It’s possible you may be taken by surprise if you learn that your student is struggling or in trouble – especially academically. You didn’t see this coming and wonder how you missed it.
On the other hand, you may clearly see that your student is in difficulty but wonder how your student is missing it – or at least not talking about it.
Of course, there are other times when no one sees it coming and everyone is taken by surprise. Trouble may have been brewing for a while, but it seems to have come out of nowhere.
My student won’t talk about it – or even admit there’s trouble.
This can be especially frustrating. It’s obvious that your student needs help and you’re willing to support them in finding it. But your student seems to be shutting you out. What’s going on?
“I’m embarrassed and ashamed because I’m failing some of my classes. I’m supposed to be able to do this work and my parents – and the rest of my family and friends – expect me to do well. My parents are paying a lot of money and now it’s wasted. The college must have made a mistake in admitting me. If I don’t tell anyone about this maybe they won’t find out.”
“I’m tanking in every part of my schoolwork. There’s too much, it’s too hard, and I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do. I’ll just lay low and hope someone will rescue me.”
“I can’t admit this to anyone. My parents will be disappointed in me and are wasting all this money. My friends will think I’m a loser. Everyone will laugh at me or hate me. I have no idea what I’ll do if I’m not in school. This scares me so much I just can’t talk about it.”
Sometimes students don’t know what they don’t know.
College students are expected to keep track of their own progress. This is a big change from high school and students may not know how to find out where they stand. They may get assignments back but not have cumulative grades posted. Or they may not think about the big picture. They don’t recognize the trouble.
“I don’t think I’m in trouble. I’ve failed a couple of tests and missed a few assignments and maybe skipped a couple of classes, but I’m handling some things in and showing up most of the time. Maybe things could be better, but it can’t be all that bad.”
“OK, things may not be great, but no one has sent me any warnings or notices that I’m failing. None of my professors have called me in and said I need to do anything differently – some of them don’t even know my name. They’d let me know if I wasn’t doing satisfactory work. I assume everything is OK if I haven’t heard anything.”
“I know I’ve got some problems, but they can’t be that bad. Really, how deep can the hole I’m in be? I don’t have any sense of where I am in my classes, but I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing and hope everything will work out.”
“I know some things aren’t going well and I should probably do something about it. Talk to a professor? But what would I say? Get a tutor? People will probably think I’m dumb. Study harder? I guess that just means spending more time, but I don’t know where I’ll find that time. I’ll try to find some help when I’m not so busy with so much work, or the sports season is over or there are fewer activities and parties taking up my time. I’ll get around to fixing this later.”
Some students don’t know how to think about difficulty and blame themselves.
Sometimes, it comes down to mindset. Your student may not realize that they can do anything or may stop trying when things get difficult.
“I am usually proud of the work that I do. I guess you’d say I’m a perfectionist. If I can’t do something just right, I don’t want to do it. My family expects me to be the perfect student I’ve always been, and so do I. Now, I can’t admit that I didn’t accomplish the good grades that I expect of myself.”
“The work is SO hard. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to do well. I don’t want anyone to know that I can’t do the work, so I’ll just act like I don’t really care about any of it. Then when I fail it won’t be because I was too stupid it will just be because everyone knows I think all of this is dumb and a waste of time.”
“The work is SO hard. When something is hard for me it’s obviously because I’m just not good at it. That’s why I’m failing this subject. I’ll never be able to change anything. I’m obviously not college material. I’ll never be able to come back from this.”
Some students may recognize trouble but are paralyzed by the fear or don’t know where to turn.
Fear and anxiety are real for many students. And fear can cloud your thinking and prevent you from taking action.
“I’m completely paralyzed. Things are falling apart. I don’t know where to start or who to turn to. I’m just going to ignore it all.”
“I know I need help, but who do I ask?”
“I was an “A” student all though high school and I hardly had to do much work at all. I’m doing what I did in high school. I spend about the same amount of time studying and do the same kind of work. I’ve never struggled in school and never had this happen before. I don’t even know what it feels like to be in academic trouble. Is this it? I don’t know what else to do.”
“I came to college to play football (or dance or cheer or act) and that’s really all I care about. I was planning to do just enough in my classes to be able to stay here but not let studying get in the way of what really matters to me. Right now, I think maybe there’s a chance I miscalculated. Now I’m scared I’ll lose my eligibility or scholarship, but it may be too late to do anything.”
“There’s too much pressure and I’m overwhelmed. I’ve never felt this anxious before. The only way I can survive is not to think about any of this.”
“If I pretend it’s not there, maybe it will go away.”
What to do?
Does any of this sound as though it might be swirling around in your student’s head?
What you do in any of these scenarios will depend on your student, your relationship, and your situation. Understanding how many different things your student may be thinking can help you plan an approach and think about what to say. It’s important to talk about your student’s feelings before you begin to deal with the reality of the circumstances and what to do next.
Take things one step at a time.
Step 1 – Your student needs to recognize and admit that a problem exists, and they need to be ready to deal with it. Talk to them.
Step 2 – You and your student can work together on making decisions. Can the situation be fixed at this point? Is your student interested in fixing it? It is essential that any decision be your student’s, not yours.
Step 3 – If the answer to Step 2 is “No” and your student does not want or is not ready to try to fix the situation right now, then it may be time to take a break. Your student may need to step back and take some time to pull things together, perhaps do something else for a while – perhaps a semester – and get ready to either move in a different direction or return with renewed energy and wisdom.
Step 4 – If the answer to Step 2 is “Yes” then you can help your student think through options and create a plan for turning things around. They need to be proactive in setting up a support network – making sure friends and family are there for support, finding and using all the resources the school has to offer, investigating and employing multiple strategies to move in a new direction. This may involve working with their advisor or a success counselor at school. It may involve counseling. It will probably involve some lifestyle changes. The earlier steps were about decisions and plans, this involves doing the work.
If you sense that your student is having difficulty at school, beginning the conversation can be awkward. But your student may be grateful that you’ve opened the door to the conversation that they couldn’t face. They will probably welcome your support. If not, you may need to wait until they are ready to take the first step. Knowing you will be there when they are ready will help.
As you listen and support your student, help them think through how they got here, how they want to change, and how to move forward. As always, you need to let your student take the lead in deciding how to move their life forward, but you can help them clarify their path and let them know you’ll be there – on the sidelines – whenever they need you.
Helping Your College Student Avoid “How Do I Tell My Parents?” Fears
Recognizing Signs That Your Student May Be in Trouble and How You Can Help
What to Say to Your College Student Who is In Trouble, Dismissed, or On Probation
Helping Your Student with Goal-Setting – and Action Plans
The Smartest Word Your Student Can Lose: Why Students Don’t Ask for Help
Note: We have a whole section of our website dedicated to helping you work with your student in difficulty. Check out this section for more help.