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How to Assist the Emotionally Troubled Student

By Alyson Bostwick

Students' futures can be saved by not turning our backs on our students' problems.
Alyson Bostwick, MFT

In any population of people, there is a percentage of individuals who suffer from personal or psychological problems that affect their lives to some varying degree.   The population of students that you will encounter as an instructor is no different.  Personal or psychological problems experienced by students can significantly affect their academic performance and the quality of their college experience.   In some cases, these problems can also have an impact on you as the instructor, other students in the class and the overall learning environment.  Although rare, you may even encounter a student whose personal or psychological problems pose a physical threat to themselves, to you or to other students. 


Effects on Students

Situational frustrations or conflicts caused by circumstances, usually temporary or short lived

behavior in college setting

  • interaction with others

  • self control 

  • ability to function


  • attendance

  • completion of required course work

student learning

  • ability to acquire new content

  • ability to demonstrate mastery of new content

Chronic on-going circumstances that persist over long period of time
Alcohol or 
drug related
chemical dependency that causes or exacerbates situational and/or chronic personal problems


It is likely that you will not be able to determine the nature and extent of a student's psychological or personal problems through observation alone, but you will be able to distinguish when a student's behavior is different from or outside the "norm" for college students.  When this occurs, you will need to be familiar with the techniques and resources available to help you and the student deal with inappropriate, disruptive or troublesome behavior.   You will find a reference chart for Responding to a Student in Crisis later in this section.  

Recognizing a Student in Crisis

The first and most important determination you will need to make is whether the situation your student is experiencing warrants the immediate intervention of a trained professional.  

A crisis situation occurs when the student feels unable to cope with the circumstances of his/her life. The more helpless the individual feels, the greater the crisis will be.  A psychological emergency that represents a crisis situation occurs when a person is:

CRISIS:  Psychological Emergency

Student Symptoms

Instructor Response

  • Suicidal

  • Homicidal

  • Gravely impaired

    • confused

    • extremely hyperactive

    • hallucinating

    • not in control of 
      his/her behavior

    • disoriented

Contact Safety and Security immediately.
Until help arrives:
  • Listen - allow student to talk
  • Assist - provide a quiet atmosphere; minimize environmental stimulation
  • Recognize - know your limitations; clearly convey them to student


  • Don't try to solve student's problems.
  • Avoid physical contact.


When Personal Counseling or Safety and Security is warranted to handle a student's psychological emergency, the student's family or significant other will be contacted if it becomes necessary to protect the health and safety of the student or other persons. If the student is under 18 years old, parents MUST be contacted. (Information may be released based upon the Family Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 if the knowledge of such information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other persons.)

After the student is out of immediate crisis , the college Personal Counselor or Security Officer will provide written notification of the incident to a member of the college's Crisis Team. The Crisis Team consists of: 

  • Personal counselor

  • Director of Health and Wellness

  • Director of Disabled Programs and Students Services

  • Director of Security

  • Dean of Educational Programs/Student Discipline

Members of the Crisis Team will then provide appropriate follow-up intervention for the student.

Recognizing Other Emotionally-Troubled Student Behaviors

The most common types of emotionally-troubled students that you will encounter in the classroom are:

  1. The AGGRESSIVE Student

  2. The DEPRESSED Student


  4. The ANXIOUS Student

  5. The MANIPULATIVE Student


The categories identified here are over-simplified.   You will likely find that in reality, the characteristics of students in these general categories, described below, will overlap.  Similarly, the actions you should take in handling such students in your class may overlap.  You will find a simple chart that summarizes the characteristics and suggested responses at the end of this section.


Aggression can take many forms, from very subtle, passive acts to violent outbursts. Aggression is the result of being frustrated and feeling out of control. Some aggressive people express hostility immediately without regard for their circumstances or the people around them. Other aggressive students express their hostility through explosive outbursts and the rest of the time deny their anger and frustration. Many times students who are verbally or physically aggressive feel inadequate and use the hostile behavior as a way of building up their self-esteem. Often they feel that you will reject them so that they become hostile and reject you first to protect themselves from being hurt. They may see you as attempting to control them and lash out to try and gain a sense of control. It is important to remember that the student is generally not angry at you personally but is angry at his/her world, and you may be the object of the pent-up frustrations.


Typically, a depressed student may feel guilty or angry at him/herself; has trouble concentrating or remembering; loses interest in schoolwork or other activities; and/or feels worthless or inadequate. Physical symptoms include: changes in appetite (increase or decrease), sleep disturbances (or excessive sleeping), low energy level. The more depressed student will convey a greater sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Often these feelings are expressed verbally or in writing.

Many depressed students feel suicidal It is important to take all suicidal comments seriously and to immediately refer students to a member of the College's Crisis Team.

Suicidal Indicators:

  • Talking of ending things (e.g., quitting school, work)

  • Giving things away

  • Taking care of business

  • Statements of hopelessness

  • Sudden lift in depression, surge in energy

Facts about suicides:

  • College students have higher suicide rates than non-college people of the same age.

  • More men commit suicide, but more women attempt.

  • There are more attempts at the beginning and end of semesters.

  • People committing suicide rarely want to die. They really want to end the pain they experience.

  • Talking about suicide will not plant the idea in a person's mind but will probably relieve some of the tension they experience.

  • Suicides rarely occur without warning.

  • Feeling isolated (no support group) increases the likelihood for suicide.

  • The more developed the suicide plan, the greater the likelihood for suicide.

  • If the student has made attempts in the past, he/she is at higher risk for future (and possibly more serious) attempts.


This student may appear withdrawn, frightened, unaware or unconcerned with classroom protocol or acceptable social behavior, disruptive, confused or illogical. Written or verbal communication may be disjointed with little or no connection between topics. Their speech may be rapid or slowed down. They may also pay a great deal of attention to some unimportant detail that is being discussed or may be generally scattered and incoherent. The student may make inappropriate emotional responses. He/she may overreact to his/her feelings with excessive anger, sadness or exuberance. Others may demonstrate a complete lack of emotional expression and speak in monotone.

These students tend to distort their perceptions of the world in such a way that innocent occurrences have special meaning to them (e.g., interpreting an innocent facial expression or tone of voice as being hostile or persecutory). They may experience themselves as especially powerful or important or may believe that people are trying to control or harm them in some way. The student may experience hallucinations, most commonly voices speaking to them. They may appear to be on drugs; however, that assumption should not be made.


An anxious student may experience feelings of worry, fear, and anticipate some misfortune. He/she may complain of difficulty concentrating, being always on edge, being easily distracted, memory distortions, or trouble sleeping. The student may also state unreasonably high self-expectations and be very critical of his/her present performance. This student may constantly think about and discuss his/her problems and possible solutions but be too fearful to take action.  The extreme result of feeling anxious is a panic attack in which the student's overwhelming sense of dread and fear is accompanied by physical symptoms such as rapid heart palpitations, sweating, trembling or dizziness.


Typically, the utmost time and energy given to this student is simply not enough. A manipulative student often seeks to control your time and unconsciously believes that the amount of time received is a reflection of personal worth. In many instances, these people feel incompetent to handle their own life. Usually, they are immature and self-centered.


Students who are paranoid see themselves as the focal point of everyone's behavior and everything that happens has special meaning. They are tense, cautious, mistrustful and have few friends. These students tend to interpret minor oversights as significant personal rejection. Often, many overreact to insignificant occurrences. They are overly concerned with fairness and being treated equally. They project blame onto others and will express anger in roundabout ways. Many times they feel worthless and inadequate.


Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive drug. It is common to find alcohol abusers in college populations also abusing other drugs, both prescription and illicit. Fads and peer pressure affect patterns of use. Currently, alcohol is the preferred drug on college campuses. The effects of alcohol on the user are well known to most of us. Student alcohol abuse is most often identified by faculty when irresponsible, unpredictable behavior affects the learning situation (i.e., drunk and disorderly in class), or when a combination of health and social impairments associated with alcohol abuse sabotages student performance. Because of the denial that exists in most substance abusers, it is important to express your concern about the student not in terms of suspicions about alcohol and other drugs but in terms of specific changes in behavior or performance.

Responding to a Student in Crisis

If you encounter a student in your class who appears to be emotionally troubled, the most important thing you can do is to refer the student to appropriate resources for intervention.  Until that intervention occurs, you will be faced with the challenge of interacting with that student in your class.  Your objective should be to DO NO HARM.  The following chart gives some guidelines on responding to students experiencing various forms of emotional -crisis.  You may wish to keep this printer-friendly version (responding_studentcrisis.pdf) with you as a readily-accessible reference.


Student Symptoms

Instructor Response

Feelings of 
   - frustration,    
   - inadequacy

   - being out of control


Violent outbursts

Verbally aggressive

May see you as 
trying to control them

Angry at his/her world
lashes out


Focus on diffusing situation.

Reduce stimulation

Allow student to ventilate.

Establish boundaries for behavior.

Alert the Dean of Students and College Safety and Security of any suspicion or threat of physical aggression.

Be prepared to call Safety and Security if necessary.

Refer student to Counseling or Health Services.  

Try to resolve the student's crisis.

Jeopardize your safety.

Get into an argument.

Touch the student.

Make threats, dares or taunts.

Insist on explanations of student's behavior.



Student Symptoms

Instructor Response

Feelings of 
  - self anger 
  - guilt 
  - worthlessness
  - helpessness, 

Difficulty concentrating, remembering

Changes in appetite

Sleep disturbances




Encourage student to express feelings.

Encourage utilizing a support network.

Tell students of your concerns.

Talk about suicide if it's on student's mind.

Refer student to Counseling or Health Services.    


  "Don't worry." 
  "Crying won't help."
   "Everything will be   
    better tomorrow."

Become overwhelmed by student's problems.

Try to take responsibility for or solve their problems.

Ignore their feelings.

Continue to see student without making appropriate referrals.



Student Symptoms

Instructor Response

Feelings of 
  -  special importance 
     or power

  -  being controlled or 
     harmed by others 
  -  confusion, distorted 

  -  unjustified 

Unaware or unconcerned with classroom protocol or acceptable social behavior


May appear to be on drugs.


Respond to them with warmth and kindness.

See them in a quiet atmosphere if you are comfortable doing so

Acknowledge their feelings.

Reveal when you have difficulty understanding them.

Focus on the here & now.

Refer student to Counseling or Health Services.    

Deal with the issue in front of the class.

Argue or try to convince them of their irrational thinking.

Play along with their beliefs

Encourage further revelations of craziness.

Demand they change their ideas or behavior.  

Continue to see student without making appropriate referrals.


Student Symptoms

Instructor Response

Feelings of 
  - worry
  - fear
  - anticipation of 
    misfortune, doom

Panic attacks
  - sweating
  - dizziness
  - choking
  - chest pain
  - cold, clammy hands

Difficulty concentrating

Memory distortions


Let them discuss their feelings or thoughts.

Help them define their stressors

Be clear and explicit about what you're willing to do.

Talk slowly, remain calm.

Encourage them to use a support system.

Refer student to Counseling or Health Services.    

Deal with the issue in front of the class.

Argue or try to convince them of their irrational thinking.

Play along with their beliefs

Encourage further revelations of craziness.

Demand they change their ideas or behavior.  

Continue to see student without making appropriate referrals.


Student Symptoms

Instructor Response

Feelings of 
  - inadequacy
  - seeks to control 
    your time

Self centered

Time spent with them 
is a reflection of personal worth.  




Set clear and precise limits. e.g., "I am able to spend 10 minutes with you now.  My regular office hours are..."

Strictly adhere to the established limits no matter how much student protests.

Allow student to make his/her own decisions.

Encourage them to use a support system. e.g. friends, other class members, college-based clubs.

Refer student to Counseling or Health Services if necessary.    

Take responsibility for them.

Break the  boundaries you set for the student.

Allow student to use you as their only source of support.




Student Symptoms

Instructor Response

Feelings of 
  - being the focal point 
    of everyone's 

  - tension
  - nervousness
  - caution
  - inadequacy
Misinterpret minor oversights as significant personal rejection.  

Overreact to insignificant occurrences.

Overly concerned with fairness, being treated equally.

Difficulty with closeness or warmth.

Project blame onto others.

Express anger in roundabout ways.

Send clear, consistent messages
  - what you will do
  - what you expect

Express compassion without intimate friendship.

Maintain a professional distance from the student.  

Refer student to Counseling or Health Services if necessary.    






Become a personal friend of the student.  

Become overly warm, nurturing or personal.  

Flatter, humor or "be cute" to relieve your won anxiety. 

Reinforce their beliefs.

Try to argue against their beliefs.




Student Symptoms

Instructor Response

Susceptible to peer pressure 

Irresponsible or unpredictable behavior

Health and social impairments
  - hygiene
  - consciousness
  - ability to function   

Changes in academic performance. 


Confront student with behavior that is a concern.

Address the substance abuse issue if the student is open and willing.

Offer support and concern for the student's overall well-being. 

Consider maintaining contact with student after a referral is made.

Refer student to Counseling or Health Services if necessary.    

Convey judgment or criticism about the students substance abuse. 

Make allowances for the student's irresponsible behavior.

Ignore signs of intoxication in the classroom.

Confront the student in front of the class.



When and Where to Make Referrals

Refer a student for help as soon as you feel the problem or request for information is beyond your level of competency. 

  • You fear for the safety of yourself, others or the student in crisis.

  • The student's condition and resulting behaviors render you unable to work with the student due to the limits of your energy, patience, or overall class environment.

Referral to A Personal Counselor

Referring a student for counseling may be threatening to him or her for various reasons.  Education and general information about available services can lessen the student's fears and make the difference in a successful referral. If you feel reluctant to refer a student for counseling, It is helpful to remember

Respect the limits of your knowledge and responsibility.

Do  what you think best for the student in crisis 
and the remainder of the students in your class.

When you do discuss a referral to a Personal Counselor, tell the student in a clear, concise manner about your concerns and why you think counseling would be of benefit.  Provide student with referral numbers for College Resources, but encourage student to take the initiative to call for an appointment themselves; it is an indicator of the student's responsibility for and commitment to their own needs.

If you need additional help in dealing with students who need assistance, call the Personal Counseling staff for a phone consultation.  This department will have professional counselors available to assist students who demonstrate a wide range of problems including:

  • Stress, anxiety

  • Relationship problems

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Anger

  • Test anxiety 

  • Substance abuse


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