Thursday, October 1, 2015

Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges

A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services at a major university to join faculty and administrators for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.

Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when in comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively. Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of handholding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?

Two weeks ago, that head of Counseling sent us all a follow-up email, announcing a new set of meetings. His email included this sobering paragraph:
“I have done a considerable amount of reading and research in recent months on the topic of resilience in college students. Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood. There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”
He also sent us a summary of themes that emerged in the series of meetings, which included the following bullets:
  • Less resilient and needy students have shaped the landscape for faculty in that they are expected to do more handholding, lower their academic standards, and not challenge students too much.
  • There is a sense of helplessness among the faculty. Many faculty members expressed their frustration with the current situation. There were few ideas about what we could do as an institution to address the issue.
  • Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.
  • Faculty, particularly young faculty members, feel pressured to accede to student wishes lest they get low teacher ratings from their students. Students email about trivial things and expect prompt replies.
  • Failure and struggle need to be normalized. Students are very uncomfortable in not being right. They want to re-do papers to undo their earlier mistakes. We have to normalize being wrong and learning from one’s errors.
  • Faculty members, individually and as a group, are conflicted about how much “handholding” they should be doing.
  • Growth is achieved by striking the right balance between support and challenge. We need to reset the balance point. We have become a “helicopter institution.”
Reinforcing the claim that this is a nationwide problem, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article by Robin Wilson entitled, “An Epidemic of Anguish: Overwhelmed by Demand for Mental-Health Care, Colleges Face Conflicts in Choosing How to Respond" (Aug. 31, 2015). Colleges and universities have traditionally been centers for higher academic education, where the expectation is that the students are adults, capable of taking care of their own everyday life problems.  Increasingly, students and their parents are asking the personnel at such institutions to be substitute parents. There is also the ever-present threat and reality of lawsuits.  When a suicide occurs, or a serious mental breakdown occurs, the institution is often held responsible.
On the basis of her interviews with heads of counseling offices at various colleges and universities, Wilson wrote:
“Families often expect campuses to provide immediate, sophisticated, and sustained mental-health care. After all, most parents are still adjusting to the idea that their children no longer come home every night, and many want colleges to keep an eye on their kids, just as they did. Students, too, want colleges to give them the help they need, when they need it. And they need a lot. Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such illnesses. The number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. Some are dealing with serious issues, such as psychosis, which typically presents itself in young adulthood, just when students are going off to college. Many others, though, are struggling with what campus counselors say are the usual stresses of college life: bad grades, breakups, being on their own for the first time. And they are putting a strain on counseling centers.”
In previous posts (for example, here and here), I have described the dramatic decline, over the past few decades, in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adults. Among the consequences, I have argued, are well-documented increases in anxiety and depression, and decreases in the sense of control of their own lives. We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention. So now, here’s what we have: Young people,18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it.

Dan Jones, past president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, seems to agree with this assessment. In an interview for the Chronicle article, he said:
“[Students] haven’t developed skills in how to soothe themselves, because their parents have solved all their problems and removed the obstacles. They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations.”
In my next post I’ll examine the research evidence suggesting that so-called “helicopter parenting” really is at the core of the problem. But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents. Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in society—victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”
If we want to prepare our kids for college—or for anything else in life!—we have to counter these social forces. We have to give our children the freedom, which children have always enjoyed in the past, to get away from adults so they can practice being adults—that is, practice taking responsibility for themselves.

And now, what do you think? 
Have you witnessed in any way the kinds of changes in young adults described here and that seem to be plaguing colleges and universities? How have you, as a parent, negotiated the line between protecting your children and giving them the freedom they need for psychological growth? Do you have any suggestions for college counselors and professors about how to deal with these problems they are struggling with?
I invite you to share your stories, thoughts, and questions in the comments section below. This blog is, among other things, a forum for discussion. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions if I think I have something worth saying. Of course, if you have something to say that applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

Posted Below are some of the comments this article received...

I would guess a portion (if not a lot) of this emotional volatility on the part of students comes from anxiety about the lack of economic opportunities that students continue to face post-college. Competitiveness of grad school admissions, and for decent jobs in general is up significantly.
This makes students much more anxious in general, and can make small issues seem like larger problems. You don't just graduate college and find a decent paying job anymore.

Gretchen, I teach middle school as well and I had the same thought as I was reading this. I try to let students fail but administration steps in and I am given "suggestions" on how to help my students succeed. The politics in the school, to meet goals, is making it difficult for teachers, to allow students to learn what success really can be for them.

I agree. I used to be a middle-school teacher as well. Although my class was easy to pass if you did the work, some students chose not to do the work, and chose to fail instead. I figured it was a learning experience.
The admin stepped in and "suggested" I change the students grades by allowing them a few weeks after the report card to "make up" the work they chose not to complete. I told them to do as they saw fit, and I left that school at the end of the year.

The "make-up" work expectation is damaging. Students are taught, artificially, that time can be undone by not being allowed to experience the natural consequences of their actions. Only when they feel the consequences do they want to change their ways, and are thus taught to live backwards rather than forwards. They learn the false lesson that life provides them with perpetually do-overs. The administration is just interested in doing whatever it takes to get the students through and achieve the targets they are accountable for.

Make ups and do overs are common in the working world. If it isn't right then work all night and get it done the way the customer wants. Some if this is okay to allow for.

I teach college and the same problem you mention continues; namely that students are not allowed to fail because admin intervenes- generally invited by the student as they file a complaint that they should have gotten a better grade. The solution is simple and obvious- allow failing students to fail. Trust the authority of the instructor, whether in junior high school or college. Although this will be a giant revelation to admin, college professors and middle school teachers know what they are doing, they know A LOT more than whiny students, and greed over tuition money should not be the top priority in considering student advancement through the curriculum.

Its not that students are not allowed to fail that causes such psychological fragility, it is perhaps more caused by a constant reminder of the negative consequences of failing. The culture of education in the US is so predicated on grading, testing, and benchmarking that students become products of University stress. Competition for the "best" students is driven by scores, parents only know how to understand the "intelligence" of their children by what their report card says, and students under that pressure will conform to whatever they have to in order to become "successful". Educators, universities, parents, and students are spending all their energy caring about the wrong things (first grades, then SAT, then admission to college, then marketablility and employment, or grad school appilcation... ), and their is no energy left (IN SCHOOLS or teachers) to pursue truly meaningful and engaging forms of learning that help students to become resilient/self-motivated learners.
Check out the book "Dumbing us Down" by Gatto.

I worked as a sub at a school and at one point had a long term sub gig for middle/high school where I was responsible for the entire grading period. A student from the Gifted/Talented program was getting a C in one of my classes (and getting blown out of the water by two students a grade behind him) and the VP tried to pressure me to find a way to boost him from 77% to a B. He was being rather subtle and I wasn't 'getting it'; when he finally came out and asked I asked him if that would be ethical. The subject was dropped. I suspected that they would change the grade after I had posted them, but found out later that it stood. I was a bit surprised.
Unfortunately, I lost his mother as a friend (very small community) for a while... until the teacher who came in full time behind me held him to standards also. He just didn't want to do the homework - and when his test grades matched his homework effort, it showed.

 I recently listened to a lecture given by a Professor at George Mason U. .. Dr. Walter Williams.  He is very much against the effects of most social programs pointed at uplifting blacks.  He said the their is two problems occurring in black schools that are turning out High School graduates with 8th grade skills.  One is the social stigma around failure and the other is that even if a school is administered by blacks and taught by blacks, failing students is seen as oppression.

I am particularly interested in your views Mick with regard to methods and the results we seem to be seeing not only in school but in society at large.


  1. Random thoughts
    1) I saw nothing in the article that talked about black people, but I get that railing against programs targeted to help them is VERY important to you

    2.) We sparred on this awhile back. I blame parents, you blame the government and the school and probably anything organized. This post here does not, near as I can tell, really support a premise that the government is to blame.

    3.) I would wholeheartedly agree that today's youth does not seem to have a lot of resilience. I went to nursing school at age 38 and my peers were typically at least 10 years younger and they were insufferably difficult to deal with. They were insulted by everything and almost none had had any real working experience.

    4)I failed out of high school because I didn't do the work. Why I didn't do the work had nothing to do with the school system or government, but had a lot to do with strife at home. When I was free of that strife and was going to school by my own desire years later, I did exceedingly well.

    5) the best education I received came from the community college. My bachelors program was very expensive and a lot of the teachers were incompetent and insecure and several were basically teaching because they were too fat to work the floor anymore. My graduate experience hasn't been much better. They stress "critical thinking" to the Nth degree and do nothing to foster it.

    I feel bad for kids and teachers today. Whilst some will blame liberals for fucking up the school system and creating an everybody gets a trophy mentality, but there is also a reality that parents demand this kind of responsiveness. They shelter their kids to a ridiculous level and are quick to wedge themselves into the situation and not let the kid figure it out themselves. The points system too is also a little antiquated to me, at least when it comes to education. I have been carrying a 4.0 throughout this entire program I am in, and I am F'n obsessive about graduating with a 4.0, and it's probably not going to happen. Will it make any difference in my ability to be a nurse practitioner? not a bit. Keeping score in sports and physical activities is one thing, in our education system, I don't think it's really a measure of what people have learned.

  2. There is a much more serious problem on our college campuses: It's called death.

    As many as 13 people were killed and 20 injured Thursday when a shooter opened fire in a classroom at a community college in southern Oregon, according to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenbaum.

    The attorney general said the shooter was killed in the melee at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Ore., KGW-TV reports.

    “It is believed there is only one shooter who is no longer a threat,” Oregon State Police said in a statement. “There is no current threat to the community.”

    A witness at the scene in Roseburg said the male shooter was shot by police and was acting alone, according The Register-Guard of Eugene. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

    Mercy Medical Center, a hospital in Roseburg, said it had received nine patients and expected three more.

    Roseburg Police Sgt. Aaron Dunbar told USA TODAY that the incident was contained to one classroom on the sprawling campus.

    Six agencies—the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, Oregon State Police, Bureau of Land Management officers as well as police officers from Roseburg, Sutherlin, and Winston — responded to the scene after getting a rush of 911 calls reporting the mass casualty shooting.

    Police received a call of an active shooter in a classroom at the college around 10:30 a.m., local time, according to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

    Florida legislators have introduced a bill to allow students to carry concealed weapons at all state colleges, although weapons are still illegal in state buildings, including those of the legislature. What does that tell you?

    1. Interesting that a number of these shootings have occured in gun free zones.

    2. What's interesting about it?