What Do I Do When Students Are Under Pressure?
Students Who Hurt and How Student Ministers Can Help
By Dr. Pat Cleveland
Our students face more and more pressure as our society and our families struggle to make sense of the culture and survive in this complicated world. Student ministers have unique opportunities to participate in the spiritual and life growth of students whom they serve. Early in my career I spent several years ministering to high school and college students. I thought I knew everything; after all, I already was Dr. Cleveland - didn't that make me an expert? How misguided I was! They taught me so much; I would never approach students in the same way. What a deepening experience in my own commitment to Christ and his children was given to me. Out of my love for students I am sharing what I have found to be instrumental when working with students who are wrestling with important situations.
- Every time you meet, recognize and reach out to each member of your group (30-45 seconds per student) so they know they matter to you! That means notice each student at each encounter. How does the student appear at this time? Mentally note appearance, mood, interactions with others, body language. If something seems off, make a mental note to check on them before they leave.
- Acknowledge each student verbally: Good to see you, Something personal if you have it, look at them and see the person. Students need individual notice and interaction with you, even briefly. Make each feel germane to the group and to you.
- Focus on different students during your time together; notice interactions or lack of them. Quietly encourage students to join and bring every participant to the table of discussion.
- When appropriate, in large groups, let your students know you are available in whatever ways you are, to talk, pray or take a walk, students do not always do well with face to face direct encounters concerning their difficulties so offer other options such as playing a game, taking a walk or cleaning up together so that the discussion is more informal and listening carefully. Ask someone about whom you are concerned to help put things away. Do whatever it takes for the student to feel comfortable.
- Be the KEEPER of knowledge, Never talk about anything a student has told you; not at student events, not with another adult leader, not in the church gathering area, not on the phone where you could be heard. Having a student lose confidence in you is fatal for the trust of that student and maybe others as well! If you have a supervisor or mentor seek time with them to review and plan. Exception: where troubling or threatening information has been given, consult your supervisor or Pastor for handling procedures.
- When appropriate, let the student know that you wonder if something is going on with a general statement: "looks like something is going on, want to talk about it?"
If student is preoccupied, sad, or distracted make a nonjudgmental comment such as "looks like you have something going on. I am here if you want to talk or we can schedule another time..."
Let the student lead in either case.
- Offer encouragement without promise that it will be okay.
- Listen without judgment: "that must be hard to understand"
- Listen, empathize but don't recommend or solve. "I would not be ok with that either; what will you do about it."
- Problem solve if the student is open to it but let the student do the solving as much as possible.
You can be the catalyst for each student in your range of participation. You are a concerned, trained adult who can get a student help beyond your level, if and when you find it necessary. For many students, your listening will be what they need and they will benefit. Always keep the line of communication open with each student. You may be the only person with whom they will open up and ask for support.
You have such opportunities to experience God at work. May you enjoy getting to know, love, and support your students.
Dr. Pat Cleveland
Pat graduated from the University of Georgia with a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Psychology, Clinical and School and Clinical Postdoctorate in Psychopharmacology and Family Therapy. Her career has included several years of student ministry, Chief Operating Officer and owner of a mental health practice, Director of mental health services for Bethesda Hospital, Private Practice in Psychology, and Special Education manager for Cincinnati Public Schools.