Going With the Flow: Why College Students’ Ability to Adapt Matters

While many of us are willing to take risks and move out of our comfort zone, the truth is that most of us don’t enjoy change — unless we are the person initiating it. Some people seem to respond positively to change, using the changes in our lives as opportunities for growth, but as human beings we thrive on routine and predictability. College students are no different.

A few weeks into the semester, many first year students begin to settle into a routine and develop habits as the novelty of their new lives wears off. This is a good thing and gives many students the peace of mind of being able to rely on some constancy in their lives. But this is also a good time for students to examine their routines to determine whether they are serving them well. Students who understand — and embrace — the qualities of flexibility and adaptability may be in a better position to grow and make the most of their experiences.

What does adaptability in college students mean?

We often talk to our students about the importance of having goals. Students who have goals are more motivated and have a sense of purpose. These may be long term goals, such an overall GPA, achieving Dean’s List or honors, or a career goal.   Goals may also be shorter term goals such as doing well on a test, winning a game, or being able to talk to a professor in their office. Goals matter.

Being able to adjust or modify goals, or find new paths toward goals matters, too. A student with the qualities of adaptability and flexibility will be able to acclimate to new situations and challenges. They will have the ability to change to fit new circumstances that they may encounter. This may be as simple as being able to adjust to varying teaching styles of professors or as complex as finding a new major with the discovery that an area of study isn’t going well or isn’t what the student expected.

Flexibility allows a student to respond and adjust as the student moves toward their goal. As your college student encounters the challenges of their new role of college student and their new environment of college, they may need to change and adapt to meet these new challenges. Your student’s ability to respond to these situational needs, to cope with disruptions that occur, will help them continually gain new skills and learn about both who they are and what the new situation demands of them.

Why do flexibility and adaptability matter?

The qualities of flexibility and adaptability in your college student allow them to be more resilient to the inevitable difficulties that will arise as they move through their college experiences. These qualities are important throughout your student’s college career, although they may be most vital during the first few weeks or semester. Your student’s ability to set goals but be open to change, to persevere but find new paths, to acknowledge that change occurs and is often uncomfortable, will allow them to continue to take action that sometimes involves risk. They will gradually become more comfortable with their ability to move out of their comfort zone and ”go with the flow” while not veering off course toward their goals.

As your student increases their ability to adapt, they continually learn from their experiences by reflecting on their current circumstances and the outcomes of their experiences. Your student learns to compare these outcomes to their expectations. What did they think would happen in this situation? What actually happened? What could/should they change in the future?

No matter how motivated your student is, some experiences in college will take them by surprise — and can’t be changed. Knowing the difference between what can and can’t be changed, and being able to intentionally adjust to a new approach, helps your student grow. Making these constant adjustments helps your student to discover — and create — their future one day at a time. The more willing or able that your student is to adjust both their expectations and their actions; the more confident they will feel.

Is there anything that parents can do to help students adapt?

Of course, as parents, we want to help our students. Sometimes, our first instinct is to try to reduce the amount of ambiguity or change that our students face. The instinct to want to ”fix” things is strong. However, we know that, as college parents, our role has changed and we need to allow our student to be in charge of their experiences. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can do nothing. We have that important role as coach and we can help our student recognize the importance of the qualities of adaptability and flexibility. We may even be able to help our student develop more of these qualities.

Each student is different. Each student has differing levels of comfort with change. Each student will have more, or less, flexibility based on earlier experiences. Here are a few things that you might do to help your student begin to think about their ability to adapt.

  • Talk to your student about their experiences and how they match up with their expectations. Are things going as they thought they would? If not, what is different?
  • Talk to your student about the concepts of adaptability and flexibility. Help them think about how their own level of comfort with these qualities. How comfortable are they coping with the unexpected? How much does change bother them? How do they respond when their routine is disrupted or life becomes unpredictable?
  • Help your student reflect on their goals and the path toward those goals. Would it help if they made any adjustments to either the goals or the path? Who might be able to help them explore those potential changes?
  • Help your student brainstorm some strategies to compensate for areas of weakness that they may be discovering. Help them recognize that any failures are simply information gathering opportunities. How can your student adapt based on what they have learned?
  • Point out alternatives. Help them consider other methods or approaches to situations. Help them realize and understand that there are always options. Thinking outside of the box and moving out of their comfort zone may be required, but there are always options.

Some college students seem naturally able to adjust and adapt to new situations. Other students have difficulty and may struggle when things don’t go as expected. As a college parent, you can help your student find the value and importance in the ability to adapt and adjust. Help them realize that adjusting a goal, or the path toward a goal, is not the same as abandoning the goal. This will help your student become more comfortable with their college experiences.

And as an added benefit, as you help your student examine their ability to adapt, you may discover new ways that you, too, can increase your comfort with change and your own ability to adapt to new ways of being a parent. You and your student may travel this journey together.

Related Posts:

Parents Can Help Freshmen Overcome First Semester Challenges

Helping Your Student Feel In Control of Their College Experience

Be Prepared for the “Meltdown” Phone Call from Your College Freshman

College Parents, Hold That Advice!


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