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Preparing to Return After a Difficult Semester

Jennifer Sullivan

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It's common for students to struggle in college, especially during their first year — or during a global pandemic!

After finishing a tough semester (or two), it can be overwhelming for a student to think about returning to campus.

Academic difficulty can take its toll on your student’s emotional and physical health. How can you help them be resilient and step back into a situation that was previously hard for them?

Here is advice for helping your student prepare to return to campus with renewed confidence — and with a plan for weathering the tough times should they happen again.

1. Build Their Confidence

Returning to college after a difficult semester is all about self-esteem, confidence and "getting back on the bicycle." Whether returning to a physical campus or virtual learning, the first new semester after an unsuccessful one can be scary.

Your student needs extra confidence-building during the weeks and months leading up to the start of classes. Remind them that they have done hard things before. Remind them that life is full of challenging times and they have survived every one of them so far. Teens and young adults are skilled at "reading the room." If your student knows that you see their strengths and believe in their ability to bounce back and be resilient then they will be more open to your encouragement.

2. Acknowledge Their Fear

Validating your students’ feelings and apprehension is crucial to creating a foundation for building their confidence. Students need to feel heard before they will listen to your praise and/or accept your advice.

I recommend conversation starters such as this:

“Let’s talk about your experience at college last year. I know it was really difficult for you. What do you think about when you think about last year?" (If the answer is negative, you can try this.) "I want to help you reframe the way you thought about last year. I know it was really tough, but I saw that you learned __________. ”

“College is only a few weeks away. I’d like to help you feel prepared and ready to be successful for this year. Is there anything you needed last semester that I can give you before you start this semester?"

These conversation starters let your student know that you understand their previous experience was tough. Starting with a statement of understanding will help them be more open to the rest of the conversation.

Read 4 Steps to Better Conversations With Your Student >

3. Depersonalize Failure

Even if your student isn’t showing it or talking about it, I guarantee they are thinking about their mistakes and reliving where and how the semester went wrong. They feel responsible for their difficulties which leads to thoughts such as “I can’t do college” or “I’m never going to be successful.”

Students feel awful when they know that they made a mistake — and worse than awful if the mistake has jeopardized their ability to play on an NCAA athletic team, created conflict with their roommate, or resulted in academic probation or the need to withdraw from college.

Students bear the weight of a difficult semester long after the semester is over.

As an executive functioning coach working with college students, one of the most important tools I offer in the beginning of a semester is reassuring students that difficulty isn’t personal. Difficulty is a result of not having the right tools.

It's so important to separate the student from their failure. For example, I can’t play golf. I’m horrible at it. But that’s not because I’m a bad person or I’m inherently lacking skills. If I had the right teacher and knew how to swing and hit the ball properly then most likely I would be successful.

Reassuring students that they are capable but might need tools and strategies outside of themselves increases their self-esteem and confidence. This article offers some great suggestions for helping your student develop time management and organization skills needed at college.

4. Make a Plan

Sometimes we resist situations that we think will be out of our control. Or we don’t want to return to a situation that spiraled out of control in the past. Difficult college semesters can feel like this.

When students ignore their personal red flags and continue through a semester where they are struggling, things can go from bad to worse pretty quickly. Missed assignments can turn into failing grades which creates low self-esteem and helplessness — and then students give up altogether.

Catching red flags early is important. Having a plan is even more important.

Use the weeks before the return to campus to have your student research supports listed on their college website. Make a list of contact names, emails and building locations of important campus resources such as residence life, student affairs, tutoring and writing centers, the disability support office, counseling and health centers, academic advising, etc.

5. Identify Personal Red Flags

Next, encourage your student to identify HOW they will know they are struggling. What are their personal red flags that indicate to themselves they are starting to feel overwhelmed?

  • Do they start missing classes?
  • Are they sleeping all weekend?
  • Not feeling hungry?
  • Cancelling phone calls or activities with friends?
  • Not responding to texts from family?

Creating a list that they can share with you will make everyone aware of potential difficulties when they first start happening, before the spiral.

Creating this list also encourages your student to use metacognitive skills, an important executive functioning skill. Reflecting on their own thinking and actions and identifying personal red flags — BEFORE the difficult times — is so important.

6. Seek Support for Yourself

After a difficult semester your student still may have unresolved issues that call for professional support. Parents, it’s completely normal to feel "out of your league" when your teen or young adult struggles. The strategies above will help you prepare them to return to college, but if you feel like you need more guidance, I encourage you to seek out professionals, friends or other parents whose students have also struggled.

For every student who has struggled at college, there is a parent who gets it and might have wisdom to share. You might become that parent that others turn to one day, too!

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Jennifer Sullivan, M.S. is a private executive functioning coach for high school and college students and the founder of Fast Forward College Coaching. Jennifer lives in southeastern CT and helps students across the country improve their time management and organization skills. Jennifer currently teaches at UCONN in the Neag School of Education. She and her husband are the parents of two teenagers. Find more or her expert advice in her book, Sharing the Transition to College: Words of Advice for Diverse Learners and their Families.
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