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A Guide for Faculty: Tips on Handling Concerning, Distressing or Disruptive Students

Derived from Augusta University

Tips on Handling Disruptive Students in the Classroom

Faculty should:

  • Consider a general word of caution, rather than warning or embarrassing a particular student. “Too many private conversations are going on. Let’s all focus on the topic.”
  • Try speaking with the student after class.
  • If correction in class is necessary, correct in a courteous manner, indicating that further discussion can occur after class.
  • Ask a student to refrain from certain behaviors in the classroom.
  • Provide clear expectations.
  • Try to make this a learning experience for the student.
  • Provide an opportunity for the student to respond.
  • Ask a disruptive student to leave the classroom and not return until meeting with you.

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

Tips on Handling Angry Students

Faculty should:

  • Avoid confronting angry students in the classroom in a manner which may escalate the potential for violent behavior: for example, being sarcastic or embarrassing the student
  • Call the student by name, if possible. This will help create a greater connection between you and the student and may help calm the situation.
  • If the faculty member is uncomfortable meeting with the student one on one, arrangements should be made to have another faculty member present.
  • If a student is asked to leave a class because of disruptive behavior and the student refuses, determine whether it is possible to continue to conduct class.
  • Faculty should not feel a need to continue a class session when a student has the potential to become violent or when a student’s behavior has been so insubordinate and disruptive that attempts to continue class will be futile. In this case, a faculty member may immediately dismiss class.
  • If the student appears violent or dangerous, the faculty member should speak in a calm tone, call Campus Police, or ask someone else to place the call.

Trust your instincts and TELL SOMEONE if a student leaves you feeling worried, alarmed, or threatened. Your expression of concern may be a critical factor in saving a student’s academic career or even his/her life. While speaking with a concerning, distressing, or threatening student, offer your phone for them to make a counseling appointment or walk them over to UHS/SASSI. If you need support with a student, please contact the CARE Team.

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

Facts and Helpful Responses regarding the Suicidal Student
  • It is important to take all suicidal comments serious and to make appropriate referrals.
  • There are more attempts at the beginning and end of the semesters.
  • Talking about suicide will not plant the idea in a person’s mind but will probably relieve some of the tension she/he is experiencing.
  • Feeling isolated increases the likelihood of suicide.
  • The more developed the suicide plan, the greater likelihood for suicide.

Helpful Responses:

  • Reach out and encourage the student to talk about his/ her feelings.
  • Tell the student about your concern for his/her wellbeing.
  • Acknowledge that a threat of suicide (or an attempt) is a plea for help.
  • Be available to listen, to talk, to be concerned; but refer to the CARE Team.
  • Frequent contact, even for a few minutes, begins to relieve feelings of isolation (encourage the student to be in contact with family, friends, counselor).
  • Administer to yourself. Helping someone who is feeling suicidal is hard, demanding and draining work.

Less Helpful Responses:

  • Saying “don’t worry,” or “everything will be better tomorrow.”
  • This may only make the student feel worse.
  • Becoming overwhelmed by the student’s problems.
  • This may only provide evidence that she/he should feel helpless.
  • Assuming too much responsibility for the student and his/her problems.
  • Trying to ignore or minimize his/her feelings.

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

Facts and Helpful Responses regarding the Aggressive Student

Aggression can take many forms, from very subtle, passive acts to violent outbursts.  It often results when a student perceives a threat, feels frustrated and/or out of control. Some aggressive people express hostility immediately without regard for the circumstances or the people around them.  Others deny their anger and frustration until their hostility builds to the point of an explosive outburst. Many times, persons who are verbally or physically aggressive feel inadequate and use hostile behavior make them feel more powerful. Often these individuals believe you will reject them so they become hostile and reject your first to protect themselves from being hurt. They may see you as attempting to control them and lash out to try to gain some 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 are the handy target of pent-up frustrations. Overall, dealing with an aggressive student will be best handled by maintaining a firm, consistent and calm control in the situation (i.e. know what you are doing and what your goals are).

Helpful responses:

  • Allow the individual to express his/her anger in a calm manner, and tell you what is upsetting.
  • Tell the student that you are not willing to accept abusive behavior (e.g. “When you yell at me I cannot listen.”) If you need to, explicitly state what behaviors are acceptable.
  • Stick to the limits you set.
  • If the person begins to get too close to you, tell them  to please move back.
  • Reduce stimulation. If you are comfortable doing so, invite them to your office or another quiet place. If you sense a threat, arrange for a colleague to be nearby.
  • Rephrase what the individual is saying and identify his/ her emotions.
  • Get help if necessary (supervisor, colleague, police).

Less Helpful Responses:

  • Arguing
  • Pressing for explanations about his/her behavior
  • Looking away and not dealing with the situation
  • Physically restraining or grabbing the student
  • Making threats, dares or taunts

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

Facts and Helpful Responses regarding the Anxious Student

We have all experienced anxiety to a perceived stressful situation. Anxiety becomes heightened as the situation becomes more vague and less familiar. A panic attack is an overwhelming sense of dread and fear, and is the extreme result of feeling anxious. Some of the physiological components of general anxiety and panic attacks are rapid heart palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, choking, dizziness, sweating, trembling or shaking or cold, clammy hands. The student may experience feelings of worry or fear and may anticipate some misfortune. She/he may complain of poor concentration, being on edge, being easily distracted, memory problems and/or fitful sleep. 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.

Helpful Responses:

  • Let them discuss their feelings and their thoughts. Often, this alone relieves a great deal of pressure.
  • Encourage them to break down tasks into workable steps so they feel less overwhelmed.
  • Relaxation techniques, deep breathing, meditation and enjoyable exercise (e.g. walking) can all be helpful in reducing anxiety. Encourage them to engage in these behaviors or to seek professional help to learn these and other coping strategies.
  • Be clear and explicit about what you are expecting from them and what you are willing to do. It may be helpful to have them repeat what you have said to ensure that they understand.
  • Be calm and reassure him/her as appropriate.

Less Helpful Responses:

  • Trying to solve his/her problems as if they were your own.
  • Becoming anxious or overwhelmed along with them.
  • Overwhelming the student with more information or ideas (instead, keep things ‘bite size’).

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

Facts and Helpful Responses regarding the Demanding Student

Any amount of time and energy may simply not be enough for some students. Such students often seek to control your time and unconsciously believe that the amount of time received is a reflection of personal worth. In many instances, these people feel incompetent to handle their own lives.

Helpful Responses:

  • Set clear and precise limits with the student.
  • Stick to limits no matter how much she/he protests.
  • Let the individual make his/her own choices, clarifying the logical consequences of such choices.
  • Refer the student to other students in class, their friends, or campus/community resources. 

Less Helpful Responses:

  • Letting the student “trap” you into solving more and more of his/her life problems
  • Allowing him/her to use you as a sole source of support

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

Facts and Helpful Responses regarding the Suspicious Student

Usually these students complain about something other than their psychological difficulties. They are tense, cautious, mistrustful and have few friends. These students tend to interpret a minor oversight as significant personal rejection and often overreact to insignificant occurrences. They see themselves as the focal point of others’ behavior and everything that happens may seem to be interpreted in a suspicious light. Usually they are over-concerned with fairness and being treated equally. They project blame onto others and will express anger in indirect ways. Many times they will feel worthless and inadequate. 

Helpful Responses:

  • It is important to send clear, consistent messages regarding what you are willing to do and what you expect.
  • Express “reserved compassion,” mindful that a suspicious student may have trouble with closeness and warmth
  • Be firm, steady, punctual and consistent.
  • Be aware that humor may be interpreted as rejection

Less Helpful Responses:

  • Being overly warm ,nurturing or assuring the person that you are his/her friend. Let the student know that you can still be concerned without being intimate.
  • Trying to flatter him/her, or to be cute or humorous, to try to relieve your own anxiety. This will probably distance the student from you.
  • Challenging or agreeing with any mistaken or illogical beliefs.

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

Facts and Helpful responses regarding the Violent or Physically Destructive Student

Violence related to emotional distress is very rare and typically occurs only when the student is completely frustrated, feels powerless and is unable to exert sufficient self-control.

Helpful Responses:

  • Prevent total frustration and helplessness by quickly and calmly acknowledging the intensity of the situation (e.g., “I can see you’re really upset and really mean business, and have some critical concerns on your mind”).
  • Explain clearly and directly what behaviors are acceptable (e.g., “You certainly have the right to be angry, but hitting (breaking things) is not okay”).
  • Stay in an open area.
  • Divert attention when all else fails (e.g., “if you hit me, I can’t be of help”).
  • Get necessary help (Campus Police)

Less Helpful Responses:

  • Ignoring warning signs that the person is about to explode (e.g., raised voice, quickened speech, clenched fists, statements like “You are leaving me no choice.”
  • Threatening or taunting behaviors.
  • Physically cornering the person.
  • Touching the student.

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

General Tips for Dealing with Troubled Students
  • Request to see the student outside of class.
  • Briefly describe your observations and perceptions of their situation and express your concerns directly and honestly.
  • Listen carefully to what the student is troubled about and try to see the issue from their point of view without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.
  • Strange and inappropriate behavior should not be ignored. The student can be informed that such behavior is distracting and inappropriate.
  • Your receptivity to an alienated student will allow them to respond more effectively to your concerns.
  • Involve yourself only as far as you are willing to go.
  • At times, in an attempt to reach or help a troubled student, you may become more involved than your time or training permits. Extending oneself to others always involves some risk, but it can be a gratifying experience when kept within realistic limits.
  • If you have concerns about a student’s emotional state, call the CARE Team for referral or consultation. 

To determine whether to share a care concern, assess the determine appropriate resource chart , read the questions to consider before sharing a concern, and see the share a concern decision tree under “when and how do I share a concern.”

If you do decide to Share A Concern, please include the student in the conversation. Tips on including the student in the conversation can be found in the tab below.

Including the Student in the Conversation

We encourage faculty, staff, students, and parents to address their concerns with the student prior to sharing a CARE concern, although we are aware this is not always possible. Speaking openly with the student about the concern and his/her decision to share a CARE Concern lets the student know that the person sharing a CARE Concern cares about the student’s success and that resources are available.

Talking with the student about sharing a CARE Concern also-

  • Affirms the usefulness of the CARE Team
  • Engages the student in his/her own process
  • Creates a transparent relationship between the student and helping providers

Responses to Concerning Behavior:

  • You may wish to initiate a private, non-confrontational conversation with the student about your concerns
  • Identify options available to the individual and make referrals to campus resources as appropriate
  • Follow up with the student
  • Based on the student’s response, referral to the confidential counseling services at UHS or SASSI may be appropriate by contacting counseling services with the student or walking them to UHS/SASSI.

Responses to Distressing Behavior:

Responses to Disruptive Behavior:

  • If physical violence has transpired or is imminent, immediately contact Campus Police at 901.448.4444
  • Forward information to the CARE Team as soon as possible
  • Do not attempt to initiate contact with a student if you feel it would endanger your safety

Responding to Threats of Self-Harm/Suicide:

When a student makes any reference to suicide, threat of suicide, or attempt at suicide, a judgment should be made by a mental health professional about the seriousness of a possible suicidal thought or behavior.

References to or threats of self-harm should be treated seriously. Mental health evaluations and treatment are available at SASSI at 901.448.5056 or UHS at 901.448.5630. After hours counseling professionals can be reached at 901.541.5654 or 901-690-CARE. Suicide attempts are first and foremost a medical emergency. If dangerous or suicidal behavior appears imminent or has already occurred, contact UTHSC Campus Police at 901.448.4444.


*Please remember that instances that involve an immediate risk/threat to the University community should be referred to the Campus Police at 901.448.4444

Last Published: Nov 5, 2018