive students
may have psychological disabilities (both diagnosed and undiagnosed). Each
student with one or more psychiatric disabilities is an individual. The student's
behavior and how his or her symptoms are manifested is unique. However, the
experiences of college staff have led them to identify patterns of behavior
that run across the entire student body-including those with psychiatric difficulties-and
that require specific notice and interventions.
When a student is being disruptive, it is important that the instructor let the student know that the instructor is aware of the student's behavior. Because the instructor's primary task is teaching, he or she should not interrupt the class any more than necessary. A classroom management strategy that calls for a minimum amount of intervention is described in the next sections, but it is important to remember that involvement should increase if the student does not respond with changes in his or her behavior. The following are guidelines for the instructor in maintaining a positive learning environment.
- Observe -Watch the student to see if the behavior will stop momentarily. If it does not stop, catch the student's eye so he or she understands that he or she is being watched.
- Engage-If the behavior continues, address the student directly (by name or at his or her desk or chair if possible) in order to detract as little as possible from classroom activities. Get more information. Ask the student if he or she has a question or if there is a problem that needs attention. If the issue cannot be resolved at the time, make an appointment to see the student after class.
- Intervene- If the behavior does not stop, ask the student to step outside for a brief conference. Put someone else in charge of the class for the interim. If this is a crisis situation, dismiss the class. Get more information from the student to determine whether he or she has a particular problem or concern about something. Keep the discussion focused in the present moment and on the student's behavior. Next, ask the student to stop the behavior. If the student does not feel he or she can stop the behavior, ask the student to leave the class for now, and set up an appointment with him or her before the next class to resolve the issue.
In the meeting, explore the student's problem further to determine whether
an accommodation or a referral is necessary. If neither are the case and there
are no other issues, determine whether the student is willfully and intentionally
disruptive. If so determine whether a sanction imposed by you is appropriate
or if the student should be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. That
referral can be made via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org)
or by phone (301.314.8204).
- Consult- If a meeting does not resolve the problem and the behavior continues, begin the process of involving other staff members. Notify the Office of Student Conduct. Talk with other college staff to determine whether the student has a problem in other classes or other places on campus. Talk to the student's advisor. If possible, set up a conference. Decide whether it is necessary to begin a formal process. Inform the student of the process being implemented. Instructors are often reluctant to involve others in a problem they feel it is their job to handle. However, there may be several other people that are struggling with the same student and the same behavior. It is in the student's best interest to have the problem identified and resolved before it escalates into a major issue.
- Document - It is important to keep records of what has been done to solve the problem. Records provide a means to monitor the situation and to determine whether it has improved; they also provide a basis for any formal action that might take place.
Instructors should not hesitate to resolve problems early. They are often powerful change agents. Compassionate understanding and firm guidelines may be a positive force in the student's life at that moment.
If a crisis (i.e., when a student becomes very agitated, aggressive, or threatens the health and safety of him- or herself or others) occurs, the situation requires immediate and specific attention. The following guidelines for managing a crisis are recommended for all college staff and instructors:
Remain calm. Take a deep breath and relax. A calm demeanor will have a soothing impact on the student. A calm persona will help keep the situation in control and reassure the student.
Unusual, Disturbing or Suspicious Behavior
- Listen to the student. Allow the student to talk about what has happened and vent his or her feelings. Respond to the student's feelings with empathy and respect. Avoid confrontational behavior.
- Focus the student. Help the student to focus on the here and now.
- Ask for direction. Is there something that the student wants done or that he or she wants to do by him- or herself? What would the student like you to do?
- Refer the student to help. Before leaving the student, make sure
that he or she is calm and in control. If there are any questions about the
student being in control, do not leave him or her. Call Public Safety (301.405.3333)
for assistance, or walk the student to Counseling Center or the Office of Student
Conduct, and make sure he or she is seen by somebody who is skilled in handling
These pointers are for situations in which you must respond immediately or
for those in which you choose to respond on your own. Please be assured
that whenever possible you are welcomed and encouraged to consult with either
the Office of Student Conduct (301.314.8204) and/or Counseling Center (301.314.7651).
Please call either office and ask to speak with a dean or a psychologist whenever
you have any concerns or questions about a student’s behavior.
- The Student Who Is Verbally Aggressive A student may become verbally aggressive when he or she feels frustrated or out of control. He or she will lash out at others as a way to express these feelings. Do allow the student to vent and describe what is upsetting him or her but indicate that verbally abusive behavior is not acceptable. If the student gets too close to you, sit down and ask him or her to move back. Be aware of the closest exit. If necessary, walk the student to a quieter, but public place; if the student agrees, walk him or her to the counselor's office or to University Police. Do not enlist the aid of other students to quiet the student down. Do not threaten, taunt, or push the student. Do not press for an explanation of the student's behavior. Do not get physically cornered.
- The Student Who Is Violent or Physically Destructive A student may become violent when he or she feels totally frustrated and unable to do anything about it. Being frustrated over a long period of time may erode the student's control over his or her behavior. This behavior may present the most immediate danger to staff and to other students. Do get help immediately from the Department of Public Safety (301.405.3333 or 911) or the Counseling Center (301.314.7651) or the Office of Student Conduct (301.314.8204). Do present a calm appearance and let the student talk. Respond to him or her calmly and quietly. Explain that only behaviors that are safe for others are acceptable. Call for assistance, but first tell the student of your intention. Do not threaten, taunt, or push the student. Do not press for an explanation of the student's behavior. Do not confront or threaten the student. Do not get physically cornered.
- The Student Who Is in Poor Contact with Reality A student in poor contact with reality may be having hallucinations or delusions or have difficulty separating fact from fantasy. He or she may behave in strange or unusual ways and is most likely scared, frightened, and overwhelmed; he or she probably is not dangerous. Do respond to the student with care and kindness, and maintain eye contact. Acknowledge the student's fears without either supporting or contradicting his or her misconceptions. Try to change the focus from the student's delusion to the immediate reality. Contact the Counseling Center or the University Health Center. Do not argue or try to convince the student that he or she is irrational. Do not play along with the student's delusions. Do not demand, command, or order the student. Do not expect customary responses.
- The Student Who Is Depressed A student who is depressed may go unnoticed. His or her behavior may indicate low energy, lack of interest in what is going on around him or her, feelings of sadness and hopelessness and difficulties with eating and sleeping. His or her personal hygiene may be poor. Do express concern and privately inquire if he or she is receiving any help. If not, make a referral or escort the student to the Counseling Center (301.314.7651) or the University Health Center. Do not discount the significance and intensity of the student's feelings. Do not say things such as, "Crying won't help."
Do not discount a suicide threat. If the student says he
or she is contemplating suicide, notify the Counseling Center (301.314.7651)
or the University Health Center (301.314.8180). Do not leave
the student unattended unless he or she has agreed to a positive course of
action, such as calling a hotline or seeing a mental health services provider.
- The Student Who Is Anxious A student who is anxious appears overly concerned with trivial matters. He or she may require very specific guidelines and seek more structure in assignments. Unfamiliar or new situations often raise his or her anxiety. Apprehension over assignments and concerns about perfection may be a result of unreasonably high self-expectations. Do be clear and explicit about expectations. Let the student express his or her feeling and thoughts. Recommend that he or she seek counseling. Remain patient with the student's demands for clarification and structure. Do not discount the student's anxiety by saying, "It's not really that bad, is it?" Do not blame yourself for the student's anxiety.
- The Student Who Is Dependent A student who is dependent may attach him- or herself to staff and demand more and more time. He or she is often lonely and has poor interpersonal skills. The student may see the amount of attention given to him- or herself as a reflection of his or her self-worth. Do set limits on the time spent with the student and limits on which subjects will be discussed. Do let the student make his or her own decisions. Refer the student for counseling. Do not let the student use staff as his or her only source of support. Do not assume the role of parental figure, give advice, or give more time and energy than can be realistically spent or is appropriate.
- The Student Who Is Suspicious A student who is suspicious often is tense and distrustful. He or she may interpret minor oversights as personal rejection and overreact to insignificant occurrences. He or she is overly concerned with fairness and being treated equally. The student may place staff in seemingly no-win situations because he or she views attention as the staff wanting something from him or her and inattention as the staff having it in for him or her. Do express compassion without overstating friendship. Suspicious students often have trouble relating to others.
Do be firm, steady, punctual, and consistent. Be specific and
clear regarding the standards of behavior expected from the student. Do make
a referral to Counseling Center (301.314.7651). Do not become
the student's friend. Do not be overly warm and nurturing. Do
cute or humorous; this can be misinterpreted as slights or rejections. Do
not challenge or agree with any misconception.
- The Student Who Is Seductive A student who is seductive may behave flirtatiously, ask many personal questions, make demands on staff time, and request special treatment. The student may misinterpret attention as meaning staff have special feelings for him or her. Do set limits on the amount of time spent with the student and which subjects will be discussed. See the student only in a classroom or an office. Keep the door open during meetings. Be careful about giving double messages or saying things that might be misinterpreted as having a personal interest in the student beyond the normal student/teacher relationship. Do not encourage the student by responding positively to inappropriate behavior. Do not give the student special treatment.
- The Student Who Talks About Suicide The student who talks about suicide may mention in an offhand way that he or she wants to kill him- or herself or that he or she thinks about being dead or in a better place. The student may feel depressed and hopeless. He or she may threaten to do something that will end his or her life. Do take these threats or comments seriously. If the student mentions specifics about how or when he or she will kill him- or herself or if he or she has made a previous attempt, consider the risk very serious and get help. Express your concern for the student and strongly encourage him or her to see a counselor immediately. Escort the student to Counseling Center or the University Health Center who will facilitate an appropriate referral. Do not make light of suicide threats. Do not discount the significance of the student's feelings of depression and hopelessness. Adapted from Unger, Karen. V. Handbook on Supported Education: Providing Services for Students with Psychiatric Disabilities. Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, 1998.