A Response Protocol for At-Risk Students

Adam Lebowitz

Last issue, I wrote about teaching a special junior high school student who is (by my estimation) middle-high functioning on the autistic spectrum. Now, I want to discuss a separate but related issue pertaining to university campuses requiring the attention of English teachers. Recently, the US has seen greater enrollment of students with pre-existing mental health conditions (Benton & Benton, 2006). According to mental health professionals with whom I have spoken, the same is true in Nihon. Among the reasons are improved psychotropic medications supporting higher functioning, reduced public stigma towards mental illness, and competitive university recruitment. These developments are encouraging and mean greater opportunity for higher education. 

However, with these new opportunities come new challenges. Having to be independent in a new environment is stressful for any young person. Therapeutic regimes like counseling and medication could be disrupted during the adjustment period, leading to more anxiety and disassociation from the environment. At worst, students may isolate themselves making it more difficult for health services to identify and intervene. 

Therefore, teachers should be aware of the presence of at-risk students. In fact, they may be more visible in the ESL/EFL classroom because of closer proximity between students and instructors compared to major-based lecture courses. Without training, identifying “at-risk” behavior may be difficult, but sometimes it is obvious. Once I had a student in such distress for missing an assignment she repeatedly punched herself on the side of her head, causing severe discomfort to her classmates.

In this situation, foreign language facilities need a communication protocol. This can simply be a notification system where teachers immediately contact their supervisor or administrative office to alert the health center. However, there are two major considerations: One is privacy, and the other (unfortunately) political. Concerning the former, although a student may appear “at-risk,” without their assent, interventions could be considered harassment. The second issue is more complicated: Center or department supervisors, viewing outside involvement as encroachment, may feel inclined to “manage” the situation in-house. The point is language acquisition specialists are not mental health professionals, and it is best for specialists to be consulted.


Benton, S. A., & Benton, S. S. (Eds.). (2006). College student mental health: Effective services and strategies across campus. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.