A person’s behavior may be an indicator of distress. Common indicators include:


  • Persistent unexplained absences
  • Deterioration in quality/quantity of work
  • Extreme disorganization or erratic performance
  • Written or artistic expressions of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair, or confusion
  • Continual seeking of special permission (extensions, make-up work)


  • Direct statements or self-disclosure indicating personal distress (e.g., family problems, financial or legal difficulties)
  • Significant change in mood
  • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling, or aggressive comments
  • More withdrawn or more animated than usual
  • Appears over-anxious


  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises, burns
  • Frequent or chronic illness


  • Unusual emotional response to events
  • Excessive tearfulness or panic reactions
  • Verbal abuse (e.g., taunting, badgering)
  • Expressions of concern about the student by peers
  • Erratic or disjointed thinking—skips around a lot, unable to stay focused on one topic


  • Verbal, written, or implied references to suicide, homicide, assault, or self-injurious behaviors
  • Unprovoked anger or hostility/physical violence (e.g., shoving, grabbing, use of weapon)
  • Academic assignments dominated by themes of extreme hopelessness, helplessness, isolation, rage, despair, violence, self-injury
  • Stalking or harassing
  • Communicating threats via email, texting, or phone call

Is a Student Distressed or Disruptive?


A student is distressed if they are persistently sad, anxious, withdrawn, lack focus, or demonstrate erratic behavior, including references to harming themselves or others. If there is a threat to others in the classroom environment, calmly de-escalate the situation and consider dismissing class. The most important thing is to address any safety concern for the individual student or your class. If there is a safety concern, call ECPD at 617-824-8888 or 911. 

If there is not an immediate safety concern, follow the Recognize—Respond—Refer guidance.


A student is disruptive if they are interfering with the learning environment by being rude, not picking up on social cues, acting aggressive (but not dangerous) or defiant, or challenging authority. This behavior typically doesn’t pose a safety threat but is disruptive to the learning environment of the classroom.

The first thing to do is address the behavior in the moment as appropriate. Use a calm approach to de-escalate the situation and let the student know that you care, telling them what you need them to do (e.g., “I appreciate your insight, but let’s hear from other class members at this time.”). Further address the behavior and what is appropriate in your classroom with the student separately after the incident. If you need support addressing the behavior, please talk with your department chair. If the behavior persists, talk with your chair about next steps.