When a student comes to you with some concern or problem, or when you are concerned about a student from what you see, as a member of the academic staff, you probably want to help the student in any way you can. Here is some general advice believed to be helpful when counseling students.
Basic Points when Counseling Students
Please be aware that the following two points are fundamentally important when counseling students.
The first point when providing counsel is to make an effort to let the student know that you are concerned solely for the student’s welfare. If advice is given without a clear message that you are concerned about the student, it often fails even when the contents are rational.
The second point is that frequently you cannot give the most effective assistance by yourself. Please consider how you might help the student better by involving appropriate people, while respecting the student’s privacy.
Specific Points to Note When Counseling Students
Secure a Place for Counseling
Arrange a quiet and comfortable place where the student’s privacy can be protected. Not being seen or heard by others makes students with concerns feel comfortable.
Listen to the Student
First, listen to what the student has to say without giving advice, pointing out thinking errors, lecturing, or disputing. Work at simply feeling what is bothering the student, from the student’s point of view. Rather than understanding mentally, listen to sense the student’s emotions and feelings. Repeat what you have grasped from time to time to confirm that your understanding is correct. The basic approach is to let the student take the reins and urge them to speak freely, but you should clarify uncertain points with straightforward questions. The more that you can make the student feel that “My concerns have been well understood,” the more likely the student is to accept your opinions and advice.
Do Not Belittle the Student’s Concerns
Even when a student has a concern that is hard for you to understand, listen seriously. Focus on the subjective experience of the student who is speaking, and accept the student’s distress. Do not use words that casually dismiss or deny the validity of the student’s concerns, such as “There’s no need to worry about such a thing,” “Everything is just fine,” or “That is not a serious concern.”
Make Clear the Specific Causes of Your Concern
When you tell a student why you are worried about him or her, convey your recent observations as specifically as possible. Avoid words like “strange” or “odd.” Instead, convey specific observable facts such as, “You’ve lost a lot of weight,” “You have been absent from many classes,” or “You have been making a large number of errors in your research.”
Consider Options Together
Brainstorm together with the student and think about possible options. Suggest a variety of resources from which the student might gain help. These may include friends, family, students in grades above and below, Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, the Student Affairs Department, the Student Support Center, Career Consultation Office, Disability Resource Center, and Center for Student Exchange. Rather than considering huge areas such as the meaning of life and life issues, it is often constructive to focus on specific issues right at hand. Something like, “For now, today, you should go back to your room and rest,” is also sufficient.
Give Advice and Comments at the End Briefly, Calmly, and in a Warm Voice
The effects of advice and comments greatly depend on whether or not you first carefully listen to what the student has to say, and the student feels that he or she has been fully heard. Advice and comments from someone who has not heard and understood the student are generally ignored, even if the contents are spot on. Also pushing points repeatedly, and trying to forcefully change the student’s mind right then and there, often have the opposite effect. Such an approach is generally a sign that the counselor has become anxious and impatient. Give advice and comments after fully listening to the student’s story, and make them brief. The attitude and voice you use when giving advice and comments are also important. Be calm, and speak in a warm voice.
Do Not Worry Alone
There may be times when you do not know how to help a student. There may also be times when you want to help a student, but the student will not accept your help. At such times, you should consult with a suitable person while respecting the student’s privacy. You may want to speak with a colleague, a supervisor, a subordinate, or someone at the Student Support Center. There are limits to the help you can provide as an individual. It is important to understand that when you seek advice or help from others, you are in fact helping the student by involving other appropriate persons. Do not think of this as an escape or failure.
Take Good Care of Yourself
Helping students does not mean that you become an immortal hero. When giving assistance to students, you may take on excessive responsibility, push yourself too far, and feel stress. The scenario in which a helper sacrifices himself and causes harm to his own mind and body is an important problem called “burnout syndrome.” So, pay attention to your own needs. Make sure that giving help does not damage your health or prevent you from enjoying your life as usual.
Introductions to the Student Support Center
Before making an introduction, it is important to listen fully to what the student has to say and understand the student’s concerns. The student’s trust in you will become the basis of the student’s trust in the counselor you introduce.
Take care so that the student does not experience this introduction as if you are getting rid of a nuisance. Ask the student to briefly let you know how it went after counseling, to let the student know that you are not just leaving everything up to the counselor.
University students often view receiving counseling as a sign of weakness like a breakdown or defeat, and that perception has become one barrier to receiving counseling. Let the student know that receiving counseling rather than trying to manage alone is a clear sign of intelligence and strength.
Foster an active awareness that students “utilize” the professional services provided by the university.
It is important for the student to understand that counseling is a joint effort by the client and the counselor aimed at self-exploration, self-determination, and self-growth, and not just depending on the counselor. Please let the student know that receiving counseling is completely different from undergoing surgery, and requires very active participation.
If you judge it necessary to involve a counselor right away, it is helpful to immediately call and make an appointment or go to the Student Support Center together with the student. But take care not to be too pushy. Ultimately, it is not entirely clear to anyone whether receiving counseling right then will really be helpful. Please consider that a student’s negative thoughts about counseling are not always irrational. Also, please understand it is difficult for counseling to go well if a student is forced into counseling without his or her positive choice.
Knowing the following basic information about the Student Support Center can make you more persuasive when introducing the center to students.
The Student Support Center provides consultations to more than 800 persons and holds over 4,000 counseling sessions each year. Counseling is provided on a wide range of diverse types of issues including problems with family, romantic relations, illness, anxiety, and depression, and is not limited to problems that interfere with study and research. Counseling is basically by appointment, and no fees are charged.
Maintenance of Confidentiality at the Student Support Center
In principle, counseling contents including the fact that someone has received counseling are never disclosed outside the Student Support Center. However, there are the following exceptions.
- When a client has requested or permitted the Student Support Center to respond to an inquiry from a third party.
- When a judgment is reached that continuing to maintain confidentiality would violate the welfare of the person receiving counseling, such as a judgment that the person is at serious risk of harming himself or others. (Even in this case, however, efforts are made to gain the person’s approval whenever possible. Efforts are also made to minimize the range of information disclosed and parties to whom it is disclosed).
Signs that a Student Needs Help
The following lists signs frequently recognized as indicating that a student needs help. However, this does not mean that having just one or two of these signs indicates a student immediately requires help. Rather, when you see several of these signs overlapping, it suggests a high likelihood that a student is seeking help.
- Grades getting worse
- Reduced quality in completing assignments
- Failure to meet deadlines, not showing up or showing up late for meetings
- Conspicuous absence from classes and seminars
- Inappropriate words and behavior in classrooms and laboratories
Physiological & Physical Signs
- Decline in grooming and personal hygiene
- Sudden increase or decrease in weight
- Tired appearance
- Sleeping problems
- Psychosomatic illness, headache, nausea, digestive disorders, etc.
Psychological & Behavioral Signs
- Decreased ability to concentrate, reduced motivation
- Strong emotions of grief, anxiety, hostility, etc.
- Depression, apathy, despair
- Inability to calm down, talkativeness
- Aggressive behavior
- Words and behavior suggesting suicide
The severity of the above signs intensifies when they are accompanied by the following types of background factors.
- The student has sought help for psychological problems in the past.
- The student has parents who are separated or divorced, or has experienced death or illness in the family.
- The student recently experienced a heavy loss.
- The student recently received a severe blow to self-respect.
- Concerns about the student have been conveyed by friends or acquaintances.