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Responding to Troubled Students

What should we do for troubled students, students in distress, students who confide in a faculty member?

If you are involved in Christian higher education, you know that students identify us as trustworthy sources of wisdom when they are in distress.

It may seem as though troubled students use crowd-sourced strategies to seek feedback via social media, but the importance of face-to-face interaction with faculty and support staff cannot be ignored. Our students often seek out our input on matters that are academic or personal.

Last year, I was asked to present on the topic “Responding to Students in Distress” as part of the in-service training for faculty at our local Christian school. In the busyness of the season, the commitment had slipped my mind until I received an email that very morning; the school administrator was thanking me in advance for a presentation that I’d not yet prepared!

As a licensed mental health counselor, those teachers were looking to me to give them some easy-to-remember action-steps for when students in distress seek their input.

I jotted down a few ideas and went to teach a class. When I returned 90 minutes later, I realized that my notes seemed to create an acrostic! I made a minor edit and left for the in-service presentation that went something like this:

SLEEP On It

Educators recognize the opportunity to engage with students, but many aren’t sure what to say when they don’t know what to say. Well, if you find yourself in that situation, just “SLEEP on it.”

S – Stop. We are all so busy. But it’s important to give our students the respect of our attention.

When you don’t know what to say, just stop.

L – Listen. When we listen, we affirm for our students that we care about them and what they are saying to us.

When you don’t know what to say, just stop … and listen.

E – Empathize. Controlled empathy is key to connecting with our students in distress. Express empathy for them without patronizing and without bringing attention to yourself and your own distress.

When you don’t know what to say, just stop and listen … and empathize.

E – Encourage. Encouragement here has two foci. It may be that our troubled students just need confirmation that they are on the right track — or it may be that they need us to help them to identify resources from which they should seek additional help.

When you don’t know what to say, just stop and listen and empathize … and encourage.

P – Pray. If you’re reading this magazine, it’s likely that you’re not just an educator but a Christian educator. As such, our students see us as spiritual leaders as well. When students express that they are in distress, it’s an opportunity for us to reach out through prayer.

When you don’t know what to say, just stop and listen and empathize and encourage … and pray.

As educators, we’re seen as sources of wisdom to our students. While we may not have all of the answers for troubled students, these five steps can help us to connect with them. It’s a helpful strategy for knowing what to say when you don’t know what to say:

Just SLEEP on it.

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