Monday, April 28, 2014
This time of year, all ASP professionals are challenged by students in crisis. I define crisis objectively; death in the family, major illness, catastrophic personal loss. It's difficult to know what to say to these students, andeven more difficult to know how to help them. Here is some simple advice for working with students in crisis during exams.
1) Listen. It's hard to just listen, but it's the most important thing you can do for a student in crisis. They may have a lot to tell you, or they may not want to overshare. It's their call, not yours, how much they want to open up. You will often find that a student who says little to you on their first visit to your office has a lot more to say on the next visit. It's awkward to open up to a stranger, and if this is a student you have not worked with regularly throughout the year, they may need time before they share their story. Don't push them to open up.
2) Be authentic. When working with a student in crisis, you need to be your authentic self. It's okay to tell the student that you don't know what to say, but your heart hurts for them. It's okay to let someone in crisis know that what they are going through just sucks. Because death, illness, and catastrophe DO suck. Too many people shift into tired platitudes when they are speaking with someone in crisis. They don't know what to say, so they say what they think they should tell someone in crisis. There is nothing more grating than hearing "It's for the best," or "They are in a better place" (how do you know? have YOU died before?) Don't be afraid to just be yourself, to hurt with the student, and to let them know you care about them.
3) Give them a range of options. This is critically important: do not make decisions for your students. When you have to shift into ASP mode, and discuss accommodations and schedule modifications, give them a range of options. Do not assume you know what is best for the student, no matter how well you know them. Let them decide what is the best path for them at this time. One of the awful parts of a personal crisis is that is narrows choices. It helps the student in crisis to have choices in their academic career. You should feel free to give advice based on your knowledge of the student, but don't make choices for them.
4) Remind them that law school is short, and life is long. Self-care is critical. Sometimes, students in crisis will become obsessed with small details. They MUST finish the semester, or they MUST take a full course load. If everything they are telling you says that they would rather take a leave of absence or a reduced course load, let them know that it is okay to take care of themselves first, and worry about law school second. Students in crisis who MUST MUST MUST (their emphasis, not mine) focus on law school can be self-defeating. It is okay to remind them that law school will be there for them when they are ready to come back. Life is much longer than law school, and self-care is more important than the JD.
5) Don't take it personally if they are angry, frustrated, or dismissive of you. Some students in crisis lash out. Their anger is not rational or fair. They file complaints against you because you didn't do something they wanted you to do for them. They ignore you or behave inappropriately when they see you. It is important that you do not take their words or actions personally. It is not about you. We are human, and it hurts when someone goes out of their way to be mean or spiteful. Often, students in crisis who choose to lash out don't know how to express their feelings. Students who were brought up in dysfunctional or abusive households often understand anger, but do not know how to express soften, more fragile emotions. They cope with their pain by lashing out at you.