First-Time TA Introduction to Student Support

This is a text transcript of a slideshow used to introduce first-time TAs to student support and the Disabled Students’ Program (DSP) at Berkeley. Transcribed/lightly edited for readability by Peyrin.

See this post for an introduction aimed at instructors.

What is the Disabled Students’ Program (DSP)

  • Some Goals:
    • Student accommodations and services
    • Collaboration with campus community to remove barriers to educational access
    • Implement the University’s values of equity and inclusion. An accessible environment universally benefits everyone

Goals Today

  • Inform you of how DSP’s goals can help you better support the disabled students in your course.
  • Outline our recommended mindset for approaching accommodations and extenuating circumstances with your students.
  • Provide concrete steps for escalation and support in preparation for both everyday and crisis interactions.
  • Make life more equitable for you and your students.


  • Not all students learn the same way.
  • People experience disabilities due to barriers created by society, not by their impairment or difference.
    • Consider glasses. They are an assistive device used by people whose vision is impaired. Are people who need glasses disabled? Why or why not?
    • Learn more about the social model of disability.
  • Presenting information clearly and in multiple formats is vital for all students in your course.
  • As with all groups of students, some DSP students are among the top performers in Computer Science. Other DSP students struggle a lot. A student’s DSP status predicts nothing about their performance in the course.

Equity vs. Equality

Equity vs. Equality

(image source)

Academic Integrity

  • Students experiencing extenuating circumstances should be explicitly included in your course’s student support policies.
    • Not all disabled students are registered with DSP, and they primarily use their bandwidth to support long term disabilities.
    • We as course staff are responsible for providing students with a fair learning environment, no matter the cause.
  • Some instructors encourage blanket policies in order to reduce bias. However, this can mean students in DSP are turned down via Policy, which undermines their accommodations.
  • Instead, we can reduce bias by assuming every student has the potential to succeed and then demonstrating that belief with our actions.
  • Accommodating students = a more fair classroom. Denying accommodations undermines academic integrity.


  • The only people who need to know which specific students are registered with DSP are the course manager, and the heads of staff in the course (eg DSP TA, head TA, etc).
  • Students can share their status with you, but you cannot ask or request any additional information or documentation. Due to potential stigma, it must be the student’s choice whether to inform you of their DSP status.
  • If you notice a lack of access controls surrounding sensitive information, say something to the DSP TA and/or the instructor(s). If it is not appropriately resolved, please notify the course manager and/or the department.
  • Please note that disability status is protected by title IX.
  • The DSP office verifies student medical information, and is an important layer of abstraction to protect student confidentiality.
  • While some students may want their discussion TA informed to more easily receive accommodations in section, others may not consent to their information being shared.

Share Support Resources

  • Announce DSP, student support, and your course’s extensions process.
    • Include these in your first section.
    • Describe them fully on the course syllabus.
    • Provide a clear link to extensions on the course website.
    • We recommend a centralized form.
    • Additionally, an “always say yes” policy for <= 1 week extensions reduces our workload and improves student outcomes.
  • Refer students to these resources.
    • Familiarize yourself with the support available in your course.
    • If a student has factors outside of the course that are impacting their ability to complete the material, advise them to reach out!
  • Keeping students informed will greatly decrease work for course staff.

Conversations with Students

  • Listen. A student’s own words are often more clear than the DSP letter.
  • Students are experts in their own experience - trust them to have the best understanding of their time and ability to complete assignments.
  • Do not judge or discourage students who are behind on course material. Shit Happens.
  • Please check out these recommendations for one-on-one meetings if you have a one-on-one meeting with a student:
    • Specific steps for Before, During, and After the meeting
    • General helpful tips for student interactions

Hard Questions: Always Escalate

Your Primary Responsibility is conveying the needs of the student to course staff. If you end up in a conversation with a student that you do not feel adequately prepared for:

  • Convey positivity and affirm this is important to you and the course.
  • Confirm:
    1. What the student is asking for specifically
    2. The action you will take to find out the answer
    3. How the student can follow up with you if needed

Note: Campus policies change over time and vary between departments. Avoid giving students advice about degree, department, or campus policies.

You are a vector to connect the student with the information. Please repeat what the student asked to the person above you.


If you’re a student support TA, a head TA, an instructor, or otherwise responsible for handling student support cases that have been escalated, see this post for an introduction aimed at instructors.

  • When you join a course staff, make sure you know the appropriate path of escalation. If it’s not addressed by your first staff meeting, ask via email
    • Who do you reach out to when a student is in distress?
    • Who do you contact if that person is not available?
    • What do you do in an emergency?
  • If you have a student interaction you prefer to handle on your own, still inform your supervisor of all details afterwards, so they can follow up if any other actions are needed.
  • If a student has multiple notable interactions with course staff, this puts your supervisor in a better, more informed position to assist.

What to do if things go wrong

  • Make sure to take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup. Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselors are available to debrief with staff and faculty (that includes you!!) after an emotionally charged interaction. EAP counselors can provide assessment, referral, and brief counseling services that are free and confidential.
  • Talk to your DSP TA and the instructor(s) of the course.
  • In the worst case, there are several (Berkeley-specific) paths for disability grievances, specifically: