How to C.A.R.E. for a Struggling College Student

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Mental HealthStudent Success

Article Summary

  • Instructors can support their students through C.A.R.E: Communicating compassionately, allowing flexibility, reevaluating courses and empathizing and elevating.|Instructors should empathize with students and support them in a way that does not shame or minimize their struggles.|Flexibility and communication allow students to succeed in ways that work for them, while helping instructors grow and assess their own material.
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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Adam Barragato is Assistant Director of Partnerships at Purdue University and former Teaching and Learning Consultant


A struggling college student might not always show obvious signs of their troubles. But it was clear something was amiss when a student fell asleep in my class one Friday morning.

At first, I couldn’t understand. I took teaching at 8 am extremely seriously. During one class, I even dressed up as a hot dog. But then, it clicked. I wondered, “Is there something going on with this student outside of class?”

I believe as teachers we are blessed with the innate ability to tell when something is wrong with our students. In this article, I address different ways we can support a struggling college student through the acronym “C.A.R.E.,” while highlighting my past mistakes. Together, we can work to support our students in ways that don’t shame or condemn their struggles.

C: Communicate Compassionately

I didn’t ask my student why she had fallen asleep in my class. I learned working in retail that the key to communicating with an audience that may not be interested in you is to NOT to approach the topic at hand. Rather, you instead ask how they are doing.

So, I walked up to her and asked, “is everything okay?” Instantly, she looked at me and replied, “Mr. Barragato, I work the night shift and usually don’t have time to sleep once I get home.” To say it took a few minutes to lift my jaw from the ground was an understatement.

I believe that compassionate communication is the most important, and difficult, part of C.A.R.E. We need to think about how the questions we ask and the reactions we give will affect our students. If struggling students hear or see frustration or disappointment from us, they are less likely to be honest when we reach out. Nonverbal communication including tone, facial expressions and hand gestures are often just as impactful as words, too.

We want communication to empower our students, and asking them how things are going is a great way to get the ball rolling. However, this assumes they are even showing up to class during a tough time.

My favorite professor noted that when a student is absent for long periods of time, we as instructors are virtually helpless. All we have is an email address! Because of this, email is not always the best way to reach a struggling college student. Therefore, I offer two considerations:

  1. On the first day of class, consider asking students to fill out an inventory that explicitly asks them about the best way to reach them if they go missing or exhibit signs of concern.
  2. Bribe students to come to your office hours, whether they are in-person or virtual. Not all students feel comfortable showing up to office hours and won’t do so even if you invite them. Sometimes, a bribe can go a long way.

For in-person office hours, I’ve found the best conversations started when I told students I had coffee in my office. Countless times, students would come for a cup of joe and leave with a life lesson, funny story or opportunity to share their struggles. I found that in these talks, students can discuss their feelings naturally and authentically.

If you hold virtual office hours, you can still bribe students to stop by. Make office hour attendance part of an assignment or award bonus points for joining. This lets students know that help is there for them when they need it.

A: Allow Flexibility

Before my first semester of teaching started, I created policies that focused on students completing their work on time. Shortly into that same semester, a student lost his sister in a tragic car accident. Without thinking twice, I told him to take all the time he needed and make up any missed work on his own schedule.

This flexible accommodation was frowned upon by my fellow section instructors, especially for a course that served so many students. But without a fair and flexible accommodation policy, students with legitimate excuses were often not given leeway to make up their assignments.

To help struggling students, we should offer flexibility and avoid punishing them when they struggle with circumstances out of their control. Here are some tips to offer flexibility:

  1. Always communicate the “why” behind deadlines and submission requirements for assessments. For example, if you’re hosting in-person exams, explain to your students why it might not make sense for people to take the exam outside of the classroom.
  2. If a due date does not hinge on anything other than keeping the course on track, take advantage of it! Or, if there’s an assignment that you won’t start grading right away, let students know they can take extra time. If an assignment is time-sensitive and must be graded in a certain time frame, make it low-stakes when you can.
  3. When possible, try to make submissions digital and due at the end of the day. There are very few reasons why an assignment needs to be turned in at noon and in person. If you do require in-person or midday submission, make sure you explain why.
  4. Talk with students about proposed due dates. Students may be in different time zones, celebrate different holidays or work outside of school. Be cognizant of this, try to schedule around these times upfront and be accommodative when a conflict arises—even though it’s not always easy to make policy changes during the semester. For example, I taught an online course with students in different countries and set a Sunday due date for most assignments. However, this created problems, as many students lost a day each week due to the time difference.

Try and find creative ways to discourage bad behaviors without punishing or shaming students who may struggle to make the due dates for good reasons.

R: Reevaluate Your Course

One summer, I decided that the traditional course structure I relied on was not working and reinvented my entire course. Fast forward to the midpoint of the semester and my entire class was struggling.

One morning I walked in, sat in my chair with a notebook and told my students that I would listen and field all their complaints. That was the longest and most painful hour of my life. Thankfully, the dividends were well worth it. Students spoke openly about the struggles they faced. As I listened, I began to understand where they were coming from. We quickly charted a new direction for the course and finished the semester much stronger than where we started.

This might not be something you can do, nor feel comfortable doing, and that’s okay. But, there are other ways to get feedback when you notice many struggling college students in your course. The simplest way is to create an anonymous survey where students can share their frustrations. You can also bring in an objective third party to facilitate the discussion for you. However, the key is not just to listen, but to also let students know you hear them and that you are going to make changes. You do not have to change everything, but sometimes the little changes speak volumes. Remember, communication is more than just words.

E: Empathize and Elevate

I had one student who was the definition of disconnected. He had his headphones in, head down and always asked questions that were in the syllabus. When I confronted him about his behavior, he told me the truth: He didn’t care.

Could I blame him? At first, yes. But, then I realized that he was being honest with me, and entertained the idea that he didn’t know any better. He had just graduated high school a few weeks prior and was an Accounting major taking a public speaking course. He wanted to earn a C and move on with his life. It wasn’t personal. It was a calculated decision he made based on the time he had and the effort he wanted to put into this course.

One day, he came to my office hour, and I took the opportunity to empathize with and elevate him. I told him that I cared about him, but was still offended by his actions. I noted how his behavior made it hard for me to want to work with him. His face audibly changed. He fixed his posture and made eye contact with me.

I helped him understand the consequences that these actions could have in the future. Some professors could interpret his behavior as disrespectful and might be less likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. I emphasized that I understood my course was not his priority, but it was still a skill that would help him in his career. He apologized, and his behavior changed immediately. The next day he pulled me aside and told me how much he appreciated what I said. It was awkward in the moment, but it paid off. All this change took was a motivational speech and some empathy.

If we assume, like I did, that students are malicious in their behavior, we miss out on opportunities to help elevate and empathize with them.

How You Can Help a Struggling College Student

What happened with that first student changed the way I address students, and helped me to see my students in myself. Through reevaluating our policies, thinking about communication, giving students a voice and empathizing with them, we can create an environment that encourages and supports them regardless of their struggles. In fact, we may be able to reduce these struggles if we adopt these policies.

Just as I have changed my beliefs, I encourage you to do the same. As cliché as it sounds, I dare you to care. I dare you to step away from deeply held beliefs and adopt at least one of these principles for a struggling college student this semester. I also dare you to grapple with the reality that sometimes these decisions will backfire — and that’s okay. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I know I will continue to make mistakes. However, I’d much rather err on the side of caring and help a struggling college student, even if it offends those who are not struggling.


For more information on how to support students who may be struggling with mental health, download the “Navigating Mental Health Issues on Campus” eBook.