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How to Distinguish Between Distressed, Disruptive and Dangerous Behavior

The Safety and Security staff offers the information below as a helpful resource in distinguishing behaviors that may be concerning to yourself and others, as well as some general strategies should you encounter troubling behavior inside or outside of the classroom.

Distressed Behaviors

These are the behaviors that cause us to feel alarmed, upset or worried.

  • Excessive absences when the student had previously been attending classes
  • Marked change in how they interact with you or others students
  • A change in classroom and grade performance
  • The student looks unhappy or sad
  • Their writing includes odd or concerning themes
  • The student seems anxious
  • Deterioration in hygiene and self-care

What can you do?

  • You may have a hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong. Trust your intuition.
  • Be mindful of the student s privacy, but don t promise confidentiality.
  • Listen carefully; show concern and interest.
  • Express concern for the student s well-being, point out specifically the signs you ve observed, and invite a response, e.g., I ve noticed you ve been late recently, you no longer participate, and you seem troubled. I m concerned about you.
  • Avoid criticizing or sounding judgmental.
  • Suggest Wellness Center Services as a resource and discuss this with the student.
  • Explain to the student that counseling and referral services at the Center are confidential.
  • If the student resists help and you are still worried, contact the Wellness Center to discuss your concerns.

What should you not do?

  • Don't disregard what you've observed. At the very least, convey your observations to the BIT team or to the Wellness Center.
  • Remember that talking about a problem or crisis doesn't make it worse. This is the first step toward resolving any difficulty.
  • Don't say "You're depressed" or, "You have an eating disorder." Labeling, whether accurate or inaccurate, can discourage a student who is afraid of being stigmatized from getting help.

Disruptive Behaviors

Disruptive Behaviors are those behaviors that interfere with or interrupt the educational process of other students or the regular business functioning of the college.

  • Behaviorally disruptive, unusual, and/or bizarre behavior
  • Destructive behavior that is harmful to others
  • Possibly substance abuse
  • Showing a complete lack of social norms

What can you do?

  • Establish clear behavioral guidelines in your syllabus.
  • Be familiar with the Student Code of Conduct at SUNY Orange.
  • Listen carefully to the student without interrupting as it often helps for a person to think about what they are saying with less pressure.
  • Speak to the student calmly and quietly and privately if possible and communicate your concern.
  • If you perceive there is an imminent threat to others, call Safety & Security in Middletown at 341-4710 or in Newburgh at 341-9533.
  • If the student seems amenable to talking, walk them over to counseling services where every effort will be made to see them. If they indicate they would be willing to talk to someone, but cannot do so now, then give them the Wellness Centers phone number 341-4870.

What should you not do?

  • Don't ignore behavior that seems disturbed.
  • Don't say anything to embarrass the student.
  • Don't take anything said personally. People say things they don't necessarily mean when they are angry.
  • Don't challenge what the student is saying. There is a time for clarifying and correcting, but if you are concerned about a student's escalating behavior it might not be now.
  • Don't stand too close to a student as this can be perceived as challenging.

Dangerous Behaviors

These are the behaviors that leave us feeling frightened and in fear for our personal safety or the safety of others.

  • Suicidal
  • Para suicidal (self-injurious)
  • Individuals engaging in risk-taking behaviors (e.g., substance abusing)
  • Hostile, aggressive, relationally abusive
  • Individuals deficient in skills that regulate emotion, cognition, self, behavior, and relationships

What can you do?

  • Consult with Wellness Center.
  • If you are concerned there is an immediate threat to either the student or others call Safety & Security.
  • Keep your communications with the student simple and avoid information overload.
  • Talk slowly.
  • Try to be ok with silences as it may help them feel less agitated if you are calmly listening.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Tell the student you think there is someone who can assist them better than you can and call the Wellness Center or walk the student over to make an appointment possibly see a counselor immediately.
  • If the student poses an immediate danger to others you may want to dismiss the class while waiting for Safety & Security.

What should you not do?

  • Don't ignore warning signs that the student is about to lose control of their emotions.
  • Don't threaten, dare or touch the student.
  • If a student seems delusional don't try and talk him or her out of their beliefs
  • Don't wait before taking action.
  • Don't try to keep a student from leaving the classroom.
  • Don't panic.

General Strategies

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure .

  • Make your behavioral and academic expectations clear. Be proactive and define your expectations before anyone has a chance to get the class started on the wrong foot. Consider starting each class with a brief reminder or alternatively give the class and members kudos for making the last class one that encouraged learning. Think of and present your syllabus as a contract between you and your students and review the whole syllabus the first class. If you change your syllabus, make sure you let the students know so your actions aren t experiences as arbitrary.

  • Model to your students what you yourself expect. If you don t want students to be late, model being on time. Show students how to disagree respectfully. Maintain inclusive attitudes and use civil language and be careful not to inadvertently provoke a cycle of disrespect by debasing or invalidating a student or by making them the brunt of a joke.

  • Try to see problem students as needing something from you rather than rejecting what you are offering. Try not to take a student s challenges as personal and it will be easier to respond non-defensively. If a student offers disparaging comments about a reading, assignment or your class in general, acknowledge their disappointment. Consider reframing their comments to be a demonstration of their commitment to learning information that is personally meaningful. Sometimes the act of empathizing with their disappointment is enough to derail a potential ongoing challenge to your teaching. Sometimes students are uncivil because they are stressed and lack the skills to do the work that is assigned. Ask them to stay after class and see if you can determine if this is the problem and if you can refer them for extra academic help or counseling.

  • Consider making your own list of disruptive behaviors and how you will respond to each when it arises. Feeling like you can handle a student s behavior helps you project confidence which reduces the number of challenges to your teaching. What would be on your list? Students who: pack up early, surf the net during class, ask problematic questions, arrive late, have a cell phone ring during class, interrupt others, correct you, monopolize class discussions, are hostile to other points of view, etc.

  • Know who your students are, if possible. Acknowledge students when possible by name. Anonymity in a classroom makes students feel less connected and more likely to be disrespectful.

  • If a student triggers a red flag, try and get to know them. Call them by their name, and encourage them.

  • Anticipate tough discussions in your class. Students need to learn how to tolerate other points of view while also expressing disagreement. If you know that a class discussion could go into dangerous or highly conflictual territory, talk to your students about the difficulties they may encounter when someone disagrees with them and how to talk about difficult things in a courteous way. You might want to ask the students how they think it would best work to keep the discourse civil but real.

  • Set appropriate boundaries. You can be friendly with your students, but your role is one of authority and is different than a friend. Sometimes a student might need this to be clarified. If you are concerned about how to best deal with boundary issues, consider seeking a consultation with a colleague or with someone in the counseling center. Some students who are struggling with a personality disorder have learned very ineffective ways of getting their needs met and which can leave others feeling exhausted and perplexed on how to help. The best strategy is establish firm and professional boundaries and let a professional counselor help with a referral for longer term counseling in the community.

  • Learn the warning signs of impending violence. Trust your instincts. If someone feels dangerous or you suspect they may become violent trust your instincts. Common signs of impending violent behavior include: a fixed stare, visibly tense muscles in the face or arms, hands, red face, difficulty breathing, a loud voice or standing too close.

  • Know how to deescalate through use of your own voice and body posture. If you feel yourself getting tense in reaction to a student s behavior, take a deep breath and try and calm yourself before you do or say anything. Speak quietly and calmly. Listen to the other person without interrupting. Try to get some distance between you and the other person at least 2-3 feet. Make good eye contact and be aware of any emotions you might be conveying through your facial expressions. Try to appear calm, neutral and interested.

  • Address inappropriate behavior immediately within reason. This is a hard call sometimes. You want to avoid an audience which can make it harder for some people to back down, but you also want to communicate to the rest of the class that you have things under control and you re not afraid of dealing with problem behaviors. Sometimes you might want to address inappropriate behavior with a reminder of your expectations as stated in the syllabus. Other times you might use humor to address a problematic behavior. Give the other person an exit. Don t back them into a corner where they are likely to get more verbally aggressive. Redirect the discussion to a more cooperative approach and avoid power struggles. If it looks like a pattern is developing ask to speak to the student after class and convey your concerns. Seek advice from your chair, colleagues and the counselors at the counseling center.


  • Approach students and convey your concern if you notice they are sad, their hygiene has been neglected lately, they appear to be angry, upset or are acting problematically before they become a classroom problem. Empathy and concern for each other is one way of reducing classroom behavior problems and for some students they have no one to talk to about problems they might be experiencing. You are the front line and are the first to be in a position to notice when a student is in trouble. Once you have expressed concern, if they are receptive to talking, walk them over to the counseling center to set up an appointment or call with them in your office, or give them our number and location.

  • Don t ignore, dismiss, or minimize threats, harassment, or concerns that other students bring to you about another classmate. If a student confides in you that they are being stalked or threatened by another student, take it seriously and accompany the student to the Safety & Security Department. If you receive a paper and believe there are implied or direct threats, ask to speak with the student privately for clarification (if you feel safe doing so) and then seek consultation with the counseling staff or staff at Security. And, don t promise students that you will keep what they say secret. You can tell them you will be discreet, but if anyone is in danger you will need to make sure that all parties are safe.

  • Document each incident, witnesses, what action you took and how it ended.