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“There are times when I go into a depression for a week and cannot do anything. Then, I feel better and will catch up on my work.”
This is what one student told me when I asked her about her inconsistent grades and attendance in my class. It is no exaggeration to say that I have these conversations at least twice a week throughout the entire semester now.
And those are just the students who will agree to meet with me and show up to the appointment. I praised this student for meeting with me and being honest about what is going on, and I encouraged her to get help even though she thought she was managing fine.
This is the time to share that I am not a mental health counselor or therapist, and I do not offer advice to students other than that they should consider meeting with a professional.
Educators have been telling anyone who will listen that our students are struggling (and we are, too!) and that the issue, which predates the pandemic, has only gotten worse over the past two years.
There are days when I lament that I am not able to just teach but must also spend countless hours checking on the well-being of my students. Let me be clear: I have always reached out to students who were stumbling and offered support and resources, but now it seems as if this is most of what I do. Fortunately, many of my students accept the opportunity to talk through their troubles.
What I want parents to know is that there are signs that my students have told me can mean something more is going on. While the list I am about to share are common behaviors that all college students experience at some time, when these behaviors are coupled together and are persistent, they can interfere with learning and success.
On the surface a missed class or a late arrival doesn’t seem like a big deal. Who hasn’t overslept once or had difficulty finding a parking spot? I don’t really notice when it happens infrequently.
What does alert me that there is something else going is when the student consistently arrives 20 minutes late to a 50-minute class or misses once a week for several weeks. This is when I usually request a check-in to see what is going on.
Because I teach first-year students, we spend time working on organizational and time management skills. They know within a few weeks of my course how to submit assignments and follow the calendar. When they repeatedly wait until the last minute or forget that they have an assignment due each week, I know there may be more to the behavior.
This is harder to discern without asking students why they are not submitting assignments or why their work doesn’t meet the standards. A lack of motivation can signal a variety of issues: fear of failure, perfectionist tendencies, unease with asking for help, and uncertainty about why they are in college.
Therefore, I try to get students to dig a little deeper on what is influencing the lack of motivation. In some cases, they indicate high anxiety, bouts of depression, and attention deficit disorder (ADD) as the reasons. And most who come to these conclusions have not yet sought help.
Many of my students have reported that they have difficulty putting their phones down when they need to study or complete work. Some have conquered the issue by designating certain times of the day to check social media or answer texts.
However, I see more and more students who cannot stop using technology during class, even when asked to put their phones away. My students are allowed to use their phones or laptops when we are doing something specifically related to technology, but I also can see that some are on SnapChat or are doing other work than listening or participating in class. And it doesn’t seem to matter if I talk to them after class to encourage them to put away the distractions or make a blanket statement during class to that effect.
When I have a one-on-one conversation with them and we talk about their excessive use, they usually admit to having anxiety and that checking their phones makes them feel better. We discuss other, more appropriate ways to ease their anxiety that would help them also pay attention.
I share this list because I have found that students rarely fail a course or a semester because they are not academically prepared. Instead, it is more likely they are not able to make themselves do the work.
In a few cases, instruction on how to manage tasks and time are all that are needed to get students on track. However, for many, the issue is deeper. The recognition — that they are not motivated or are in need of mental health support — is essential to finding the best solutions for them.
Here is some comforting news: It is most likely that a professor, advisor, or counselor has reached out to students who are exhibiting such behaviors. But we need your help. Providing a safe place to talk through their issues and encouraging them to take ownership of their health help us in higher education do our jobs better. When students see that they have a team surrounding them who want them to feel better and do better, they often have the courage to take the next positive step.
Even though some days I am exhausted and demotivated myself, I won’t stop asking students to talk so I can help them figure out the best strategies for getting back on track or getting the help they need. All it takes is that one student who found a better way to manage that makes me feel as though all this hard work has paid off.