Response Guide for Difficult Student Situations

The Student Care Team developed this guide to inform response to difficult situations that may occur in and outside of the classroom. Keep in mind that there will be variables which direct faculty and staff to an appropriate response. This is not an all-encompassing list, nor are you expected to deal with these situations alone. Utilize the campus resources recommended throughout the document.

Faculty and staff are often the first point of contact for many student issues. Departments are encouraged to develop standards on ways to handle these situations. Use this guide as a springboard to begin communication about difficult student situations.

The Student Care Team recommends that faculty review the issues in this document and include a statement about appropriate classroom behavior in your syllabus in order to proactively address these situations. If there is no threat, often the best approach is to deal with these instances in a supportive and structured manner.

Familiarize yourself with campus resources and policies:

When dealing with a difficult student situation:

  • Don’t personalize the situation: take a breath and look at the situation as objectively as possible.
  • Identify the specific behavior of concern.
  • Avoid creating an adversarial relationship where there is no room for movement.
  • Look for the educational opportunity. An educational conversation from a University official can have a lasting impact on a student. Look for the opportunity to dialogue about the situation.
  • Maintain professional communication.
  • Address inappropriate, disruptive, or concerning behavior from the beginning. If you have a concern, do not wait to see if it happens again.
  • Use ”I” statements:
    • “I am happy to discuss this/speak with you about this matter, however:
  1. I do not/will not speak with another adult who is yelling (cursing, etc.);” and/or
  2. As an educator, I do not/will not speak to someone who uses vulgar/crass/inappropriate/disrespectful language.”
  • “I hear that you are frustrated, however: (see “a” and ”b,” above).”
  • “I recognize how frustrated you are and I want to work with you. We need to take a step back for a minute so we can look at this situation together.”
  • Repeat the statement calmly two times. The third time, add, “I am going to end this conversation. I do not….. (see “a” and “b,” above).”
  • Maintain records of interactions with difficult students
  • IssueRecommended ResponsesResource(s)

    Inappropriate Communication

    Ex: A student in your class expresses that he/she has romantic feelings for you.
    • Clearly communicate to the student that you are not interested in having an inappropriate classroom relationship with him/her.
    • Tell him/her to stop the inappropriate communication.
    • If you must meet with the student in your office keep the door open and have a responsible third party present.
    • Report and document the situation to your supervisor.
    • Explain that if the behavior continues, the incident will be reported as sexual harassment.
    • If inappropriate communication continues, contact the Dean of Students Office to report sexual harassment

      Unprofessional Behavior in an Internship/Clinical Setting

      Ex: A student’s internship supervisor reports that she/he is not performing professionally
      • When students perform poorly in placement, the treatment and service needs of clients and/or the needs of the agency become a priority.
      • Agency supervisors and faculty should act to protect the needs of the client and the agency to ensure appropriate action is taken.
      • Faculty and community supervisors need not, and should not, be therapists to students.
      • Practicum education does not permit automatic access to students’ private lives or personal problems. However, students may voluntarily share personal information to explain or rationalize their poor performance. It is important that this personal information be treated confidentially, and that students be provided with guidance, resource information, and concerned support.
      • Document the problematic behavior and be sure the student is aware of the problems that you are identifying.
      • At the same time, the student may need to be relieved of their client responsibilities, based on the collective judgment of supervision staff and faculty.
      • A written action plan could be developed for the student to follow to improve the standard of her/his performance.
      • A deadline should be included for demonstrating the desired behavioral changes, along with a notation that failure to demonstrate sufficient improvement may result in a failing grade in the practicum course.
      • These guidelines should be given to the student in writing, with copies also distributed to the practicum supervisor, the practicum faculty, and the director of field education.
      • The student, the practicum supervisor, and practicum faculty should all sign and date the Action Plan.
      • In some instances, students may be asked to write a reflection paper, demonstrating the student’s understanding of the problem and the plan to remediate the situation.
      • Students may also be given additional practice assignments to demonstrate particular skills needed to satisfy the educational expectations.
      • Practicum / Internship Supervisor
      • Director of Field Education
      • Supervisor
      • Professional Standards
      • Code of Student Conduct

      Aggressive Student Demand/Request

      Ex: Student is aggressively accusing you of not communicating clear expectations for an assignment and is demanding aggressively that you change his/her grade.
      • Ask the student to please discuss this in a calm manner and state you would be happy to listen.
      • An option that some faculty use in regards to grade conversations is to require all students to wait 24 hours or to meet during office hours.
      • Listen to the concern and attempt to understand the student’s rationale.
      • If you prefer, you could ask the student to submit concerns in writing.
      • Another option would be to tell him/her that you are going to think about the request and will respond after you have had time to evaluate the request.
      • You could consult with your department chair or other faculty in your department.
      • You can then decide how you will inform them of your decision--email or at the next class meeting.
      • If you consulted others before making the decision, you could choose to inform the student that your decision was made after consulting with the department chair or other faculty.
      • If you think it is appropriate, you can modify the grade or give an alternative assignment.
      • If you think the expectations were clear, inform the student that the expectations were clear and the grade will stand.
      • Follow department protocol for academic grievances/complaints.
      • If the student persists in the argument, inform him/her that the next step would be to contact the student grievance officer.

      Angry or Disturbing Writing

      Ex: Student writes assignment in which he/she warns of potential harm to self or others, or writing reflects a sense of deep desperation or rage.
      • If you suspect the disturbing features of the writing are literary in nature, discuss your concerns directly with the student. Listen carefully to ascertain any serious threats or hostility.
      • Consult with your department chair or a colleague.
      • Contact the Dean of Students Office to explain the situation.
      • Send the piece of writing to the Dean of Students Office for review of possible Code of Student Conduct violations; Student Care Team referral.
      • Contact the University Police if you think there is a concern for harm to self or others.

      Self Harm/Suicide Ideation

      Ex: Student writes in an essay that he/she is depressed and no longer interested in living

      • If it is during regular office hours, contact the Counseling Center.
      • If you are able, walk the student to the Counseling Center for an emergency appointment.
      • If it is not during regular office hours, contact University Police and provide them with the information.
      • Officers can contact housing staff and the Dean of Students, or perform a well-being check on the student to verify that he/she is okay.

      Physical Threat

      Ex: During a heated debate in class a student gets upset and threatens to harm another student
      • Stop class and call the University Police.
      • When you and provide University Police with the details of the situation, they will advise about next appropriate steps.
      • The University Police will file a report, investigate the situation, and inform the Dean of Students Office.

      Verbally Aggressive Behavior

      Ex: Student becomes emotionally agitated and is yelling at you
      • Calmly inform the student that there is an expectation for professional communication between students and faculty, and that yelling is inappropriate.
      • If the student is able to respond to this information positively, then the conversation can resume.
      • If the student continues to yell, you can tell him/her that you will continue this conversation at a time when he/she is able to communicate without yelling.
      • You may also suggest that he/she take some time to reflect about the concern and send you an email.
      • You can then respond to the email.
      • If the student is unwilling to calm down and continues to yell, calmly exit the situation and dismiss class if in session.
      • If the student continues to follow you, inform him/her that you will contact University Police
      • Call University Police if necessary.

      Aggressive Electronic Communication

      Ex: Email to entire class or faculty member
      • If a direct threat is involved, call University Police.
      • Tell your supervisor.
      • Contact the Dean of Students Office to explain the situation.
      • Send the communication to the Dean of Students Office for review of possible Code of Student Conduct violations; Student Care Team referral.

      General Disrespect:

      Cursing or inappropriate, but not threatening, language; either in person or in an electronic communication. Ex: A student sends you a disrespectful communication or speaks to you in a disrespectful manner.
      • If the student is belligerent or blatantly threatening, call University Police.
      • If there is no blatant threat, calmly remind yourself first that, depending upon the student’s background, not all students will perceive crass or vulgar language to be inappropriate.
      • Take a breath (literally). Don’t escalate with the comments or take them personally. This is difficult, but the comments are meant to provoke. Handling them calmly may diffuse the situation and teach the student that this is not an effective means to get what is desired.
      • Try a non-threatening, non-escalating “I” statement, such as: “As an educator, I do not speak to someone who uses vulgar/crass/disrespectful language. Let’s discuss this as adults.” Repeat this calmly if needed.
      • An alternative would be: “I find your statements/email, etc., to be vulgar/inappropriate/disrespectful and others may, too. An alternative way to effectively communicate your point would be ….”
      • This is a teachable moment; take advantage of it. Most students will calm down enough to have a conversation if you start with statements meant to de-escalate their frustration.
      • If the student is belligerent, call University Police

      Mental/Physical Health Concern

      Ex: Spacing out, looking high, falling asleep in class, appearing disheveled or malodorous, or speaking incoherently
      • If someone clearly needs immediate medical attention (examples: passing out, hallucinating, incoherent, drunk, or agitated/belligerent), then immediately call University Police/911.
      • Otherwise, speak to the student after class.
      • If a student appears spacey or confused or even somewhat disheveled, but otherwise appropriate, start by letting him/her know they just seem a bit more tired than usual and ask if he/she has had enough sleep. The answer will help direct you to appropriate campus resources
      • If they appear high or stoned, but are not disruptive, ask if they are feeling well. If they reply “yes,” but clearly do not appear well, tell them so and recommend that you walk together to talk to a medical provider.
      • Some cultures have different norms for disguising body odor. This only needs to be addressed if it’s clearly disrupting class or if the student smells of alcohol or appears disheveled.
      • If a student was sleeping in class, consider asking if they were up late with work/school/family. Their response may direct you to appropriate campus resources.

      Direct Threat

      Ex: Student sends an email that he/she is going to harm you.
      • Call University Police/911 immediately.

      Implied Threat

      Ex: Student informs you in an email that you will be sorry for not changing his/her grade.
      • Politely respond to the email and ask for clarification about what is meant by “you will be sorry.”
      • Depending on the severity of the threat and your level of concern, you can contact University Police
      • The police can refer the situation to the Dean of Students Office depending on the level of severity.
      • Inform your supervisor of the situation.

      Concern from Someone Else

      Ex: A student tells you that he/she is concerned about another student’s well-being
      • Ask the student what he/she has heard from the other student and why he/she is concerned.
      • If the student is in your program or you know the student, you can discuss the concerns with him/her.
      • Depending on the severity, contact the Dean of Students Office to report the concern.

      Self Harm/Suicide Ideation from former student or applicant

      Ex: Student writes in a request for recommendation letter or application personal statement that if he/she is not accepted into desired program, he/she is depressed and no longer interested in living.
      • Call local police department to request well-check. If person of concern lives locally in 7-County region, you may contact the Hope Now line (formerly Crisis and Information line) anonymously as long as you have phone and address for person of concern. They will send officers to do a well-being check.
      • You may also follow up with the Dean of Students Office with information so that any previous contact with former student can be reviewed and family can be contacted as necessary.
    • Seven Counties’ Hope Now line 502-589-4313 or 1-800-221-0446 (Deaf and Hard of Hearing Call via KY Relay @ 711)
    • Dean of Students Office 852-5787; dos@louisville.edu