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How to Respond When Things Get HardJennifer Sullivan
Most of the students who had to move their college semester online have made the transition to their “new normal.” Although they may not love it, they’ve learned how to work remotely, become experts at videoconferencing, and have settled into a rhythm for getting things done.
But now that the adrenaline of the abrupt transition is over, students are facing new challenges as they settle in for longer than most anticipated. For many, this phase may be more difficult than the initial transition.
As a professor, I work with students almost every day — from home for now. I email, I meet with students individually through Zoom, and I hold all-class videoconferences. I ask how they are doing. I watch how they handle their work. I listen a lot.
As I talk to students, I see patterns and themes in how they are coping and what challenges them. You know your own student best, but I see all of them.
Many students are struggling more than they realize or are willing to let on. They (and we) often think they should have it all under control by now.
Remember that it’s not your job to fix things for your student, and not all students want advice. But understanding how your student handles the challenges they're facing can help you support them.
Here are some of the students I see right now. Do you recognize your student?
The unfocused – This student has trouble staying focused on what needs to be done. With no daily schedule or routine, every day seems the same and distractions such as TV, video games, social media, siblings at home, and general worry about the state of the world keep interfering with work.
The restless one – It’s great to have family time and all be home together — to a point. It’s not that this student doesn’t like being home, but they may need some space and that’s hard to find in some families and homes right now. What feels like love and caring to one student may feel like being smothered to another. Don’t take it personally if your student needs a break from cooking with you, playing board games and watching movies together.
The bored – Once their schoolwork is done, this student has trouble finding something to do. They can’t hang out with their friends, or go to concerts, or watch sports, or go to the mall or the gym. You may need to help your student reengage with old interests or discover some new ones. It's time to think creatively; binge watching your favorite sit-com only goes so far.
The couch potato – It’s hard to get exercise when you can’t go to the gym, schedule a pick-up basketball game, practice with your sports team, or call your friend to go for a run. Encourage your student to get moving. Walk or a jog together. Set up a makeshift home gym. Find exercise videos — YouTube has zillions!
The unmotivated – With all that's going on in the world, and without the energy of being on campus, this student has difficulty finding a sense of purpose. Every day feels hard and it seems easier to just give up. Encourage your student to set some small and longer-term goals. What can they look forward to?
The senior – This student who has lost the last part of their high school or college life. With no warning, they’ve lost part of their identity. They’ve lost the important “finals” — prom, senior week, performances, graduation, senior trips, etc. Let them be sad for a bit. Acknowledge the loss. Start planning to surprise them with an alternative graduation celebration.
The overwhelmed – For this student, the amount of work required to complete classes online feels as though it will never end. Big, important assignments and small, low stakes assignments all feel the same, there’s much more writing required, and there’s no class time to talk to the professor. There’s just too much.
The procrastinator – Submitting work online is different than handing in a paper in class. It’s easier to put things off for another day. The lack of a daily structure, the struggle to keep track of things, and the difficulty of judging how long an assignment may take all make it tough to get things done on time.
The anxious – This student worries about everything. With potentially less feedback from professors right now, it’s hard to know when something is really finished and this student is constantly tweaking assignments, trying to make them better. Everything seems equally important and the work never seems to end.
The uninformed – This student isn’t aware of all of the options available. Many schools have online help available and have put special policies in place for pass/fail classes or temporary Incompletes to give students more time. This student needs to reach out to professors and advisors who can help them navigate those options.
The independent – This student sees asking for help as a sign of weakness and may not take advantage of resources such as online tutoring, librarians-on-call, writing centers and virtual professors’ office hours. Students don’t have to do this alone.
The juggler – This student is trying to do everything. They're doing coursework, working at an essential job, worrying about the world, and perhaps helping with siblings or sick family members. The other things going on in their lives interfere with their schoolwork.
Many of us feel as though we have about all that we can handle right now, and our students are no exception. As you think about whether your student is thriving or struggling, investigate what’s going on below the surface. Try to offer a listening ear, compassion, support and encouragement.
But remember that not all problems can be fixed — and your job isn’t to fix them.
Your job is to be there.
Vicki shares more guidance in this special episode of her College Parent Central Podcast, One Month In: Challenges of Staying the Course.
Our holiday shopping list is full of awesome ideas that are on trend with what students desire this gift-giving season.