Instructional Strategies That Support Student Well-being
Your role as an instructor is an important one in the larger system of student support at Tufts. In a college or university, the classroom is the only place where students really must show up in order to remain a student. Intentionally designing your course with some flexibility and building relationships with your students can support student mental health, improve learning, and strengthen our campus community. You are not a mental health provider, but a compassionate and supportive human who wants their students to thrive.
“It’s important to remember that we live in a world that pits self-care and achievement against each other. With this in mind, invite students to question such mentalities and join a mindset that locates well-being as an act of resistance against toxic norms of society or highly competitive settings. You can help students re-narrate self-care as an instrument that serves academic success. Also, you can remind them that learning (not simply the completion of academic tasks) relies on sufficient energy, time, and space to absorb what is being taught. They don’t need to buy into the myth that one must surrender rest in order to do well.” (Emory University website)
Student suggestions for providing emotional support in the classroom
Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) hosts two peer support programs: Ears for Peers and Mental Health Representatives. Mental health representatives suggest that faculty do the following to support students in distress:
Trust your students. Most students are not trying to take advantage of faculty when they ask for flexibility or accommodations. They are dealing with stressors and competing performance demands within the college setting and outside of it as well.
When a student shares that they are going through a very difficult time and ask for an accommodation, acknowledge their humanity and that they are struggling. Faculty do not need to do anything more than convey that the student matters and is visible to them.
Faculty should not ask deeply probing or intrusive questions of students. Students may feel pressured to answer their questions and this can cause harm. An appropriate response may be, “How may I be most helpful to you right now?” This is open ended and let’s the student decide what the instructor needs to know at that moment.
When appropriate, it is helpful to students when faculty acknowledge that they can relate to students’ stress. It is as simple as saying, “Oh, I remember feeling that as a student, too, and it was hard, but I did get through it.” Faculty do not need to elaborate, but it shows that faculty are human and ‘get it’.
When faculty suspect that a student is struggling, it is helpful when they reach out to a student for a check-in. Tell the student that you are concerned about them. Frame it as concern about them as human beings and not for their academic performance. Most students want to continue to remain in a class even if behind on their work. It makes a difference when faculty communicate that the students is a whole human being and that their safety and well-being as a human being is paramount.
Create a supportive classroom environment
Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) describes learning environments that support mental health and well-being as ones where faculty:
Recognize that mental health and self-care are important to academic success
There is substantial research connecting learning (cognitive functioning) to emotion (affective functioning / mental health).
Include a syllabus statement and other positive messages about mental health supports
Both a statement from you and a list of available resources for support on campus signal that you are approachable
Sample Syllabus Statement: Many students face personal and environmental challenges that can interfere with their academic success and overall well being. If you are struggling with this class, please visit me during office hours or email me. If you are feeling overwhelmed and think you might benefit from additional support, please know that there are people who care and offices to support you at Tufts. These services – including confidential resources – are provided by staff who are respectful of students' diverse backgrounds. For an extensive list of well-being resources on campus, please go to: (link to your campus resource page)
Send an email before the semester begins expressing your excitement to begin, and your hopes for the semester
Encourage students to let you know if they are struggling or need assistance, and repeat that message at points during the semester when you think it might be helpful
This works if you are authentic with your offer, and your syllabus and other messaging reflect some flexibility.
Take a trauma-informed approach to teaching
Trauma-informed teaching is for student well-being what Universal Design for Learning is for neurodiverse / diverse students - it is simply an approach to teaching that creates a supportive, connected and caring classroom environment that will benefit all of your students.
Build some flexibility into your course where possible
Building some flexibility into your course assignments and due dates can be useful not only in cases where individual students might be struggling emotionally, but also when there is a campus tragedy or crisis outside of Tufts. Communicating that flexibility and recommending its judicious use can relieve both you and your students of the anxiety that comes with missing work or class, and provides a cushion for that stress.
Build trust and relationships with your students
Dr. Mays Imad, neuroscientist and educator, in a talk at Tufts two years ago highlighted three preconditions for every student to thrive: feeling safe, experiencing meaningful connections, and having caring support and resources. Some relatively simple strategies suggested by Dr. Imad are below.
Create a safe environment
Communicate that students are more than a number, and that you care.
Create a predictable structure that students can count on.
Connect with students and invite engagement regularly.
Be transparent about why your policies exist, how your assignments will support their learning, and where there is flexibility built in.
Use office hours as a way to get to know your students.
Cultivate community by inviting them to share their stories, creating community agreements, and getting to know each other through in class activities.
Check in with students regularly, and ask them to check in with each other.
Connect the course to why it matters in the larger world, and invite them to connect it to their personal lives.
Offer Care and Support
Regularly check in to see how students are doing.
Provide and normalize mental health breaks.
Listen, and encourage students to listen to each other with compassion.
List available resources at Tufts for academic and mental health support.
Notice changes and reach out
Not all students who need help will reach out and ask for what they need, even if you have offered. Simply noticing a change in a student in your class, or missed work and checking in will be enough to help you learn what is going on and how you might support a student. Everyone has a rough week on occasion, misjudges what they need to do to turn work in on time, or miscalculates how much to study for an exam. The simple act of checking in creates connection and indicates caring and support.
When a concerning pattern or change emerges in academic work or behavior, sharing that information and asking for advice for how to approach a student is important. Know that there are cultural, societal and familial reasons that some students will resist taking advantage of mental health support. Become familiar with the range of services in your school such as the counseling center, peer support, student affairs, academic support services and advising deans, as any one of those can connect students to appropriate supports. Chances are that if you are noticing changes, others are as well. Below are some of the changes you might notice.
Significant decline in quality of performance
No response to emails checking on missed work
Excessive absences from classes, labs, rehearsal, work, etc.
Written work that expresses anger, hopelessness or despair
Disruptive or inappropriate comments or behavior
Deterioration in appearance
Signs of being down, apathetic
Irritability, anxiety, or agitation
Excessive alcohol or drug use
Extreme fatigue or sleepiness
Social isolation or withdrawal
Talk about harm to self or others
Remember that not every student who is struggling needs counseling. “A common reaction when faced with student struggle is to want to refer the student to a mental health provider. However, supporting a student’s well-being does not always involve a clinical solution as much as a relational one. By shifting away from clinical language (e.g., depression, anxiety) to describe common student struggles (e.g., loneliness, fear of failure), we are in a better position to relate to them in a supportive, engaging manner and help them feel that they belong here. For many students, a connection with a trusted adult will be all the healing they need. And when more support is needed, there is an array of campus resources to help.” (Emory University website)
Some suggestions for how to reach out with care:
Invite student to meet with you to check in
Be direct and specific about your concerns
Listen; avoid judging or criticizing
Be sensitive to personal and cultural contexts
Don’t get sworn to secrecy
Point out that getting help is a sign of strength
Help connect them with appropriate resources if it seems like it will help - but unless there are immediate safety concerns, remember it is their choice
When there are concerns about safety
Provide support and assistance
“I’m sorry things have been so hard for you. I think it would be good for you to speak with a counselor. I will help you with that.”
Connect them with your campus’s mental health services, if possible.
On the Medford campus, always consult with CMHS or notify DOSA (for the Medford Campus) about the situation. Make sure you reach someone directly (not e-mail or voicemail). Other schools should refer to their school’s guidance.
Parts of this section was developed using resources from a faculty presentation by Julie Ross from Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services.