Teaching Students with Psychological Disabilities

A psychological disability is defined as any persistent psychological or psychiatric disorder, or emotional or mental illness resulting in impairment of educational, social or vocational functioning. Psychological disabilities such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety and panic disorders are not static in nature, and may vary in severity over time and/or according to an individual's immediate environment, personal circumstances, or treatment.

Students with psychological disabilities may have difficulties with focusing, concentrating, meeting deadlines, taking notes, taking timed tests, processing instructions, and may be easily distracted. While the vast majority of students with psychological disabilities show no symptoms, their ability to function effectively may vary in response to stress, diet, exercise, illness cycles, and medication side effects (for example: drowsiness, headaches, dry mouth, dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, muscle spasms and/or stiffness and restlessness).

As is the case with students having other invisible disabilities, students with psychological disabilities are often hesitant to disclose their disability due to fear of the stigma that can often come with disclosure. Instructors can help by being aware of their own attitude towards students with psychological disabilities.

The following are some suggestions specifically addressed to the needs of students with psychological disabilities.

  • Don't press students to explain their disability if they do not wish to do so. This is confidential information.
  • The presence of symptoms of illness, regardless of their apparent severity, does not necessarily interfere with learning. Conversely, no symptoms may be apparent, yet the student's ability to learn may be highly impacted.
  • Students with psychological disabilities need opportunities to experience empowerment and failure.
  • Behavior that seems inappropriate may in fact be adaptive - it may indicate a student is in distress, crisis, or that the behavior is related to medications or a relapse of the illness.
  • Students who utilize accommodations and support services are more successful than students who are not involved in on-campus support programs. Their academic retention and progress may result from your referral to support services provided such as Accessibility Services, Project Impact, Student Health & Counseling Services, EXCEL, EOP, Faculty Mentoring, and Academic Advising & Career Services.
  • Not every student who is disruptive has a psychological disability, and conversely, not every student with a psychological disability is disruptive. All disruptive behavior should be reported to Student Judicial Affairs. Referring a disruptive student to Accessibility Services would not be appropriate because our services are not disciplinary in nature. However, a student's behavior may indicate that support and/or accommodations from Accessibility Services are needed, so feel free to contact us for assistance as an instructor.
  • For disability-related reasons, these students may sometimes need to miss class, or even leave the room during class. Some may experience relapses requiring absences or hospitalization. In most cases, students are able to make up the incomplete work but they may need extra time.
  • Please allow students to drink beverages during class to offset medication side effects.
  • Testing accommodations may include additional time, private workspace with minimal distractions, and/or scheduling of tests at times when side effects are minimal.
  • Depending on their symptoms, some students may be approved by Accessibliity Services to audio record lectures, have an in-class note-taker, or sit in a location where distractions are minimal.
  • When necessary, Independent Study courses may be arranged for students who need a self-paced schedule. Also, if a student is unable to complete a course due to an increase in symptoms or a hospitalization, granting a grade of Incomplete may be appropriate.

We suggest that you also review the suggestions for learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of these accommodations will also be appropriate for students with psychological disabilities. The following is some suggestions specifically addressed to the needs of students with psychological disabilities:

  • For disability-related reasons, these students may sometimes need to miss class, or even leave the room during class. Some may experience relapses requiring absences or hospitalization. In most cases, students are able to make up the incomplete work but they may need extra time.
  • Please allow students to drink beverages during class to offset medication side effects.
  • Testing accommodations may include additional time, private workspace with minimal distractions, and/or scheduling of tests at times when side effects are minimal.
  • Depending on their symptoms, students may need to tape record lectures, have a notetaker, and/or sit in a location where distractions are minimal.
  • When necessary, Individual Study or Independent Study courses may be arranged for students who need a self-paced schedule.
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