Student Problem-Solving

I am doing a talk tomorrow with some parents of high school seniors. In prepping for that, I was trying to think of some of the most critical pieces of advice – and I came back to the idea of letting go, and letting students learn problem-solving skills.  Students do that best, of course, when they do that independently.

We all know as adults that life throws us curve balls, challenges, losses, and disappointments. Part of the key to building resiliency is how we handle those moments when they happen.

For college students, a challenging situation could be a bad grade/a difficult course, not getting into the student organization of choice/not getting a leadership position they had hoped for, not getting into a particular class during registration or not getting their ideal choice of roommate or residence hall.  The list goes on.

I’m a mom myself (P’27 hopeful), and I know how awful it is when your child is upset about something. And sometimes I have to sit on my hands to not reach out and fix it for ’27. I suspect many of you do the same.

At times like those when you have a student upset about something life has handed him or her, I hope it might be helpful to remember our tried and true saying in the Parent Programs office – Stop, Drop, and Roll.  (You may recall the Stop, Drop and Roll Student Problem-Solving flyer).  Here’s the gist of it:

If your student calls you with a complaint, disappointment, or problem, rather than jump right into FIX IT! Mode, do this instead:

Stop and take a deep breath when your student contacts you in a flutter.  Is their situation REALLY, something he or she cannot solve on his or her own?  If you fix the problem for your student, has your student really learned anything or developed self-reliance and independence?  If it is a disappointment and there is not a fix, you can listen and respond with empathy, maybe even share a time you were disappointed. It is hard not to get what we want, but it is also real life to have to deal with disappointments.  Better to learn how to handle disappointment now, and in a healthy way, than have the first big disappointment come at your student’s first job where the stakes are that much higher.

Drop the urge to reach out and fix things yourself or provide instructions on how your student should handle the situation.  Instead, push back with questions: What do you think you might do?  What are your options?  What campus offices might have resources?  What have you already tried?   

Roll with it!  I know, I know, easy to say, hard to do.  Let your student do the problem-solving on his or her own (even if the solution is different from how you might have handled it).  Struggling with adversity builds resilience and helps your students learn that they are capable and resourceful.  Overcoming disappointment this time makes the next time easier to bear.

While as parents we hate to see our kids unhappy or struggling through a problem, there are some benefits to learning to handle what life throws at you.  Think back to a time when you were 18 or 19 and had an issue or a disappointment in front of you.  If you managed to solve a problem on your own, did you feel like you accomplished something big?  Did you feel stronger? more independent? capable? proud?  If you rebounded after a disappointment, did you find that a few days or weeks down the line, it really wasn’t as big a deal as it seemed at the time? Having space to process disappointment often brings perspective.

So when you get that frantic email/phone call/text/IM, sit on your hands 🙂  As adults, you know how to problem-solve, and you know how to keep disappointment in perspective.  It’s your students time to flex those problem-solving or emotional muscles so they can grow strong.

And that’s [part] of what I will tell my high school parents tomorrow.

— by Betsy Chapman


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