Disturbing Student Behaviors That Warrant Immediate Referral

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Setting aside your legal obligation to refer students to Child Protective Services if you suspect abuse or neglect, there are other instances where referral to your administrator, counselor, and psychologist are warranted.

They’re warranted not just for the health and safety of the student in question, and student body at large, but also for your own protection, legal and otherwise.

Make no mistake, there is a substantial segment of students—growing by the day—that need professional help but are overlooked.

Disruptive students, who need nothing more than good, solid classroom management, get referred all the time. They waste time and resources that should be spent on the few who are quietly roiling inside.

What follows isn’t an exhausted list by any means.

However, and while careful not to make any diagnoses, it covers four broad categories of behaviors that absolutely should be considered for referral:

1. Disconnected

This can be a student who stands out by their walk—slow, stiff, rhythmic, zombie-like. They appear as if they’re in a dream, seemingly unaware of those around them.

When you speak to them they respond slowly, impassively. Their voice is monotone. Their eyes devoid of life. They can appear confused, disconnected, or unaware of their surroundings.

2. Withdrawn

They have a tendency to hide behind their hair, hoodie, or collar. They wear clothes inappropriate to the weather. They seem to shrink or disappear, taking up as little space as possible.

They only speak when spoken to—or not at all. Their eyes cast downward. Their posture is curled in on itself. They don’t appear to have any friends. They spend almost all of their time alone and are often exhausted.

3. Threatening

Of course, any threat should be referred to administration. However, it’s the less demonstrative and overt threats that can be most concerning.

Violent stories, drawings, sketches, and diagrams. Unusual obsession with weapons or brutality. Glimpses of rage. Mentions of cruelty or harm toward animals. These seem obvious, but are so often ignored.

4. Bizarre

Behavior that is disturbingly odd could be a red flag. Perhaps a situation doesn’t match their expression. Their speech may seem off—in timing and tone—or they may make strange noises or speak to themselves or toward an empty chair.

Their behavior may be pared with some of the descriptions above. Or maybe it’s just a feeling you have, a foreboding or dread when you’re near them. But something is definitely and clearly amiss.

Standing Out

There could be innocent explanations for the behaviors above. Maybe the student is already seeing a therapist or receiving treatment. But as teachers it’s not up for us to decide or speculate.

It’s up to us to notice.

It’s up to us to keep an eye out for those who don’t belong—in the way they walk, respond, and interact with others—and who hide in the shadows. Too often, teachers attempt to act as psychiatrist or counselor.

They assume that they’re enough, that their words and smiles are the extent of their responsibility.

But a student experiencing a real mental health crisis needs serious intervention, of the kind you and maybe not even your school can provide.

So, this week, I encourage you to take a second look at that student, the one who doesn’t talk or who draws upsetting images. Observe. Ask questions. Raise the alarm. Send an email first for documentation and then voice your concern personally to all stakeholders.

It may save a life.

PS – If you’re struggling to motivate your students, please check out the book Inspire.

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