Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

How do mental health and psychiatric conditions interfere with performance in educational settings?

Psychiatric and mental health conditions may interfere with functioning in educational settings in a variety of ways. Often, the individuals or the professionals working with them can describe the functional limitations that are specific to your student. Please remember that since there are many different types of mental health and psychiatric conditions, that this is not a complete list, nor do these limitations apply to every psychiatric condition. 

The following is a list of some of the activities that people with psychiatric or mental health conditions may have trouble doing: 

  • Screening out environmental stimuli – an inability to block out sounds, sights, or odors that interfere with focusing on tasks

Example:  A student may not be able to attend to a lecture while sitting near a loud fan or focus on studying in a high traffic area.

Possible solutions:  Move student away from source of noise or identify quiet study area for student. 

  • Sustaining concentration– restlessness, shortened attention span, easily distracted, remembering verbal directions

Example:  A student may have trouble focusing on one task for extended periods, difficulty reading and retaining course material, or trouble remembering instructions during an exam or a classroom exercise.

Possible solutions: Break large projects into smaller tasks, allow brief but more frequent breaks to stretch, walk around, get fresh air, refer student to a tutor to help with study skills and information retention, assign tasks one at a time, write out instructions on board. 

  • Maintaining stamina– having energy to spend a whole day of classes on campus, combating drowsiness due medications or the psychiatric condition 

Example: A student my not be able to carry a full-time course load, or take a lengthy exam at one sitting.

Possible solutions: Encourage part-time enrollment; segment an exam so that student can take one part in morning, another in the afternoon. 

  • Handling time pressures and multiple tasks – managing assignments & meeting deadlines, prioritizing tasks

Example: A student may not know how to determine which assignments should be done first, or be able to complete assigned tasks by the due date.

Possible solutions: Break larger assignments and projects down into manageable tasks, distribute a course syllabus of the class topics, assignments, and due dates for the entire semester to help students to plan and prioritize workload.

  • Interacting with others – getting along, fitting in, chatting with fellow students, reading social cues

Example: A student may have difficulty talking to other students, discussing assignments, participating in class, meeting students outside of class, chatting with other students at class breaks.

Possible solutions: Establish a mentor or “buddy system” relationship to introduce the student to others or to show the student “ropes.” 

  • Responding to negative feedback– understanding and interpreting criticism or poor grades, difficulty knowing what to do to improve, or how to initiate changes because of low self-esteem

Example:  A student may not seem to understand the feedback given, may become upset when criticism is given on an assignment, or wants to withdraw from class because of a poor grade on an exam.

Possible solutions: Use a feedback loop (ask student’s perspective of performance, describe both strengths and weaknesses, suggest specific ways to improve); give student the chance to read written feedback privately, and then discuss; make alternative assignments or “extra credit” options available to all students, thus giving them the opportunity to make up for a poor grade; if necessary, arrange a three-way meeting with the student and the disability services counselor to facilitate feedback. 

  • Responding to change– coping with unexpected changes in coursework, such as changes in the assignments or exam due dates, or changes in instructors.

Example: A student may need to learn new routines, or feel unduly stressed when requirements or instructors change, or when new expectations are introduced mid-semester.

Possible solutions: Prepare students when possible for changes that will be happening, explain any new course requirements, make a special effort to introduce any new instructors and orient the new instructor to student’s needs. 


Why I need to know about functional limitations? 

Both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act state that educational personnel only need to provide accommodations to the known limitations of someone with a psychiatric or mental health condition (and the resulting disability) that can be attributed to that condition. School administrators, faculty, and staff are not required to accommodate limitations due to other characteristics, such as poor literacy skills (that are not due to learning disabilities), low educational levels, inability to meet the minimum entrance requirements of the learning environment, or lack of credentials. You can ask the student to document the types of functional limitations due to the disability that lead to the need for academic adjustments for that person. 


How I might recognize signs of mental illness in the campus setting

While a single symptom or isolated event is rarely a sign of psychiatric or mental health condition, a symptom that occurs frequently, lasts for several weeks, or becomes a general pattern of an individual’s behavior, may indicate the onset of a more serious mental health problem that requires attention. Some of the most significant indications of a possible psychiatric or mental health condition include: 


  • marked personality change over time,
  • confused thinking; strange or grandiose ideas, 
  • prolonged severe feelings of depression or apathy, 
  • feelings of extreme highs or lows, 
  • heightened anxieties, fears, anger or suspicion; blaming others, 
  • social withdrawal, diminished friendliness, increased self-centeredness,
  • denial of obvious problems and a strong resistance to offers of help, 
  • dramatic, persistent changes in eating or sleeping habits, 
  • substance abuse, 
  • thinking or talking about suicide.


In reality, these symptoms are not always readily apparent. Educators and support staff may, however, be able to notice significant changes in their student’s work habits, behaviors, performance, and attendance, such as: 



  • consistent late arrivals or frequent absences, 
  • low morale, 
  • disorganization in completing school work or in study habits 
  • lack of cooperation or a general inability to communicate with others, 
  • increased accidents,
  • frequent complaints or evidence of fatigue or unexplained pains, 
  • problems concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things, 
  • missed deadlines, delays in completing assignments, poor exam grades, 
  • making excuses for missed deadlines, or poor quality work, 
  • decreased interest or involvement in class topics or academics in general. 


People who experience problems such as those listed above may simply be having a bad day or week, or may be working through a difficult time in their lives. A pattern that continues for a long period may, however, indicate an underlying mental health problem.

NOTE: The information contained in these pages is for educational purposes only, and is not legal advice. Individuals should contact the appropriate legal resources for specific legal advice regarding their particular situations.