Managing student stress during distance learning: How faculty can support their students 

Shari Robinson, Ph.D., Director at University of New Hampshire, Psychological and Counseling Services 
April 30, 2020 


You and your students are facing significant change.  Across the world, students are transitioning to online education, socially distancing from peer groups and most likely hunkering down in their family homes.  We know that change creates stress, but we also know that stress is a normal and even necessary part of life.  As everyone makes this new journey through life, greatly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, here are some ideas for how to help students, and yourself, with the transition: 

Most importantly, know that as a professor your calm and sure presence will set the course for students to also remain calm.  Seeing someone calm will induce calmness in others.   


As courses transition to online: 

  • Relationships with professors play a key role in student’s retention. Relationships matter more than ever now. Sometimes as professors, you are the sole point of contact for many of our students.
  • Consider addressing the normal stress of this transition right from the start.  
  • “Last week was a trying week for all of us.  We have all been through a lot as we move our classes online but I am here to reassure you that we will be ok.”

Normalize and validate their experiences.

    • Experiencing loss of in-person connections 
    • Time zones may impact participation
    • Uncertainty of duration 
    • Fear of infection – for self and loved ones 
    • Frustration and boredom 
    • Grief : –Loss of career opportunities, sports competition & rituals – Loss of loved one or public figure to whom one feels connected 
    • Inadequate or contradictory information 
    • Distrust of those with perceived authority and/or power
    • Challenged by unique life circumstances 
    • Distractions due to microaggressions 
    • Access to care more difficult 
    • Lack of knowledge about where & how to find help
    • How do I know if I am at-risk?
    • Fear confidentiality is compromised
    • Access to culturally responsive care
    • Shift in procedures and response systems 
    • Finances 
    • Stigma
    • New normal as whole world recovers
    • Remind students what is at stake.
      • “We are doing this to flatten the curve and to protect our most vulnerable people.  Thank you for helping with this effort.  I’m proud of all of you.”
    • Be patient with students AND yourself.  
      • “This may take a little time to get all the kinks worked out.”
      • “I don’t know the answer to that but I will email you all later.”
    • Be reassuring and encourage positivity.
      • “I know this seems like a lot right now but I know that you can do it.”
      • “We will all get the hang of this very soon.”
    • Explain any strategies you have forhow to be an online student: 
      • “Ensure that you have a private space, free from distraction.”
      • “Let others at home know that you will bebusy when courses are  
      • “Work to develop a schedulemuch like the one you had when you were on campus” 

If the entire class seems to be getting riled up, consider 

  • “Lets all take a moment and take a few deep breaths.”  Count it out: “inhale, 1, 2, 3, 4… exhale 1, 2, 3, 4”. 
  • “I want everyone to stand up, take a quick walk around the room and come back.”


If an individual student seems distressed: 

  • Notice - it’s the noticing that is crucial, just recognize that your student is in distress
  • Find a private time to ask how they are doing or describe what you are observing, e.g. “You have made quite a few comments about your mood being down.  Are you struggling yourself?
  • The student may explain things in a way that leads you to feel no other action is needed.  E.g., they may say they are already in treatment or that it just felt good to talk.
  • If you remain concerned, have them call the Student Health Center  (707) 654-1170. 
  • Follow up later and ask if they got help or need anything else.
  • Any student who mentions suicidal thoughts should talk to CAPS as soon as possible!  If it is after hours, please know that there are other resources available to the student. They may access a trained counselor 24/7 through the Crisis Text line by texting “HOME” to 741741. They can also speak with a trained crisis counselor by calling 800-273-8255. If they are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, please have them or you call 911 or they need to visit their local emergency room. For additional crisis resources, click:


Tips to support students at a time of transition: 

  1. Survey students about tools and platform
  2. Co-construct your class with giving students some input
  3. Finds ways to accommodate students who can’t join the class at thespecified time due to work or family obligations 
  4. Go low tech and mobile friendly
  5. Temper your expectations for your students and yourself (let go of your lesson plan)
  6. Be vulnerable, share with them how coronavirus has been disruptive to your life and invite them to do the same. This shows that you care for them as an individual
  7. Offer support and resources, our students should know that you are a safe person for them to talk to
  8. Create opportunities for students to process the moment
  9. Don’t forget about students with disabilities, which means some students will require different accommodations with online teaching (captioning videos and accessible format for screener readers)
  10. Assign self-care and model it (start a lecture with a mindful/wellness moment). Grace and Compassion goes along way during these unprecedented times.
  11. Integrate empathy and compassion into your coursework, some students biggest obstacle may be access, so offering many pathways is crucial for completing assignments
  12. Everyone will have to embrace flexibility 
  13. Restoring as much connection as possible is critical to the continuity of your courseand build a sense of community 
  14. Ask your students what they need from you? How can you lower their stress/anxiety? Can you dispense with coursework that is really more about keeping students busy? Can you break complex concepts into smaller modules? Would daily updates be helpful, or would weekly digests be better? Do students need multiple ways to complete assignments? Can you be transparent about your own struggles so students trust that you’re all in this together? Are you being clear about when and how students can interact with you now that you aren’t on campus?   


Students may be more vulnerable during quarantine: 

  • International Students 
  • Students of Color 
  • Students from lower SES
  • LGBTQIA Students
  • Students Dealing with Violence in the Home 
  • Students challenged with Housing/Food/Resource-Insecurity
  • Students who are caregivers to Children or Elders 
  • Students with Disabilities 
  • Students Managing Anxiety, Depression, Etc. 
  • Students who are military connected


Attending to your own self-care 

  • Sleep, healthy nutrition, exercise  
  • Know your healthy and unhealthy coping strategies  
  • Create new structures for your days and weeks 
  • Setting up appropriate space for learning; privacy 
  • Setting limits – Times to complete schoolwork, social media presence; media coverage
  • Managing demands from others – peers, instructors and administration – Children, spouses, partners all working/learning at home – Care & concern for other family members, neighbors, friends
  • Reasonable expectations – New for us all.  Perfection is not possible 
  • Taking space and time for self


Resources available at Cal Maritime: 


 *aDAPTED Marquette University