We’ve written some earlier articles about what to do when your college student is on Academic Probation or is even Academically Dismissed from college. These are disturbing or sometimes even devastating situations, and knowing what to do next is important. But equally urgent, and sometimes even more important, may be considering what you say to your student if they find they are in one of these difficult situations.
Of course, knowing exactly what to say to your student has to do with who your student is, what your relationship with your student is, and why they are in this situation. Chances are, however, that you will struggle for the right thing to say, the right words. You may be angry, disappointed, shocked, sad, or just plain overwhelmed. Being honest with your student may be the simplest and best start.
Remember that your student may also be struggling with what to say to you. They may have known this was coming, or it may have taken them by surprise. They may have shared their fears or concerns with you earlier, or they may have been afraid to tell you they saw this coming. Remembering that this is happening to all of you, as a family, may help everyone. Taking time to let the news sink in before sitting down to discuss next steps may be helpful as well.
Every situation is different, and every family dynamic is different. The reasons your student is in this situation may vary. Your personality, your student’s personality, and your situation will all be factors. However, here are a few suggestions to think about even before you speak. (Read our articles on Academic Dismissal and Academic Probation for more specific suggestions about what to do next.)
- Wait — and take a breath. When you first learn that your student has been dismissed or is on probation take at least a moment before you say anything. You may learn the news from your student, or it may come through mail or e-mail. Let the news sink in and don’t allow yourself to say anything that you may regret later.
- Think carefully about your response. Your student is very likely nervous about how you will respond. They probably didn’t set out to fail. They didn’t deliberately disappoint you. They may need your support now more than ever before. Although you may want to throttle them, there will be time for those serious conversations later.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Let your student know that you understand that this is a very difficult situation for them as well as for you. If you have been paying tuition, your first thought may be of lost tuition dollars, but that isn’t what your student needs to hear right now. Let them know that you recognize that they must feel at a loss and that it is appropriate to feel that way.
- Acknowledge your own feelings. It is fair to let your student know that you are disappointed, sad, angry, whatever it is that you are feeling. It is reasonable to be honest about your own feelings. But try to be as controlled as possible.
- Take some time. If your feelings are too strong to deal with right now, or if your student is too emotional, suggest that you not discuss the situation right away. Take an hour or a few hours or a day to let the news settle and for both you and your student to think about what needs to be discussed.
- Have a meeting. It may be easier to discuss next steps with your student if you think of it as a business meeting. Plan a day and time when you will both be able to be free of distractions. Put away cell phones or other distractions. Meet at the table prepared to put your heads together to think about what is next.
- Keep your discussion as objective as possible. Ask your student to be honest about what happened. Listen carefully with all of the listening skills that you can muster. Try to listen more than talk at first. Don’t respond yet. Don’t judge. Get the facts on the table.
- Do your homework — or, better yet, have your student do some homework. Find out from the college what this means. If your student is on probation, what is involved and/or what are the consequences? If your student has been dismissed, will they be welcomed back later? What must they do in the meantime? What would be involved in a transfer? Study any financial information that is necessary. Try to come to your meeting with as much information as possible.
- Be rational. Emotional venting will not be helpful to your student right now. Try to remain calm and thoughtful about the reality of the situation and options moving forward.
- Be clear. If there are limits to what you will support, be clear about them. If you have expectations moving forward, spell them out. If your student will be moving home and there will be house rules, negotiate them now.
- Be positive. If your student has been dismissed from college, they know that this is serious. It is a major detour in the road that they thought they would travel. Most likely, your student is devastated, feels awful, and may have a very negative attitude about his abilities – or they may blame the school. This wasn’t the plan. What your student needs from you now is a positive approach. Don’t minimize the situation, but do focus on moving forward, next steps, and learning from mistakes. Helping your student feel comfortable talking to you about their mistakes is most important.
If your student hits a major roadblock in their college experience, it impacts the entire family. You and your student will need to work carefully to plan next steps. Thinking about what to do is important, but perhaps even more crucial is taking care in the words and messaging that you use. Although this wasn’t the plan, it can be an opportunity to build strong communication and relationship with your student.