Recognizing Student Distress in Online Classes

Recognizing Student Distress

As the semester now proceeds in an all online class format, how can you as a faculty member identify possible mental health issues in your students and help them connect to needed resources when you aren’t meeting with them in person?

While not an exact science, it is easier to recognize concerns in an in person class. You might begin to wonder about mental health concerns when students miss class or arrive late on a regular basis, fall asleep in class, are disruptive in class, fail to complete assignments, have deteriorating personal hygiene, or show up to class high or drunk. But what should you look for in your online classes?

Here are some behaviors to watch for that might lead you to seek further information from a student and to make a referral for help as needed.

Changes in a student’s normal behavior:

  • Student becomes irritable, short-tempered, obsessive, or disrespectful when communicating with you or members of the class;
  • There is a sudden deterioration in the quality of a student’s work;
  • Student begins turning in late assignments;
  • Student displays increased levels of anxiety about the class,
  • Student stops responding to your communications; or
  • The content of the student’s work changes in tone; becoming dark, negative, or odd.

Behaviors that can be viewed as abnormal or bizarre:

  • Communications from the student are accusatory, manipulative, sexually inappropriate, or threatening;
  • Discussion posts that are paranoid, disruptive, disoriented, or confused; or
  • Student seems out of touch with reality.

The first step would be to ask… how they are feeling

Steps you can take:

If concerns arise about a student, there are several steps you can take:

  1. The first step would be to ask the student in a private communication (e.g., email, chat) how they are feeling. Something as simple as “it sounds like you are feeling a lot of stress” or “it sounds like are having a rough time right now” can give the student the freedom to open up to you.

Active Minds, an organization focused on college student mental health, suggests using the VAR Support Framework:

Validate: Listen to the student and indicate you hear what has been said;

Appreciate: Thank the student for sharing; and

Refer: Appropriately refer the student to campus resources (e.g., ACE TutoringCounseling CenterStudent Health Service).

  1. If you are unsure about how to best help the student, feel free to call the Counseling Center or the Dean of Students’ office to consult about the situation.
  1. If you have more serious concerns related to the student (e.g., about the student’s safety, the safety of others around the student, the student failing coursework for the semester), you can report these concerns to the NDSU NDSU Care TeamContact the Care Team by emailing the team or call the Dean of Students’ office.

This is a stressful time for all and it is likely that all of us are suffering in some way as we deal with the changes brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. To be at your best in helping your students, it is important for you to attend to your own self-care during this time. Take a moment to review some of the self-care ideas shared in last week’s post and try to implement at least a couple of these into your routine this week.

I leave you with the same closing thoughts as last week: While we are currently facing a time of great uncertainty, it is important to remember that human beings are resilient. We tend to overestimate how badly we will be affected by negative events and underestimate how well we cope with difficult situations. Be mindful that you are likely more resilient than you think. While it seems that there are many things currently how of control, focus on what you can control and look for opportunities for growth along the way.

If you have specific topics on self-care or caring for the health of your students that you would like to hear more about, please share them in the comments below or email

About the author:

Bill Burns

Bill Burns is the director of the Counseling Center at NDSU. He is a licensed psychologist in North Dakota. Prior to coming to NDSU, he was the director of Counseling Services at St. Lawrence University, a private school in upstate New York. He received a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota- Morris, a Master’s degree in Community Counseling from Truman State University, and a Ph.D in Counseling Psychology from Iowa State University.

He has two grown daughters and loves to spend his free time reading and participating in marathons, ultra-marathons, and triathlons.

KeywordsHealth Promotion, Instructional, K-12 Professional Development, OTL Blog   Doc ID130926
OwnerLinda C.GroupIT Knowledge Base
Created2023-09-07 10:10:06Updated2023-10-18 06:06:06
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