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Supporting Students In Emotional Distress

The Validate, Appreciate, Refer model, developed by Active Minds, is a model that can be used in everyday conversations and can help to prevent a crisis from developing. When a student comes to you in distress it may be hard to know what to say in the moment. Use the V-A-R model to encourage active listening and support.

  • Validate feelings
    • Let the student know that what they are feeling is okay and that you believe them.
    • Examples: “That makes sense”, “That sounds difficult”, “I’m sorry you are struggling right now”
  • Appreciate their courage
    • Affirm to the student that they are taking a good step by speaking up about what they are going through.
    • Examples: “Thank you for sharing”, “It can be difficult to share sometimes. I’m glad you chose to speak up”, “It helps to know what you are going through”
  • Refer them to support/skills
    • Support the student in figuring out what would be most helpful for them in the moment. This step is most effective when asked as a question.
    • Examples: “What do you do for self-care?”, “How does some fresh air sound?”, Do you think it would be helpful to talk to someone? I can stay with you while we call or text a hotline.”

Deep breathing exercises are a great way to calm someone who may be crying or panicking. Here are the steps to a simple box breathing exercise.

  1. Exhale to a count of four.
  2. Hold your lungs empty for a four-count.
  3. Inhale to a count of four.
  4. Hold the air in your lungs for a count of four.
  5. Exhale and begin the pattern anew.

Distress tolerance skills are commonly used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy and are usually practiced before a crisis occurs. If you are working with a student who begins to show signs of distress – try working on the IMPROVE skill together:

  • The IMPROVE skill is meant to help someone in the moment by replacing the immediate event that has caused unpleasant emotions. Go through the list of IMPROVE skills and figure out which would best help the student at hand.
    • Imagery: Imagine a beautiful scene on the beach or in the mountains. Imagine your safe place.
    • Meaning: Find purpose or meaning in your daily activities.
    • Prayer: Ask for strength through prayer.
    • Relaxation: Do an activity that helps you relax. Breathe deeply, massage your neck, listen to music.
    • One: Focus your attention on one thing in this moment.
    • Vacation: Step out of your environment. Take a walk and enjoy the scenery.
    • Encouragement: Say positive affirmations aloud to yourself. 

For more distress tolerance skills, check out this list of DBT tools.

Grounding techniques can help a student return to the moment at hand when their thoughts may begin to wander. Grounding techniques are useful when it comes to the practice of mindfulness and are easy to learn and use. Try the reorientation exercise with a student who may need help calming down racing thoughts:

  1. Look around and observe your environment. Notice the light, colors, smells, and sounds.
  2. Name five items that you can see, five things that you can hear, and five things you can feel.
  3. Repeat the exercise by naming a further four items that you can see, four items that you can hear, and four items you can feel.
  4. Continue to this exercise for an additional three, two, and then one item that you can see, hear, and feel in your environment.

Check out this website for more information on grounding techniques and exercises
For even more guidance on comforting a student in distress, check out these videos and handouts: