Common Student Challenges
The following pages contain descriptions and practical guidelines for responding to specific students
Sexual harassment involves unwelcome and unwanted sexual attention and/or advances, requests for sexual favors, and other inappropriate verbal or physical conduct. It is often found in the context of a relationship of unequal power, rank, or status. It does not matter that the person’s intention was not to harass. It is the effect that counts; as long as the conduct interferes with a student’s academic / work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive learning environment, it is considered sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment usually is not an isolated one-time only case but a repeated pattern of behavior that may include:
• Comments about one’s body or clothing
• Questions about one’s sexual behavior
• Demeaning references to one’s gender
• Sexually oriented jokes
• Conversations filled with innuendoes and double meanings
• Displaying of sexually suggestive pictures or objects
• Repeated non-reciprocated demands for dates or sex
• Inappropriate and unwelcome touch
Common reactions by students who have been harassed is to doubt their perceptions, wonder if it was a joke or question whether they have brought it on themselves in some way. A student may begin to participate less in the classroom, drop or avoid classes, or even change majors.
• Separate your personal biases from your professional role
• Listen carefully to the student and assure the student that you understand and support her/him
• Encourage the student to keep a log or find a witness
• Direct the student to the campus Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedures and to the appropriate sexual harassment officer(s) on campus
• Inform the student that informal discussions (or support / counseling) can begin at the counseling center to help clarify what further steps s/he may want to take
• Maintain the student’s privacy rights and share the information ONLY with appropriate persons and with the student’s knowledge
• Ignore the situation. Taking no action reinforces the student’s already shaky perception that s/he has been wronged. Ignoring the issue also can have legal implications
• Overreact. Instead, listen, support, and guide the student to appropriate channels
SUBSTANCE ABUSE & ADDICTION
Alcohol is the preferred drug on college campuses and is the most widely used psychoactive drug. Alcohol abusers in college populations may also abuse other drugs, both prescription andPatterns of use are affected by fads and peer pressure.
The effects of alcohol on the user are well known. Student alcohol abuse is most often identified by faculty, staff, or RAs when irresponsible, unpredictable behavior affects the learning, work, or living environment (e.g., drunk and disorderly in class, office or residence halls), or when a combination of the health and social impairments associated with alcohol abuse sabotages student performance. Because of the denial that exists in most substance abusers, it is important to express your concern about the student not in terms of suspicions about alcohol and other drugs, but in terms of specific changes in behavior or performance.
• Confront the student about his/her behavior that is of concern
• Address the substance abuse issue if the student is open and willing
• Offer support and concern for the student’s overall well-being
• Make a referral to an appropriate helping department or agency
• Maintain contact with the student after a referral is made
• Convey judgment or criticism about the student’s substance abuse
• Make allowances for the student’s irresponsible behavior
• Ignore signs of intoxication in the classroom, workplace, or residence hall
Eating disorders represent complex physiological and psychological difficulties, which are typically characterized by unhealthy and/or obsessive thoughts and behaviors linked to food, eating habits, and body image. Although many college students struggle with disordered eating patterns and body image concerns, dancers and athletes are especially at risk. The two serious eating disorders, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, can be health and/or life threatening. Anorexia can best be characterized by voluntary self-starvation, whereas Bulimia is a disorder in which the individual becomes entrapped in a vicious cycle of alternating food binges and purges (i.e. vomiting, laxative abuse, excessive exercise). While individuals struggling with Anorexia arusually severely underweight, those struggling with Bulimia are often normal weight, or even overweight. These disorders often become the major preoccupying theme in an individual’s life, causing numerous interpersonal and medical problems.
Due to the opportunities that faculty, staff, and RAs have to observe and interact with students in classrooms, the cafeteria, and residence halls, you are often the first to recognize that a student may be struggling with an eating disorder. Look for a pattern of indicators, such as:
• Obsession with food / dieting
• Low self-esteem
• Ritualistic behavior around food
• Distorted body image
• Extremely regimented life
• Excessive exercise
• Perfectionist expectations of self
• Binge eating / purging
• Excessive dental / medical problems
• Compulsive behavior
• Difficulty concentrating / focusing
• 15% weight loss (Anorexia)
• Isolation / withdrawal from friends
• Secretive eating
• Let the individual know that you are concerned about him/her
• Remember a person with an eating disorder is just that -- first a person, and secondarily, one who has trouble with food
• Be available to listen - one of the best ways to help someone gain control over eating is to reach out as a friend instead of focusing on his/her eating behavior
• Be supportive and encourage the person to get help
• Spy on the person or nag about eating / not eating
• Hide food to keep the person from binge eating
• Let yourself be convinced that the person really doesn’t have a problem
• Be afraid to let the person know that you are concerned about him/her
Typically, these students complain about something other than their psychological difficulties. They are generally tense, anxious, mistrustful, isolated, and have few friends. They tend to interpret minor oversights as significant personal rejection and often overreact to insignificant occurrences. They see themselves as the focal point of everyone’s behavior and view everything that happens as having special meaning to them. They are overly concerned with fairness and being treated equally. Feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy underlie most of their behavior, though they may seem capable and bright.
• Express compassion without intimate friendship. Remember, suspicious students have trouble with closeness and warmth
• Be firm, steady, punctual, and consistent
• Be specific and clear regarding the standards of behavior you expect
• Assure the student that you are his/her friend. Instead, acknowledge that although you are not a close friend; you are concerned about him/her
• Be overly warm and nurturing
• Flatter or participate in his/her games. You don’t know his/her rules.
• Be humorous
• Challenge or agree with any mistaken or illogical beliefs
• Be ambiguous
DEPENDENCE / PASSIVITY
You may find yourself feeling increasingly drained and responsible for this student in a way that is beyond your normal involvement. It may seem that even the utmost time and energy given to these students is not enough. They often seek to control your time and unconsciously believe the amount of time received is a reflection of their worth. It is helpful if the student can be connected with proper sources of support on-campus and in the community in general.
• Let students make their own decisions
• Set firm and clear limits on your personal time and involvement
• Offer referrals to other resources on- and off-campus
• Get trapped into giving continual advice, special conditions / treatment, etc.
• Avoid the student as an alternative to setting and enforcing limits
POOR CONTACT WITH REALITY
These students have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, the dream from the waking state. Their thinking is typically illogical, confused, or irrational; their emotional responses may be incongruent or inappropriate; and their behavior may be bizarre or disturbing. They may experience hallucinations, often auditory, and may report hearing voices. While this student may elicit alarm or fear from others, they are generally not dangerous and are more frightened and overwhelmed by you than you are of them. If you cannot make sense of their conversation, they may be in need of immediate assistance.
• Respond with warmth and kindness, as well as with firm reasoning
• Remove extra stimulation from the environment (turn off the radio, step outside of a noisy room)
• Acknowledge your concerns and state that you can see they need help
• Acknowledge their feelings or fears without supporting the misperceptions, e.g., “I understand you think someone is following you, but I don’t see anyone and I believe you’re safe”
• Acknowledge your difficulty in understanding them and ask for clarification or restatement, e.g., “I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to tell me; can you try to explain it more clearly?”
• Focus on the “here and now.” Ask for specific information about the student’s awareness of time, place, and destination. Speak to their healthy side, which they have. It’s OK to laugh and joke when appropriate
• Argue or try to convince them of the irrationality of their thinking as this commonly produces a stronger defense of their false perceptions
• Play along with or encourage further discussion of the delusion processes, e.g., “Oh yes, I hear the voices (or see the devil)”
• Demand, command, or order
• Expect customary emotional responses
Grief is a normal reaction to a significant loss of any kind. Grief reactions vary from person to person and situation to situation. Reactions can include a wide range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; some of which would be concerning under different circumstances. Emotions can include sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, lonliness, fatigue, hopelessness, yearning, and/or emptiness. Sleep disturbances, a lack of appetite, magical thinking, and social isolation are also common. Physical sensations may include hollowness in one’s stomach, tightness in one’s chest or throat, and/or breathlessness. Grief should not be mistaken for depression. However, grieving can become complicated; some people who experience loss or trauma are at risk for depression or posttraumatic stress. Professional help may be needed if the trauma presents an insurmountable obstacle to academic or social achievement.
• Normalize feelings
• Listen to the student and ask questions. Allow space and time for talking. Reminiscing can be helpful.
• Encourage the student to reach out to others.
• Make a referral to support services if/when a student’s grief is interfering significantly with his/her academic performance.
• Avoid the issue of loss. You don’t need to know exactly what to say or do. Be available to listen.
• Provide platitudes or minimize feelings.
• Expect all grief reactions to look the same. Allow students to grieve in their own way.
Adapted from USF Counseling Center’s Responding to Students in Distress