Dealing with Difficult Graduate Students

Jan 22, 2016

Faculty members are not trained to tell the difference between difficult and dangerous behavior

Dangerous behavior causes mental or physical harm towards the self or towards others; Difficult behavior is disruptive, disturbing, causes extra work, takes time.  We’re not trained to make this decision so must rely on professionals. The point is to do something to make the call.

Strategies need to be short and long term. Difficulties are dealt with immediately by the faculty member, then involve the department chair if necessary for longer term strategies.  

Instructors need to establish a classroom environment that fosters a safe place for difficult conversations

Best practices:

Have discussions with graduate students about where to go for support; for example, know when a student doesn’t have support. Support safety first

Create routines where good news can be acknowledge and shared instead of becoming an event that causes feelings of isolation and sadness

Buildings should be locked earlier at night. Perhaps pull in CAPS.

Noted that distance students have difficulty accessing campus services.

We need a program to support and create positive behaviors for graduate students 

Sometimes students may not know the expectations for graduate student behaviors

Positive support is a combination of mental health and wellness; these might be challenged by stress-related behaviors (environmental or induced) or problem behaviors might be learned

Faculty need to know how to get support for addressing dangerous or difficult behaviors:  a list of campus resources or contacts faculty could use or support from other committee members. For example, in cases of dangerous behavior, faculty members have sometimes had a plain clothes police officer helping them respond to a threat.

Faculty need to know when to expect possible escalation in the problem behaviors, or how to track students across different faculty members within the program

Faculty members are not always well prepared for difficult or dangerous students, and need help and training to learn how to cope and respond.

Many of us have never thought about what we would do.

It’s not reasonable to run each time to the department chair.

There are some general safety procedures that faculty members may not know about – such as how to respond to safety alerts or when the building locks down. (When there was a shooter alert earlier this year, the campus busses were still running.) How do we handle lock downs at the child care setting.

Faculty members need to know the differences between fire alarms and tornado alerts.

What should we do about the students who no one wants to mentor?

The chair could assign an advisor. We could call upon Laurie Bellows.

Important to document the lack of academic progress.

How do underperforming students get into the programs in the first place?

We need to understand more about mental health issues and our students.



Other resources:

Dr. Sheryl Tucker, Dean, Graduate College, Oklahoma State University; and Dr. Lee Bird, Vice President Student Affairs, Oklahoma State University. (2015). Addressing challenging graduate student situations: A workshop for graduate chairs sponsored by the UNL Graduate College.

Van Brunt, B., & Lewis, W. S. (2013). A faculty guide to addressing disruptive and dangerous behavior. New York: Routledge.