Responding to Concerns Over Email
Often, students will share concerns with faculty and staff over email (or text, or groupme, or …). In many cases, the student is doing so in order to provide context for poor performance. At other times, the student is simply opening up to the faculty/staff member in order to get advice or work through a solution. Below, we’ve put together some simple strategies for responding to students.
But First, Dealing with Crisis Emails:
Rarely, a student might share concerns over email that are so concerning, we can’t simply respond over email and something more urgent must be done to protect the student’s safety. Below are three situations where it may be best to skip an email reply and call campus police to initiate a welfare check.
- Any imminent or urgent risk of harm to self or others
- You think someone should reach out to the student immediately
- You have serious concerns about the student’s safety and have a meeting scheduled, but the student doesn’t show up as promised.
In these cases, it is best to ask an officer to check in (336-278-5555). Our officers are trained to work specifically with students in crisis. If you are unsure about whether to call an officer, you can call our emergency response team members (336-278-5555 and ask for Administrator on Call) for guidance.
Once called, officers will attempt to contact the student and then a report will be shared with our office so we can follow-up.
Tips for Responding Over Email:
Show Empathy: An often missed step, this involves relating to the student’s needs and expressing sincere concern and compassion for their situation. It simply means you are listening and acknowledging that what they are saying is valid. There may be times when you might not believe that what the student is telling you is completely true – it’s natural to be suspicious when receiving several requests for accommodations or extensions in deadlines. Regardless of what you may be thinking, however, we recommend you always respond initially with a sense of empathy. If you have doubts about their situation, you can address these in the planning stage below – by asking for some documentation or by judging based on a follow-up meeting.
Examples of Empathy statements:
- I’m sorry to learn that you have been dealing with some health issues this semester. Based on what you’ve described, I can see how it would be difficult concentrate…
- This sounds very serious. How are you doing right now?
Some tips on showing empathy:
- Don’t over-react – your empathy response should promote a calm, rational reaction.
- Don’t overshare. While some personal sharing can be very helpful, we want to be careful in how much we share. First, students who are distressed want someone to attend to their issues and do not want the attention to be deflected to the teacher. Second, students need to see instructors and staff as being in control; when we begin to speak with too much depth about our own personal trauma, we make ourselves out to be the victim and not as the sounding board and referral source the student is seeking.
Make an Appropriate Referral: You can do this in a number of ways. Possible referral points might include Counseling Services, Disability Resources, Learning Assistance, Academic Advising, Gender and LGBTQIA Center (GLC)…the list is endless.
Examples of Referral Statements:
- It’s important to me that you’re connected to the right resources to assist you. Who are you talking to about this? Have you considered a connection to…
- Based on what you’ve shared, I might suggest a quick connection with my friends in _____. I’ve worked with [staff member name] there several times with good success for students in the past. Should I connect the two of you over email?
Tips for Referrals:
- Regardless of the referral you make, it’s helpful to provide a bit of information to help alleviate any anxiety the student might have. Provide them with the website and share that you’ve had a number of positive experiences with that office.
- Students are more likely to connect to an office if you give them the name of someone to connect with and offer to connect them yourself – either over email or by having someone reach out to the student.
- There is a larger list of resources on our website, many of which you will be familiar with.
- Faculty and staff often neglect referrals to academic advisors – they are already connected to many of the most useful resources and they can also provide realistic academic advice (for instance, should the student withdrawal from a course instead of taking a leave of absence? Would the student benefit from taking a reduced load? What about repeating a course?) Since advisors have seen these issues many times over, they often have a pulse on the best solution going forward.
Suggesting a Plan: In many cases, a student is interested in getting some advice on where to go next. When responding, it’s appropriate to provide a few strategies or suggest a next step for moving forward. This may also be the place where you highlight the reality of their situation and suggest the “best of all evils” approach. Should the student consider dropping a course? Should the student be thinking about a leave of absence? Should the student consider taking a poor grade so they can focus on other courses?
Examples of Planning Statements:
- While I understand your desire and need to stay enrolled in your classes this semester, you may want to consider withdrawing from one or more of your classes in order to concentrate on the other classes that you taking this semester. It can be very difficult to keep up with new material while you are trying to make up almost a month of missed material. Your advisor might be a good place to start so you can figure out how this would impact your graduation goals.
- With everything that’s happening, I think it may be time to prioritize your health. While your classes are important, your health is more important at this point and a leave of absence might be your best solution. Let me share some of our conversation with your advisor to see how taking a break might impact thing going forward.
- With your permission, I’d like to connect you with the folks in the Dean of Students Office. The staff there are great at working with students to get them connected to various resources around campus [not so subtle plug].
- I would also recommend contacting your other professors so they know what’s happening. Some might be willing to work with you.
Tips for Planning:
- Remember to keep the student in the lead – don’ tell them what to do, just give options and hint toward particular directions. Allow them to ask questions.
- Be honest – don’t sugarcoat the reality of a situation. If something is not an option, tell them now so they can make good decisions going forward. In most cases, you are likely highlighting what a student already knows or suspects.
Following-up: The most neglected step in any response. We have a tendency to assume that if we haven’t heard back from the student, everything is fine or that the student managed to connect with the right resource. In these situations, we have to plan a more active role. While it is still the student’s responsibility to self-advocate, we need to be there to ensure that the student doesn’t trip along the way. This can be as simple as asking for updates from the students within a few days or (even better), scheduling a follow-up meeting to discuss what has happened since. This does two things: 1) it lets the student know that you care enough to follow up; and 2) it places a subtle level of accountability on the student to do some of the things were discussed. Advisors will recognize this style as “intrusive advising.”
Examples of Planning:
- Let’s plan on connecting after class this week so I can see how things are going. I’ll be interested to see how your trip to Counseling Services goes.
- I wanted to check in with you to see ho things have worked out since our last conversation. Did you end up dropping the class?
Tips for Follow-up:
- Be specific if following up over email; avoid vague questions like, “how is everything?” and “Did everything work out?”
Make a Referral? Depending on the type of situation involved, you might want to share your conversation with our staff. This helps us to connect issues across different faculty/staff and to connect issues across semesters. For a better sense of when to refer, see our website.