Many of our colleagues have reported hearing from students who are “lost,” disconnected, discouraged, overwhelmed, or otherwise struggling to manage their coursework or their mental health. Stress and anxiety seem to be hitting young adults especially hard right now. In a recent report from the CDC, 25.5% of survey respondents aged 18–24 years had seriously considered suicide in the last thirty days.
Students can’t learn when they’re distraught. If they feel threatened or fearful, their cognitive abilities are curtailed; they’re far less likely to be curious or reflective, and they don’t have the bandwidth necessary for higher-order thinking. But of course their safety is more important than their learning. Most faculty and TAs are not trained counselors, so we shouldn’t try to serve in that role. We can express care and concern, encourage students to seek help when they need it, and share resources available at FSU. We can also attend to our course designs and classroom climates with stress reduction—for students and for us—in mind. Here are some suggestions:
- Talk about mental health. Students can benefit from hearing that they are not alone in struggling right now. We can communicate that it is normal to face mental health challenges during a pandemic, natural disasters, and social and political unrest. It is normal to need to talk with a counselor or seek other kinds of support. There are actions that they can take to care for themselves, and we can encourage them to make plans to tend to their mental health.
- Share resources. You can link to resources like the University Counseling Center, Case Management Services, the Center for Health Advocacy and Wellness, FSU’s Student Resilience Project, SAMHSA’s coping tips for traumatic events and disasters , etc., on Canvas and in your syllabus. If you talk about the resources in class and remind students about them periodically, you can help normalize making use of support.
- Express care. Even those of us who are uncomfortable addressing the human dimension of teaching can find ways to express that we care about students’ safety and well-being as well as their learning and success. If you notice a student is struggling or distressed , you can ask them how they are doing and respond with encouragement and resources. Connecting with a professor can be very meaningful for students.
- Learn about trauma-informed teaching. If you’re interested in learning more about supporting students who have experienced trauma, you can explore trauma-informed pedagogy. More information and links are available in this teaching tip. The very basics include tending to connections (between yourself and students, and amongst students); transparency; and giving students choices, to help restore a sense of control.
- Make courses as hospitable as possible. We can do our best to ensure that workloads are manageable for students this semester, including by building in a few “catch-up” opportunities (for students and for us). We can make our course policies more flexible than usual, acknowledging that students may need to be absent for reasons beyond their control. We can avoid adding to students’ anxiety by making our instructions and expectations as clear and concrete as possible (which is especially necessary online). We can also avoid high-stakes assessments in favor of more frequent lower-stakes assignments or quizzes, and we can use alternative assessment strategies to avoid stressful proctored online exams.
Making our courses more hospitable for students can also make the experience of teaching more manageable and enjoyable for us. Faculty and TAs are also trying to cope in extremely challenging circumstances, and we also need and deserve support. The Employee Assistance Program offers counseling, referrals, and resources specific to coping during the pandemic. As always, CAT offers support for teaching, so please sign up for a faculty reading group or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are grateful for all you do, and we look forward to working with you.