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Supporting Students

In this section: Preventing Harassment and Discrimination | Developing a Behaviour Agreement | Rights and Responsibilities

It is important that expectations regarding student behaviour, rights and responsibilities are clearly established from the outset. This involves:

  • Being consistent in your approach
  • Aiming to facilitate supportive and positive relationships among students
  • Intervening early if there are indications that a student may be having difficulties
  • Adopting an inclusive approach to teaching so that no student feels isolated
  • Acknowledging students’ feelings and points of view
  • Reinforcing appropriate behaviour
  • Being aware of behaviour-management resources and support services.

Students will sometimes encounter problems related to their health, studies, relationships or lives in general. If an issue is not addressed, they may become distressed or withdrawn, demonstrate changes in behaviour and/or fall behind in their work.

Teaching staff might like to begin by discussing the post-secondary education provider’s policy on assisting students with disability with the entire class, and confirm support for this policy. Invite students to talk with you or the student support service (counselling and/or disability service) after the class about any needs that they have. Students have the right not to disclose their disability, and many choose not to do so because of discrimination experienced in the past.

If behaviour is becoming inappropriate and having an impact on the learning of other students, then you need to speak to the student confidentially and advise him/her that the behaviour is inappropriate, giving your reasons.  

Students with Disruptive Behaviour

Students may demonstrate disruptive behaviour for a myriad of reasons. Managing disruptive behaviour can be difficult, but there are a number of preventative and reactive strategies for doing so effectively.

Initial response to an incident

  • Stay calm
  • If the behaviour is aggressive or threatening,  ensure that you and the other students are safe and call a supervisor or campus security
  • Clearly communicate your concern about the behaviour and how you would like it to change
  • Ensure that the student feels that they have been heard
  • Listen to the student and acknowledge their feelings
  • Give the student time out and the opportunity to discuss the matter privately later on
  • Remember that the issue is the behaviour, not the student’s disability (which may have nothing to do with the behaviour).

Secondary response

  • Document the specifics of the incident(s) – who, what, when, where – and decide if it is serious enough to be addressed
  • Assess the impact of the behaviour on other students and staff and ensure that their needs are addressed. You may require advice from student services
  • Decide on appropriate follow-up action such as:

- Taking action under student discipline policy
- Referring student to the course coordinator or head of department for counselling
- Meeting to develop a behaviour agreement
- Further training and support for staff (counselling may be required).

If the situation is complex, ongoing, or involves multiple parties, consider a case management approach. This involves key staff working together to ensure a coordinated response to managing behaviour and meeting student needs. Case management requires effective communication, consistent responses to inappropriate behaviour, and clear consequences for breaches of agreement.

Checklist for dealing with disruptive behaviour

The following checklist pinpoints key factors in managing disruptive behaviour. It can also be used for reviewing the outcome of disciplinary processes or complaints.

  • Have the student’s views been heard and their feelings acknowledged?
  • Is the student aware of their rights under relevant policies and ordinances?
  • Have clear behaviour expectations been established?
  • Have options for referral to other services have been identified and pursued?
  • Has the process been fair, equitable and timely for the student and staff?
  • Have responses to the behaviour been coordinated and clearly communicated?
  • Have disability-related factors been addressed and the potential for discrimination accounted for?
  • Have the emotional and practical needs of the staff been met?
  • Has the organisation’s legal liability been protected?
  • Have any broader issues and implications been addressed?
  • Have incidents and responses been adequately and confidentially documented?
  • Have the training and support needs of staff and students been considered?

Students in Distress

Students experiencing distress, regardless of their presenting problem, will often approach a person they know first and it may well be you as their lecturer, supervisor, tutor or administrative officer. Some will lack the confidence to ask for help, so you may need to provide encouragement and opportunity for them to do so.  While it is not expected that you will engage in intensive counselling with the student, you can still help and provide much-needed support.  Your response will depend on the situation: sometimes, acknowledging their feelings will suffice; in other cases, you may need to offer more encouragement and opportunity for them to discuss their problems. Effective communication skills will be particularly valuable.

Recognising signs of distress

Some common signs that a student may be experiencing more stress than they can cope with include:1

  • A marked decline in their quality of work and/or class participation
  • Excessive procrastination; extension requests that are skimpy on details
  • Frequent unexplained absences from class
  • Prolonged depression evidenced by sadness, apathy, weight loss/gain, tearfulness, sleeping difficulty
  • Talk of suicide directly or indirectly, e.g. ‘I won't be around to take that exam anyway’, ‘It's all too hard, I can't go on’
  • Signs of nervousness, agitation or excessive worry
  • Statements indicating a sense of worthlessness or helplessness
  • Marked change in personal hygiene or appearance
  • Atypical behaviour: aggressive, bizarre or inappropriate
  • Over-dependence on academic or administrative staff
  • Impaired speech, disjointed thoughts and losing touch with reality.

Tips for communicating effectively with a distressed student

  • Be clear about the limits of your responsibility. Do not delve too much into a student’s personal life - you are not expected to offer counselling or diagnosis
  • Listen to the student in a focused, attentive way
  • Be clear about how much time you have available – it is not appropriate to spend lengthy periods of time discussing a student’s problems. However, if you do need to end the meeting, make a specific time to follow it up
  • Give the student your full attention and show you are listening. Hold your meeting in a private place and try to ensure it will not be interrupted
  • Acknowledge the student's feelings. Just being heard may be enough to help the student negotiate the problem independently

If the student denies they are experiencing problems, explain why you are concerned (e.g. their behaviour has changed significantly or the quality of their work has deteriorated). If they refuse to discuss the matter but pass on information about how to seek help in and consider a referral to student services within your institution.

Concerns for Student Safety

Remember that if there are concerns regarding a student’s safety, i.e. they are exhibiting signs that are a threat to their own or others’ safety,  it is important that staff act quickly and appropriately. This may involve ringing campus security, campus counselling, a mental health crisis number, or 000. Always take seriously an expression of suicidal feelings or a threat to others, even if you doubt that the student would carry out the threat. The provider should have policies and procedures guiding your response. It may be necessary to stay with the student until they can be seen by an appropriate professional in order to ensure their safety.

Once the immediate threat has passed ensure that support is offered to other affected students. Ensure that relevant colleagues are informed. Consider whether further action is required to prevent a recurrence of the incident.

It is not always possible to prevent student self-harm or suicide. Even when a great deal of care and support is offered, an individual person still has a choice. It is important to try not to feel personally responsible for the situation. If you have been affected by suicide or a threat of suicide, it may be helpful to talk to a counsellor.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)

Similar to the physical health first aid certificate, the 12 hour Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training program is designed to help a person developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. MHFA does not teach people how to be therapists but how to provide initial help and go about guiding a person towards appropriate professional help. The program teaches participants how to use an action plan to assess risk and provide support in the first instance. It is appropriate for all staff who want to develop knowledge and practical skills in situations where either staff or students may be experiencing a mental health crisis. Most workplaces offer or support staff in receiving the training and most professionals can claim attendance at a MHFA course for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) with their industry body. Please be aware that there is also an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid Course which addresses how to assist an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander adult who is developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis.

Further Resources

References

1 University of Queensland 2014. How to support distressed students. Accessed on 14 November 2014. Sourced from http://www.uq.edu.au/student-services/counselling/how-to-support