Effectively Addressing Student Concerns:
The following guidelines are intended to aid you in addressing a variety of student concerns or issues. It is critical that you distinguish between a student of concern and a student in imminent distress. If you are concerned that a student is in imminent distress (i.e., student is behaving in a way or shares thoughts that lead you to worry about his or her safety risk and endangerment of self or others), contact 911 immediately. Use the guidelines below when concerns arise that do not involve student risk of harm to self or others.
If you are concerned about a student’s well being, state your concerns directly. We often say nothing or look the other way for any number of good reasons. However, engaging students and demonstrating concern are far better means of promoting growth and positive change than avoidance and complicity. Be aware of changes in academic performance, attendance, participation, general social functioning, disruptive, or abnormal behavior during class sessions. Be direct and clear about what you notice and what concerns you. For example, “I am concerned about you. You’ve missed 2 classes and no longer speak when you attend class. How are you doing?” Use a genuine, caring tone and words to help students speak about issues that may be confusing and/or embarrassing. For example, “I’ve noticed your grades and attendance dropping. I’d like to help you make some improvement. What’s been difficult for you lately? How do you think I might be of help to you?”
Ask and Listen
You may need to engage students to determine how best to help them. On the other hand, students may come directly to you to discuss a concern. In either case, listening and the provision of a space for disclosure are critical to gaining an understanding of the issue at hand and discerning steps toward improvement. You are not expected to have all the right answers immediately; no one does. Rather, through open questions and reflection of what you hear, you create a space in which students can sit and discuss with you concerns that bear on their well-being and academic performance. This component of helping is not about coming up with the right thing to say or the right way to intervene. It is a time to develop and demonstrate an understanding of your student’s experience in a manner that intentionally imparts compassion and empathy. Remind yourself throughout these discussions to understand as best you can and exercise both empathy and compassion. Self-disclosure may be appropriate and helpful, particularly if you have experienced similar distress and have had the opportunity to work through the issue with a significant other, a mentor, or a professional helper. When self-disclosing, keep the overall focus on the student. Your disclosure should aim to promote a sense of common humanity and aspire to instill hope and impart wisdom in what you share about suffering and healing in your own experience.
Advise and Refer
You do not need the right answer or solution, but you certainly are entitled to share your impressions and some advice after getting a good sense of what the student is experiencing. Most importantly, though, take time to explore ways in which your student may get the support necessary for change. Be aware that support comes from a variety of areas for students, and each student differs in terms of what she or he needs when facing distress. You may ask, “Are you getting support regarding this issue from your family or friends?” “Do you think a proctor or other residence life staff could be a part of the solution?” How do you see me as playing a supportive role?” “Who do you typically turn to for support during times of distress?” Students may identify a need for increased support from family and friends or from therapists or clergy. Not every student in distress needs or wants traditional counseling. Some may prefer and benefit from increased support in family and peer relationships or support from a chaplain. As ideas emerge, encourage student autonomy as he or she determines what may work best.
Often, counseling is the best option, particularly if students are reluctant to share more openly with family and friends. Ask the student about his or her thoughts regarding counseling before you suggest it. For example, “Have you considered counseling?” or “What are your thoughts about seeing a counselor to address this issue?” Depending of your level of comfort with the process, you might ask, “Would you like my help in connecting you with a counselor?” You have numerous options, including initiating a call to start the process. Students ultimately must make the appointment, but it is sometimes easier to do so when a trusted significant other has called first and obtained information from our office. Alternatively, you may walk a student over (always call first to let us know you’re coming) or, as is most common, encourage the student to set up an appointment in the near future (call our office at ext. 1270 or ext. 1325 or visit the Appointments page on our website). Some students may wish to be seen off campus and lack information about off-campus counseling resources. Stillpoint is a private behavioral health practice close to campus that provides traditional counseling services as well as acupuncture, massage, and reiki (www.stillpointsewanee.com).
Several days to a week after speaking with a student, follow up to ask how he or she is doing, ask about efforts taken to address the issue previously discussed, and make direct observations about what you have noticed since speaking to the student. If you feel stuck or confused in your interactions with a student, Wellness Center staff are available by phone (ext. 1325) for brief consultation.
Take time for self-reflection. Imagine a spectrum at one end of which is the faculty member who is absolutely uncomfortable speaking about personal concerns with students and remains closed off to doing so. At the other end is the faculty member with a considerable urge to help but also with poor boundaries, someone who becomes overinvolved often to the point of detriment to self and student. Know the direction in which you may be more oriented, and make an effort to center yourself as an individual who is caring and helpful but with firm personal boundaries and realistic expectations about your role as a proactive helper.