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Helping a Student from a Distance

It is common for students to experience academic, personal and social stress at various points in time while in college. Most students will successfully manage the challenges of college life, while some may have more difficulty. For these students, their experience of distress may negatively impact their academic progress and personal development.

Parents, relatives, or caregivers are often one of the first to notice when a student is in distress. They may also be the first point of contact in helping a student obtain assistance. The urgency of the situation will impact the options you choose. You may decide not to intervene with your student, or you may choose to manage it with a more personal approach. If you determine that the situation is more urgent, you may decide to become more active in your involvement.

If you choose to approach your student with your concerns about his or her well-being, you might consider some of the following suggestions:

TALK to your student in private when both of you have the time and are not rushed or preoccupied. Give your student your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help him or her feel cared about as an individual and more confident about what to do.

If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, "You said you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned," rather than "Why haven't you been going to class? You should be more concerned about your grades."

LISTEN to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way. Communicate understanding by repeating back the essence of what your student has told you. Try to include both content and feelings ("It sounds like you're not accustomed to such a big campus and you're feeling left out of things.") Let your student talk.

GIVE hope. Assure your student that things can get better. It is important to help him or her realize there are options, and that things will not always seem hopeless. Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy, professionals on campus and other campus resources. You may not be able to solve your student's problems yourself, but you can assist him or her receive the help that is needed.

AVOID judging, evaluating, and criticizing even if your student asks your opinion. Such behavior may push the student away from you and from the help he or she needs. It is important to respect your student's value system, even if you don't agree with it.

REFER: A referral for counseling may be made when you your student's difficulties appear to go beyond your ability to help. In making a referral it is important to point out that: 1) help is available and 2) seeking such help is a sign of strength and courage rather than a sign of weakness or failure. It may be helpful to point out that seeking professional help for other problems (medical, legal, car problems, etc.) is considered good judgment and an appropriate use of resources. For example, "If you had a broken arm you would go to a doctor rather than try to set it yourself." If you can, prepare your student for what they might expect if they follow your suggestion. Tell them what you know about the referral person or services.

FOLLOW-UP with your student again to solidify their resolve to obtain appropriate help and to demonstrate your commitment to assist them in this process. Check later to see that the referral appointment was kept and to hear how it went. Provide support while your student takes further appropriate action or pursues another referral if needed.

CONSULT with a mental health counselor at the University Counseling Center at (515) 271-3864 if you have any questions or concerns about your student. Our counselors can help you assess your student's situation, suggest resources on and off campus, and help you make an intervention with your student.

Adapted with permission from George Washington University’s Counseling Center.  

Understanding Adjustment to College Life

Leaving home and going off to college is a significant event, marking an important life transition for your student. To be supportive during this time, it may be helpful to put yourself in the "shoes" of your student, and try to understand the variety of changes and challenges he or she will face.

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