Engage: How to Engage a Student in Distress

As a TA, you may be in a position to help a student in distress. There are a number of strategies you could use to make your engagement with the student a supportive one.

Respect their right to privacy
When approaching the student, do so when others are not around so as to avoid any possible embarrassment to him/her. This may help avoid a defensive response and increase the likelihood that the student will be open and honest with you.

Be direct and specific
Tell the student the specific behaviours you’ve observed and are concerned about. For example, you could say, “I’ve noticed that you’re spending a lot of time alone and that you seem more sad than usual.” rather than “Are you okay?” or “Is anything wrong?”

Listen actively
Choose a time when disruptions will be unlikely. Listen carefully and reflect back what you think you’ve heard. For example, say, “What I hear you saying is that you’re really struggling with some personal issues and you’re worried about how it’s affecting your academics.” Allow the student time to clarify or confirm your understanding.

Avoid giving immediate advice
Listen and try to understand what is distressing the student before giving advice. Advice given too early may be illp informed and prevent the student from expressing their true feelings, and/or cause them to feel unsupported by you. Once you have a good grasp of the situation, giving advice may be very appropriate.

Instill a sense of hope
Encourage the student to focus on changing that which is within their power to change. Let them know that there may be resources available to help them. Also, when appropriate, try to normalize the student’s feelings by reassuring him/her that other students in similar situations commonly feel the same way.

Maintain appropriate boundaries
Simply listening and providing emotional support may be enough to help some students through a difficult period. For others, you may not be equipped to deal with the complexity of the issue/s. If you’re unsure of how to help the student, or if you’re concerned about the student’s safety and well-being, ask for help, from a supervisor, course instructor, colleague or
someone you trust. Support the student to seek professional help.

Don’t promise to keep “secrets”
Never promise to keep secrets. Remember that you have an obligation to report in detail all information pertaining to the student in distress. When a student confides in you, respect that confidence and avoid sharing private information with colleagues and friends, but make sure to disclose this information to all involved/relevant University staff. Consult the crisis response team or a departmental chair for more information on the confidentiality policy.

Once you have observed that a student may be in distress, you have two options for responding

Preparing for and talking with a student

General considerations for talking to students


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