How to Identify, Assist, and Refer Students With Personal Problems and/or Disruptive Behavior

Identifying Students With Emotional Problems

There are three general categories of student behavior that can be signs of emotional distress: withdrawal, agitation or irritability, and personal communication from the student.


  • Excessive absences
  • Noticeable lack of participation
  • Continuous daydreaming
  • Drowsiness or sleeping
  • Disoriented responses when questioned
  • Vacant staring
  • Lack of cleanliness; sloppy appearance

Agitation or Irritability

  • Compulsive speaking or frequent interrupting of your lecture
  • Unprovoked crying or giggling
  • Frequent sarcastic and hostile remarks
  • Sudden appearance of a speech disorder such as stuttering or difficulty articulating words
  • Inability to sit still throughout class meetings

Personal Communication

  • Written assignments reveal personal problems
  • Frequent requests for personal conferences or need to remain with you after class
  • The student tells you directly that he or she is having trouble in classes due to anxiety, external problems, or internal conflicts

Assisting Students

The faculty member is usually the first member of the college community to notice a troubled student. Here are a few steps toward helping the student in distress:

  • Initiate contact by asking to meet with the student at a mutually agreeable time when there will be an adequate period for extended discussion, if necessary.
  • Meet the student in a relaxed, private setting.
  • Give your reasons for seeing the student in an open and direct manner. Give your observations of the student’s demeanor in class without making interpretations or conclusions. You might say you have “noticed” or “observed” some aspect of the student’s behavior, or that the student “appears” to show some problematic behavior.
  • Allow the student to respond; refrain from making a quick judgment or giving advice right away. Make sure that you responses show you understand the student’s dilemma, and that you care about him or her. You might say:
    • “I think I can understand how difficult things are for you.”
    • “It sounds like you’re having a hard time right now.”
    • “I can see it is hard for you even to discuss how you feel.”
    • “I understand that you believe there is nothing wrong. Perhaps I got the wrong impression.”
    • “If you don’t feel comfortable talking to me about these matters, perhaps you would find it easier to talk to a counselor, privately and confidentially.”
  • Try to guide the student to more fully express and clarify his or her feelings and thoughts. Some examples:
    • “Have there been any changes in your life?”
    • “We all have feelings like this sometimes. It usually helps to air how you feel, even if you can’t resolve your difficulties quickly.”
    • “The harder you try, the less successful you seem to feel.”
    • “Try to put your feelings into words.”
    • “Tell me more about that.”
  • Decide how you can most effectively help the student. Can you provide direct support to help the student resolve these problems? Suggest that the student see a counselor in Personal Counseling if his or her problems seem too extensive or complex for you to provide direct assistance.

Referring a Student

You may need to help the student recognize and understand that his or her problems require more extensive assistance. Your task will be to help the student overcome fears of, or resistances to, seeking professional assistance.

Some ways of communicating your support are:

  • “We all need some kind of help at some time, even if it’s only talking to someone who can listen without criticism or upset.”
  • “It’s a sign of increasing maturity when a person knows it’s time to seek some help.”
  • “It takes strength and courage to ask for help.”
  • “Sometimes if you’re unsure of what you really want to do, that creates tension and stress inside you.”
  • “The professional services at the college are free and totally confidential. Nothing goes in your record. Nobody can find out what you would be talking about.”
  • “Counseling has been helpful to others like yourself. You can try it and see if it helps.”

Remind the student that all counseling is confidential. If the student is still reluctant, offer to call a counselor or to escort the student to the counselor’s office. Should the student feel threatened by your offer, do not pursue it. You can contact the counselor yourself and discuss the situation in confidence.

If the student accepts your suggestion, give the student the room and phone number of the Personal Counseling (0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363).

If the problem seems urgent, immediately contact the center director or another member of the Personal Counseling staff to let us know who you have referred and your assessment of urgency. Often, students do not communicate the urgency of their problem to the receptionist and may not be given an immediate appointment unless they do so.

Walk the student to the Personal Counseling, 0203 James Hall.

Bear in mind that a student need not be in crisis for you to refer him or her for counseling. A problem need not be overwhelming to have a negative impact on the student’s academic performance. Any problem that is affecting the student’s classroom behavior is sufficient reason.

Once referred to a counselor, an assessment will be done to determine whether the student can be seen on campus for crisis intervention or short-term counseling. If long-term counseling is necessary, the student will be referred to an appropriate treatment service (low-cost, if necessary).

Crisis Intervention

Students in crisis require prompt attention. A student who is violent, physically hurt, overly distraught, or enraged may be considered a student in crisis.

For assistance, notify the appropriate offices of the college: Personal Counseling (0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363), the Vice President for Student Affairs (2113 Boylan Hall, 718.951.5352), and Campus and Community Safety Services (0202 Ingersoll Hall, 718.951.5511, 5512). You may want to familiarize yourself with the locations of these offices in advance so that you will know where to go in an emergency situation.

Maintain control of the situation by staying in communication with the student. Be aware of your own tolerance limits. Monitor your own ability to stay calm. If you feel you are going to panic, get someone else quickly:

  • Notify your supervisor.
  • Notify Security—0202 Ingersoll Hall, 718.951.5511, 5512.
  • Contact Personal Counseling—0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363.

Overly Agitated or Enraged Student in Your Office

Students whose emotions have overwhelmed their capacity to act appropriately require time to ventilate their emotions before they can regain control. When you encounter such a person, try to do the following:

  • Allow the student to express his or her feelings and do not attempt to use logic to calm him or her down. A few supportive comments from you are adequate. (For more information on handling this type of situation, see the pamphlet “Preventing Violence,” available at the center.).
  • Do not ask too many questions but try to ascertain the facts of the student’s distress.
  • When the student has calmed down, make a referral as soon as possible. If the student has not regained control by the time help arrives, determine if you should step aside in favor of the people who have responded to your call for assistance.
  • If the student does not regain control while in your office, call Personal Counseling (0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363), the Vice President for Student Affairs (2113 Boylan Hall, 718.951.5352), or Security (0202 Ingersoll Hall, 718.951.5511, 5512) for help.
  • If there is any indication of danger, leave your office immediately. (Do not ignore your “gut” feeling.) Try to walk the student to Security (0202 Ingersoll Hall, 718.951.5511, 5512) or Personal Counseling (0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363). Suggest that you both go together.

Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom

A student’s disruptive behavior may be due to different causes. The student may be hostile and confrontational as a defense against his or her fear of failure. In this case the student regards the instructor as the obstacle to performing well. A second cause may be the student’s regressing to an earlier pattern of behavior as an (unconscious) attempt to alleviate his or her anxiety. Finally, the student’s disruptive remarks or movement in class may be a symptom of an underlying emotional disturbance which he or she can no longer manage as the demands on the student become too great.

It is important to determine what may be the cause of the student’s behavior. If you believe he or she is making you an “enemy” to deal with a fear of failure, it is necessary to reassure the student that you want him or her to do well, and that you know that being a student can be demanding. Should you conclude that the student is regressing under stress, remind him or her that you are willing to help while gently asking that the student accept the responsibility of behaving appropriately in class. If you decide that the student’s disruptive behavior is the result of a severe emotional disorder, escort the student to Personal Counseling (0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363) or Security (0202 Ingersoll Hall, 718.951.5511, 5512).

Here are some suggestions for escorting a disruptive student:

  • Ask the student to leave the class with you and take him or her to a place where it is quiet and there is protection for you. You might escort the student to the Personal Counseling Center (0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363) or Security (0202 Ingersoll Hall, 718.951.5511, 5512).
  • Choose your words carefully. Be supportive but firm. In asking the student to leave the class with you, you might say, “I need to ask you to come with me where we can talk.” Continue to speak in a calm and reassuring manner, saying, “I’m sure we can work this out,” or something similar.
  • Keep moving away from the classroom at a measured rate and with the belief that the student will follow you. If the student does not follow, go directly to Personal Counseling (0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363) or Security (0202 Ingersoll Hall, 718.951.5511, 5512) for assistance.
  • When you get to a quiet and protected place, initiate conversation by asking how you can help or by asking what just happened.

Suicide Threats

All suicide threats or implied threats should be taken seriously. Bring the student to the Personal Counseling Center (0203 James Hall, 718.951.5363) or, if the center is not open, refer the student to a suicide prevention hotline (212.673.3000) or any hospital emergency room.

Important Phone Numbers at Brooklyn College

  • Brooklyn College Emergency Medical Service—718.951.5858
  • CAASS—718.951.5471
  • Campus and Community Safety Services—718.951.5511
  • DES/SEEK Counseling—718.951.5931
  • Health Clinic—718.951.5580
  • Personal Counseling—718.951.5363
  • Vice President for Student Affairs—718.951.5352
  • Women’s Center—718.951.5777

Off-campus Resources

Battered Women and Co-dependency

  • Domestic Violence Hotline, (Coalition for Abused Women)—800.942.6906 (Spanish: 800.942.6908)
  • Families of Alcoholics (CARES)—800.984.0066
  • Nar Anon—212.496.4341
  • New York Asian Women’s Center (Asian Battered Women)—212.732.5230
  • Violence Intervention Program (Latin Battered Women)—800.572.2782

Children / Child Abuse

  • Child Abuse Hotline—800.342.3720

Crisis Intervention

  • American Red Cross (Disaster Services)—212.787.1000
  • Domestic Violence Hotline—800.942.6906 (Spanish: 800.942.6908)
  • Helpline—212.532.2400
  • Parent Helpline—212.472.8555
  • Poison Hotline—212.340.4494
  • Special Victims Unit, Manhattan—212.694.3010
  • Suicide Hotlines—212.673.3000, 800.784.2433
  • Victims Services Agency Hotline (Safe Horizon)—212.577.7777

Food / Nutrition

  • City Harvest Hunger Hotline—866.888.8777
  • Food and Hunger Hotline—877.472.8411
  • Food Stamp Information—877.472.8411

HIV Services and Information

  • Gay Men’s Health Crisis Hotline—212.807.6655
  • National AIDS Hotline—800.342.2437
  • New York City Department of Health AIDS Hotline—212.447.8200

Housing and Shelter

  • Covenant House (under 21 years of age)—212.727.4000
  • Covenant House (for children in need of housing)—212.613.0300
  • Homeless Hotline—800.994.6494

Brooklyn Mental Health Emergency Resources

  • Health Science Center at Brooklyn—718.270.1000
  • Heat Line, Mayor’s Actionline (City services complaints) 311
  • Medicaid Information—877.472.8411
  • Missing Persons 911

Bedford Stuyvesant/Crown Heights

  • Interfaith Hospital, Psychiatric Emergency—718.613.4195

Borough Park

  • Maimonides Community Health Center—718.283.8106

Canarsie / Flatlands

  • Kings County Hospital, Psychiatric Emergency—718.245.3131
  • Brookdale Medical Center, Psych. Emergency—718.240.5761

Williamsburg / Bushwick

  • Woodhull Hospital, Psychiatric Emergency—718.963.8439

Rape / Sexual Assault

  • Bellevue Hospital Rape Crisis Program—212.562.3435
  • Crime Victims Hotline—212.577.7777
  • Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Rape Crisis Intervention Program—212.305.9060
  • New York City Sex Crimes Report Line—212.267.RAPE
  • New York Hospital Rape Crisis Program—212.746.3104
  • St.Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Rape Crisis Program—212.604.8068
  • St.Vincent’s Hospital Rape Crisis Program—212.604.8068

Runaway Hotline

  • National Runaway Switchboard—800.RUNAWAY (800.786.2929)

Substance Abuse / Compulsive Disorders

  • AA in Spanish—212.348.2644
  • Alcohol Hotline—212.252.7022
  • Alcoholics Anonymous—718.339.4777
  • Cocaine Abuse Hotlines—800.COCAINE
  • Compulsive Gambling—800.522.4700
  • Crack Hotline/New York State Department of Health—212.NEW.YORK or 311
  • National Council on Alcoholism—800.NCA.CALL
  • National Institute on Drugs—800.662.HELP
  • Overeaters Anonymous—212.946.4599
  • Substance Abuse—800.488.3784, 800.622.2255

Welfare / ADC

  • Welfare, food stamps, heat assistance, Medicaid—311 or 877.472.8411

Women’s Health / Family Planning

  • Planned Parenthood at the Margaret Sanger Center—212.274.7200
  • Pregnancy Healthline—212.NEW.YORK or 311
  • Teen Pregnancy Networks Staten Island—718.447.7666


Much of the material in this guide was originally adapted from How to Identify, Counsel and Refer Students Who Need Special Help, prepared by Dr. Matthew Lanna and the Counseling Center staff of Mercy College, and used with the permission of Dr. Rhea Riso, director of the counseling staff. It was further adapted with permission of Dr. Robert DeLucia, counseling director, from How to Identify, Assist and Refer Students With Emotional Problems and/or Disruptive Behavior, edited by Dr. Philip Bonifacio, Counseling Department, Division of Student Development, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY).

Brooklyn. All in.