Guide for Faculty

College students typically encounter a great deal of stress - academic, social, family, work, financial - during their educational experiences. While most students cope successfully with the demands of college life, for some the pressures can become overwhelming and unmanageable. Students having a difficult time have a number of resources available to them. These include close friends, relatives, clergy and coaches. In fact, anyone who is seen as caring and trustworthy may be a potential resource in times of trouble.

As a faculty or staff member who interacts daily with students, you are in an excellent position to recognize behavior changes. A student's behavior, especially if it is inconsistent with your previous observations, could constitute a "cry for help."

The following information offers straightforward advice, techniques and suggestions on how to cope with, intervene and assist troubled students.

  • Tips for recognizing students with emotional distress
  • Students with eating disorders
  • Dealing with difficult students

At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. But, we can identify three general levels of distress which, when present over a period of time, suggest that the problem the individual is dealing with are more than the "normal" ones.

Level 1

These behaviors, although not disruptive to others, may indicate that something is wrong and that help may be needed:

  • Serious grade problems or a change from consistently good grades to poor performance
  • Excessive absences, especially if the student had previously demonstrated good, consistent class attendance
  • Unusual or markedly changed pattern of interaction, i.e., totally avoiding participation, becoming excessively anxious when called upon, dominating discussions, etc.
  • Other characteristics that suggest the student is having trouble managing stress successfully include a depressed, lethargic mood, being excessively active and talkative (very rapid speech), swollen, red eyes, marked change in personal dress and hygiene, sweaty (when room is not hot) and falling asleep inappropriately.

Level 2

These behaviors may indicate significant emotional distress, but also a reluctance, or inability to acknowledge a need for more personal help.

  • Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions, especially if the student appears uncomfortable or highly emotional disclosing the circumstances prompting the request
  • New, or regularly occurring behavior which pushes the limits of decorum and which interferes with the effective management of the immediate environment
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response which is inappropriate to the situation

Level 3

These behaviors usually show a student is in obvious crisis and needs emergency care:

  • Highly disruptive - Hostile, aggressive, violent, etc.
  • Inability to communicate clearly - garbled, slurred speech, disconnected, or disjointed thoughts
  • Loss of contact with reality - Seeing/hearing things that "aren't there," beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability
  • Suicidal thoughts - referring to suicide as a current option
  • Homicidal threats

What Can You Do?

  • Talk to the student in private when both of you have time and are not rushed or preoccupied. Give the student your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel confident about what to do next.
  • If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms (e.g., "I've noticed you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned," rather than "Where have you been lately? Goofing off, again?").
  • Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive non-threatening way. Communicate understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you. Try to include both the content and feelings ("It sounds like you're not accustomed to such a big campus and you're feeling left out of things.") Let the student talk.
  • Avoid judging, evaluating, or criticizing even if the student asks your opinion. Such behavior is apt to close the student off from you and from getting the help needed. It is important to respect the student's value system, even if you don't agree with it.

Student with Eating Disorders
In the United States, as many as 10 million females and one million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Professionals state that pproximately 25 million more are struggling with binge eating disorder. Through student's involvement with school, educators and coaches have the opportunity to notice weight fluctuations and irregular eating habits.

Here are some links that can guide you when dealing with a student's eating disorder:

How to refer a student who may have an eating disorder

Other related articles:

  • Causes of Eating Disorders
  • Tips for Coaches
  • Educators: Understanding Your Role
  • Athletes and Eating Disorders

Dealing with Difficult Students
Occasionally, you'll come across a student who needs some special attention. For lack of a better term, we'll call these people "difficult" students since their actions (or lack of actions) make your job harder and sometimes even disrupt the learning process. You cannot ignore them - you have to deal directly with them. Here are some categories of difficult students and rough guidelines for trying to turn the situation around:

Coping strategies


  • Point out that you disagree because the statement does not correlate with course material
  • Offer to talk privately after class, or during office hour
  • Remain calm and non-judgmental
  • Always use evidence when disagreeing
  • Make apparent your willingness to discuss the issue calmly

Over-talkative Student

  • Maintain the flow without reinforcing the student's behavior
  • Try to elicit responses from other students
  • Speak to the student privately about their behaviors
  • Avoid ridiculing the student or making comments to other students
  • Ask appropriate questions to focus the student

Silent Student

  • Avoid putting student on the spot
  • Try to elicit responses gradually
  • Address student privately about reasons for reticence

Grade Grubber

  • State your guidelines or expectations at the outset
  • Provide comments to support grade
  • Offer suggestions for improvement


  • Ask the student if they have a better suggestion
  • Don't allow yourself to be pulled into an argument
  • Don't react defensively
  • Ask if student feels criticism has been heard


  • Remind this student that threats are not effective classroom processes
  • Speak to student after class to find out why behavior continues
  • Counsel student in benefits of discontinuing behaviors
  • Refer for counseling


  • Ask a question of this student; say "I'll give you a minute to think about this."
  • After class, ask student why they are not participating. It may be the class is not very interesting!


  • Deal with the Interrupter immediately, e.g.: "Just a moment, John, let Charlene finish what she was saying"
  • After class, point out how irritating this behavior is to other students
  • Suggest the student write down ideas until there is an appropriate time to express them


  • Encourage student when tensions need release (as long as it's not at the expense of another student)
  • Laugh, compliment their wit
  • Ignore student when it is time to get back to work
  • Student will learn that their role is the productive release of tensions, not wasting time


  • Acknowledge this student's expertise once, but emphasize why this issue is open for group discussion
  • For example: "Yes, you may be right, but the decision has to be made by the group after weighing all the alternatives," or
  • "You may be right, but we are tackling the problem as a group to come up with some new insights and solutions"


  • Speak to the student after class
  • Start the class on time regardless. This penalizes the student who is late, not the ones who are on time
  • Ask the student to be the group leader or to present at the next class
  • Address the importance of timeliness with the entire group


  • Catch and throw. Thank the student for their opinion, and ask someone else for an opinion
  • Interrupt tactfully with a question requiring a yes or no answer
  • Summarize a statement: "Excuse me, Janet, it sounds like you agree with Paul"
  • Use a 'round robin' technique for discussion

Side Conversations/Whisperer

  • Stop talking and wait for side conversation to end
  • Ask a direct question of one of the talkers

Many difficulties with students can be circumvented if you clearly outline your expectations and evaluative criteria at the beginning of every course. Identifying these details at the outset will protect you and your students from future misunderstandings, and will leave you less vulnerable.