This post is an entry for Part II of the Mentally Healthy resource guide for UP faculty and academic staff working with students who might have mental health concerns.
Just how flexible should we be in classrooms and in our academic work for students seem to be struggling with mental health concerns? This type of question came up a few years back during a UP Faculty Development Day on mental health: How much should we be willing to let assignment deadlines slip? How much adjusting should we do to our attendance policies? How much time should we give to students who seem to need extra attention outside of class?
While acknowledging nuance and variable circumstances, the then-director of UP Counseling Services Dr. Will Meek offered a general response that surprised me for erring on the side of inflexibility: it’s really important for faculty to set good boundaries and maintain high expectations when students have mental health concerns. His sense was that good boundaries and high expectations often give a reliable and helpful structure to the lives of students who are otherwise prone to drift and disengage. It is human to sympathize with the extra academic needs of students struggling with mental health concerns, but too much flexibility can sometimes encourage further disengagement.
There is no magic formula for setting perfect boundaries, but the suggestion here is that it is important for faculty and academic staff to think about intentionally and to draw on best practices. This is particularly true in two related domains: 1) class policies and procedures, and 2) interactions with students outside of the classroom.
What would it look like to think intentionally about these things? In an Inside Higher Ed article addressing the challenges of undertaking excess ‘emotional labor’, Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers the following:
“I encourage you to spend some time asking yourself: 1) What precisely are my responsibilities as a professor? 2) What are my students’ responsibilities? and 3) Where exactly does my responsibility end and my students’ responsibility begin? This clarity will help you to feel more comfortable defending your boundaries when students cross them, without any guilt whatsoever.”
In regard to class policies and procedures, one result of such thinking would be clear policies that are set out at the beginning of the semester with the right balance of challenge and support. Give students clear deadlines, and clear consequences. But also build in chances to learn from mistakes. Allow them to drop a quiz score or two, provide some choice on which writing assignments they submit, offer some free passes if they miss a class. And then be consistent and up front so that students know what to expect when, and be careful about exceptions.
“I want to give students the benefit of the doubt each and every time. But I’ve come to learn that doing so doesn’t always help them. If anything, it enables them. So while I’ll offer second chances like extra-credit work or a make-up assignment — because I think those things really do exist in life — I never deviate from the initial rules of engagement in my classroom.”
In regard to interactions with students outside the classroom, remember that for academics best practice is to leave psychological counseling to the professionals. We can and should listen, care, and get to know our students. But we should also maintain boundaries that allow us to be effective at our own profession: teaching and learning. In the Inside Higher Ed essay cited above, Rockquemore suggests a stock phrase to manage situations where boundaries may be getting crossed:
“It sounds like you need a space to have a confidential conversation, and I can’t help you because I’m not trained as a _______ (therapist/crisis counselor/financial aid specialist, etc.). Do you know how to connect with the _______ on campus (insert appropriate support service)?”
There is no perfect formula, but the suggestion here is to think carefully about how to set boundaries “just right”: not too loose, but not too rigid. As explained by psychologist Amanda J. Wyrick in her article “Professor Goldilocks and the Three Boundaries”:
“Rigid boundaries, in which a professor does not try to build connections with students, may negatively impact student perception of the emotional support available to them. Conversely, loose boundaries, in which a professor fails to establish any kind of authority, takes student problems too personally, and shares too much personal information with students, may also damage the instructor-student relationship. Loose boundaries may confuse the student, potentially leading to a conceptualization of the professor as a friend rather than a teacher and mentor.”
Wyrick also draws from bell hooks writing in Teaching to Transgress for a useful summary of why sometimes erring on the side of good boundaries matters: “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”