Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT)

Faculty Resources

How to Deal with Distressed and/or Disruptive Students

As a member of the Lehman College community, you may come into contact with students who are experiencing personal distress or difficulties coping with college. Students may reveal problems to you through personal communication or indirectly by their general behavior. 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

Listed below are some of the more prevalent signs of someone in distress.

This list is intended to provide basic information only.

  • Depression: While we all may feel depressed from time to time, “normal” depressions may consist of only one or two symptoms and usually pass within days. Clinically depressed people will exhibit multiple symptoms for a longer period of time. Some of these symptoms are sleep disturbances, poor concentration, change in appetite, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, withdrawal, poor hygiene, loss of self-esteem, and preoccupation with death.
  • Agitation or Acting Out: This would represent a departure from normal or socially appropriate behavior. It might include being disruptive, exhibiting restlessness or hyperactivity, being antagonistic or emotional volatility (crying easily, losing temper).
  • Disorientation: Some distressed students may seem “out of it.” You may witness a diminishment in awareness of what is going on around them, forgetting or losing things, misperception of facts or reality, rambling or disconnected speech, and behavior that seems out of context or bizarre.
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse: Signs of intoxication during class or on campus are indicative of a problem that requires attention.
  • Suicidal Thoughts:Most 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.” All suicidal references should be taken seriously.
  • 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-mail or letters, harassing or stalking behavior, and papers or exams that contain violent or threatening material. While it is not expected that you be a “watchdog” or 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. The following guidelines are offered as suggestions for dealing with distressed students.

Intervention Guidelines

Dealing with students who may express a problem, but are not disruptive in class:

  • A student may come to you with a problem or you may notice a problem from their behavior. If you notice a problem, but the student has not asked you for help, approach the student in writing or via verbal communication 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 Lehman College Counseling Center, at 718-960-8761 and ask to speak to a counselor.
  • When you meet with the student in a supportive manner that indicates you have noticed that the student seems “troubled/upset”, “tuned out”, and the student is willing to discuss his or her problems with you, listen attentively without making too many responses or suggestions.
  • Discuss the option of referring him or her to the Counseling Center where confidential and free services will be available. If the student does not want to discuss any personal matters with you, gently inform the student that counselors are available in the Counseling Center. Provide the student the location and phone number of the Center. You may want to offer to accompany the student to the Center if you are comfortable with this action and/or offer to help the student call the Center to request an appointment.
  • 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, however, need much more than you can provide. Respect any feelings of discomfort you may have and focus on getting them the assistance they require. You can do this by reinforcing the importance of the student confiding in you, being accepting and nonjudgmental, and indicating that seeking professional help is a positive and responsible thing to do.

Some signs that you may have overextended yourself include:

  • Feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation
  • Feeling angry at the student
  • Feeling afraid
  • Having thoughts of “adopting” or otherwise rescuing the student
  • “Reliving” similar experiences of your own

Dealing with severe disruptive behavior in class:

If in your judgment a student is exhibiting hostile, belligerent, and/or out of control behavior, you need to take immediate action.

  • 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 Public Safety at x7777. If no phone is available, quietly send another person to the nearest office or emergency phone to call.
  • Avoid Escalation. Distressed students can sometimes 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 students of rules at a later time.
  • Notify the Lehman College Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT). Once the student is removed by Public Safety or has left the class on his or her own, report the incident to the Lehman College BIT via the Online Form or by emailing one of the BIT members.
  • who will provide confidential personal counseling to distressed students. All services are confidential and free of charge. Please feel free to contact the Counseling Center at 718-960-8761.

(The above recommendations were written by Elizabeth McCaffrey, Ph.D./Queens College Counseling Center and amended by Karen Smith Moore, LCSW-R/Lehman College Counseling Center.)

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I refer a student to the Office of Student Affairs?

If you have concerns about a student's behavior or well-being, you can call us at 718-960-8241. Please provide your name, the student's name, the course name and code, and as much information about your concerns as possible. You may include photos or other documentation. We will then contact the student.

After I refer a student, is my participation in the process complete?

After a student is referred to our office, we contact the student directly to begin mediation and follow up with the faculty member to let them know that action has been taken. For FERPA and HIPAA reasons, we are not always able to give faculty members details about the mediation, but we are happy to answer any questions the faculty member may have about the process. We are able to mediate most student cases to everyone's satisfaction. In the rare event that a student's case requires further action, your participation in the process may be required.

How do I know if a student’s behavior potentially violates the Code of Student Conduct?

Academic and behavioral expectations for students, along with consequences for noncompliance, are outlined in the Rules and Regulations for the Maintenance of Public Order Pursuant to Article 129A of the Education Law (Henderson Rules). If you would like to contact us for clarification on the Henderson Rules, call us at 718-960-8241.

How can I address students who display disruptive behavior in my class?

The Office of Student Affairs offers tips for addressing rude and disruptive classroom behavior in the Resources section below.
Resources: Academic Integrity Policy/ Rules and Regulations for the Maintenance of Public Order Pursuant to Article 129A of the Education Law (Henderson Rules)/ The Teaching & Learning Commons/ Classroom Management

I do not feel comfortable confronting students. Can I just forward the information to the Office of Student Affairs?

We encourage faculty members to address the behavior with the student first, before referring the student to us for disciplinary action. Classroom management is meant to be an educational, interactive experience that encourages communication between students and faculty about appropriate behavior in an academic setting. Many students are simply not aware that their behavior is disruptive, and communicating your concerns and expectations for classroom conduct in a firm and clear manner can be more helpful to their development than a trip to the Student Affairs office.

What should I do if a student is displaying threatening or violent behavior?

You should contact Campus Security immediately if you feel a student is exhibiting potentially violent or unlawful behavior. This includes a student’s refusal to leave a classroom after being asked to do so. The Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) provides additional tools for threat assessments and early intervention of reported students.


Division of Student Affairs