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Coping with a distressed student

There can be many different reasons why you might be concerned about a student. It may be that the student is experiencing difficulty or behaving in a way which is causing you concern or anxiety. You may be worried about a student who is feeling depressed or acting out of character.

When someone is in difficulty we may feel helpless, impatient or angry and have a great need to do something. The solutions that people find for themselves are generally the right ones for them. In order for the individual to arrive at their solutions they can be greatly helped by having a safe space and time to process what is causing them difficulty.

The first step is to really listen

It is important to listen carefully as this could have an impact on your effectiveness.  In order to do this you need to pay attention to the other person very carefully. This means not being distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counter arguments that you'll make when the other person stops speaking. Nor can you allow yourself to lose focus on what the other person is saying. All of these contribute to a lack of listening and understanding.

You may be tempted to intervene to give advice, offer solutions to the speaker’s problems or to give reassurance that everything will be alright. Such responses may be helpful and may be interpreted by the recipient as a form of you taking control or as an inability to really listen, and understand their issues/pain.

Know your limitations and what you are willing and able to do

It may be that you do not have the time that seems to be required to help or you feel you could be out of your depth as their problems are too deep or longstanding for you to respond to them.

If you feel unable to help for any reason it would be useful to explore other options with the student. This may involve student services, doctor or a counsellor. Gently introducing the idea of some other avenue may be helpful as might the offer to phone the Student Support Services team on their behalf.

Be Clear

Be as clear as possible about what you feel able to offer. If you offer to do more than you can cope with and then have to withdraw, the student may feel let down. Give the person time to consider what feels helpful. When people feel judged or pressurised they can become defensive and this is not an easy position from which to make changes or decisions.

It is important to take good care of yourself

If you become stressed and worn out by the student’s issues you will be unable to be helpful to others. Try not to become immersed in the other’s difficulties. We can be responsible to other adults but we are not responsible for them.

Principals and practical points to bear in mind when listening and giving advice

Listen carefully and check with the speaker that you understand what they are saying.

“This is what I heard……. Have I got it right?”

Try to accept the person’s experience even when their values and opinions are different from yours.

“I accept what you are saying, it doesn’t matter if my experience is not the same”.

Aim to empathise (i.e put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understanding the world from their point of view.)

“I sense from what you are saying that you are very upset/confused/angry about that………”

Take time to listen by making an arrangement that will suit you both so that you won’t be interrupted.

“I only have ten minutes now but we could have longer this afternoon”.

Be honest when you don’t have the answer.

“I can’t provide answers but together we might be able to work out alternatives and your feelings about each of them”.

Be trustworthy

If people are to talk freely they need to be able to trust you not to pass to others anything that they say. They may give you permission to do so, but you need to agree with them exactly what they feel is OK for you to pass on and what isn’t.

If what you are being told involves the safety of others including yourself, be clear about your concern and offer to help the student find an appropriate source of help. There are occasions when you have to act independently or tell someone appropriate who can help.

It may sound like a cliché but what means most to those in difficulty is that you are there for them, without judging them and that you trust them to find the answers they need. This can be just as important as the practical help or suggestions that you offer.

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