Faculty and staff sometimes worry about sharing their concerns with a student directly. Among other things they worry about how the student will react, whether they will say the wrong thing, or if talking with the student might make things worse. In most cases, these fears are unwarranted and exaggerated:
- Will the student over-react or become upset? Probably not. We’ve had hundreds of conversations with students each year and almost every single student is grateful that anyone has expressed an interest in them personally. Most acknowledge the concerns and are very open to advice/suggestions. Often students believe that no one has noticed their struggles and having a professor or staff member express concern can really make a difference. Among the handful of students who become upset, it’s mostly based on a being overwhelmed and not knowing where to go for assistance.
- Will you say the wrong thing? No, not if you share your concerns privately, without judgment, and with a willingness to listen to their perspective. We provide a specific “script” on how to have a conversation below. In most cases, the “right thing” to say involves sharing what you’ve observed, asking them to explain their perspective, and being willing to listen to them.
- Will you make things worse? No. Definitely not. If you are reading this, you care about students and that will be reflected in your conversations.
- But I’m not a Counselor; what can I really do to help? Alot! You don’t have to be a counselor to share that you care, express empathy, and encourage a solid connection with other resources and assistance on campus. There is no expectation that you take on a student’s concerns, only that you share your observations, listen, and encourage some problem solving. No expertise required!
A Basic Script for Sharing Concerns
After asking the student to meet privately and asking a few starter questions (where are they from, why did they pick Elon), we recommend the following 4 step conversation starter…
- Describe Your Observations: Objectively describe the behaviors that you’ve noticed that lead you to be concerned: “I’ve noticed that… [describe what you’ve noticed; examples: your not participating in some of the group discussions; you’ve missed a lot of class lately; you seem really tired; some of your classwork seems less organized than prior assignments; you’re getting angry with some of your classmates; you smelled of alcohol during class today]”.
- Share That You Are Concerned: Express openly that you are concerned and why: “I’m a bit concerned because… [keep it broad; examples: this seems like a shift from what I’m used to; I know that you’re a capable person and want to do well in this class; I don’t want to see you burn any bridges with your classmates].”
- Ask For the Student’s Perspective: Ask the student to provide context for your observations. The assumption here is that you (as professor or staff) don’t have enough information to fully understand your observations and you’re looking to the student to provide the missing context. You want to help, but you need more: “What can you tell me about this?”, “Help me understand a bit about what’s going on.”, “Does this sound familiar to you?”,
- Encourage Appropriate Connections: Ask the student what they are already doing for support. Encourage other connections: “What are you doing to take care of yourself right now?“, “Are you connecting with some support here on campus?”, “What can we be doing to help here?”, “Where do we go from here?” , “What steps have you taken so far and how can I help?”
- Note: It’s helpful if you are aware of certain basic resources – Academic Advising Center, Learning Assistance, Counseling Center, Disability Resources, Residence life, Truitt Center.
- We are also a resource, “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to connect you with one of my friends over in the Dean of Students Office. They are great at working with students who are dealing with some extra difficulties and have a lot of connections to work with. Can I connect you over email or share your information with them to get things started?”
- Establish a Follow-up Plan: In almost all cases, please plan to meet again with the student, simply to check in. This does two things: it emphasizes that you really do care and it creates a subtle hint of accountability for some of the planning steps suggested: “I’d like to get back together with you in a few days to see where things are.”