Psychiatric / Psychological Instructional Strategies

Introduction

Symptoms are often mild, temporary or episodic and easily controlled, requiring only minor or occasional adjustments from faculty and staff. Although disabilities in this category may include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, clinical depression, eating disorders and anxiety disorders are more common.

  • Students may experience difficulties for the first time while at the university because of the typical age of onset of some long-term mental health problems.
  • Situations which cause anxiety or stress for most students will be especially problematic for students with mental health difficulties.
  • Students may have frequent or unexpected absences.
  • The effects of some types of medication may make studying very difficult. These can involve drowsiness, poor concentration and other physical side-effects.

In considering alternative forms of assessment, equal opportunity, not a guaranteed outcome, is the objective. You are not expected to lower standards to accommodate students with a disability, but rather are required to give them a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.

There is a range of inclusive teaching strategies that can assist all students to learn but there are some specific strategies that are useful in teaching a group which includes students with mental illness.

First Day

  • Include a statement in your course syllabus regarding accommodation issues for students with disabilities. See the Suggested Disability Statement for course syllabi.
  • Students who have been diagnosed with psychiatric/psychological disabilities often find it helpful when the course syllabus is written with clearly defined assignment deadlines as attendance, time management, concentration and organization may be challenging for them.
  • Invite students to self-identify on the first day of class by making a public statement such as: "Please contact me to discuss disability accommodations."

Lectures and Other Teaching Sessions

  • Anxiety is common among students with psychiatric disabilities. Severe anxiety may reduce concentration, distort perception, and interfere with the learning process. Students who are anxious about workload may benefit from tailored reading lists, with some guidance to key texts. You might allow work to be completed on an in-depth study of a few selected texts, rather than a broad study of many. It may also be helpful to provide an individual orientation to laboratory equipment or computers to minimize the anxiety likely for some students in unfamiliar learning situations.
  • Emotional and behavioral changes sometimes associated with some psychiatric and psychological disabilities can make it difficult for students to participate in groups, class discussions or to give presentations. It may also be appropriate to organize one-to-one tutoring or to ask the student to record their presentations on tape.
  • Some students experiencing mental health difficulties may find group discussions or large lectures extra stressful. Low self-confidence or over-dominant behavior in such situations may also lead to social isolation.

Writing Assignments and Examinations

  • Some students with a psychiatric or psychological disability may be over-sensitive to what they perceive as criticism from others. They may prefer verbal to written feedback on assignments.
  • Exams in traditional format are likely to present a major problem to students with mental health difficulties, and can severely exacerbate anxiety-related conditions.
  • Some students may need extra time in examinations or require a separate room free from the distractions which may contribute to anxiety or trigger panic attacks. Take home examinations may be an option for these students.
  • Keep written examination instructions and sentences within examination questions short. Questions using bullet points, lists or distinct parts are more likely to be followed and correctly interpreted, particularly by students who are anxious.
  • Students with memory loss, reduced attention span or deficiencies in short-term memory will have difficulty with multiple choice questions. Short answer questions are likely to be a better test of their knowledge.
  • When a psychiatric disability enters an active phase any assessment should be postponed. If the cut-off date for withdrawal without fail has passed, students should be counseled to seek advice from Disabilities Services regarding their situation.
  • Providing review or study sheets for exams is helpful.

General Ideas

  • The effects of mental illness vary enormously so it is important to discuss with students their needs and how these might be accommodated.
  • Sometimes student behavior may be challenging for teaching staff and other students. There are a range of strategies for addressing disruptive behavior.
  • Students with mental illness may find regular attendance at classes difficult so it is useful to clarify expectations regarding attendance with the student. Making reading lists and handouts available early in the course will assist students who may be frequently absent to continue with their learning, even though they may be unable to attend classes.
  • Receiving a formal accommodation of being able to record lectures will assist those students whose attentional processing is affected by their disability as well as those who, because of the effects of medication and/or short-term memory loss, may tend to misinterpret or misquote.
  • Flexible delivery of teaching material via electronic media is particularly helpful for students who are unavoidably absent from class or who cannot participate in classes for extended periods of time.
  • Absences due to hospitalization or the effects of changes to medication may affect the number of assignments students are able to complete satisfactorily. In such cases you might consider redistributing the weighting of assignments. For example, you might set six assignments for a semester, but inform students that only the best four marks will be counted. Students who have been absent or unwell will thus have some choice about what and how many assignments they submit.
  • Students who are anxious about performing in front of others instructors may decide to allow the student to tape or video record any presentations which are to be assessed.
  • Faculty and other staff should aim to be as accessible as possible, and allow students enough time to establish a useful relationship. But remember the limitations of an instructor's role and don't try to deal with everything yourself — share issues with colleagues and specialist staff.
  • Refer the student to the Personal Counseling Center or Disabilities Services if you feel boundaries are being pushed, or if you are worried about how to distinguish between the mild depression and anxiety felt by many students at some stage and the onset of a more serious condition.
  • Tactful management of group interaction is extra important. Any problems should be discussed with the student in private and future support strategies agreed in writing with Disabilities Services if necessary.
  • Break information into small steps while instructing on new tasks.
  • For students needing other academic assistance, remind them of campus services such as the Writing Center, and the Academic Support Center.
  • Allow time for clarification of directions and essential information.
  • Make instructional materials available in text form on FerrisConnect.
  • When in doubt about how to assist the student, ask him or her as privately as possible without drawing attention to the student or the disability.
  • Faculty and staff who are unsure whether a student's difficulties are part of the normal process of adapting to university life or a matter for more serious concern should encourage the student to contact Student Services to arrange an appointment with Counselor at the Personal Counseling Center. Staff can also contact the center directly for general advice and consultation.
  • Contact Disabilities Services for ideas to help individual students.