Five Tips for Helping First-Year Students This Term

Tips for faculty and staff to help students maneuver through a fall term under COVID-19 

With the start of the Fall 2021 term fast approaching, first-year students are anxiously preparing to start their college journey. At some schools, this means the first term on-campus since COVID-19 began in March of 2020. But now with the highly contagious delta variant making up nearly all new cases, campuses are quickly adjusting their protocols. Everything from mandatory vaccination requirements to mask mandates for indoor spaces, including student housing, classrooms and dining halls. For many first-year students already experiencing the anxiety that comes from beginning a new chapter in their lives, the uncertainty of ever-changing COVID-19 rules greatly adds to the stress. The annual Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement finds that first-year students are mentally exhausted, struggling with mental health and academic challenges related to the pandemic.

As a professor, staff member or administrator, this puts an even bigger burden on you. Maybe you’re in a high-risk group yourself or have someone at home who is. Perhaps you’re worried about your job or struggling with all the different rules, regulations and protocols. As someone who already wears a multitude of hats – mentor, educator, leader, researcher, advisor, administrator – it can be taxing knowing you now have to add safety monitor, pandemic expert and anxiety counselor to the list. Tapping into InsideTrack’s CLEAR Framework methodology can help.

Addressing challenges before they grow

When students hit the wall – whether it’s a financial problem, a coursework issue or even something related to the pandemic – that barrier can cause their grades to suffer or make them drop out. The CLEAR Framework (Confirm, Legitimize, Evaluate and Respond) gives you a way to work through student frustrations and shift their perspective, exploring options to resolve their barriers and move forward. Here are some simple CLEAR-focused tips to help kick-off a successful new term.

1. Reach out before classes start

With all of the uncertainty and changes hovering over the fall start – be it on campus, online or hybrid – keeping students connected is crucial. From the staff at student life to individual professors, personalized email, phone and text outreach can not only give students a sense they’re welcomed here, but also shows that someone cares – and that students have someone they can reach out to. With fewer “getting to know you” group activities allowed, it’s important for students to feel supported right from the start.

2. Be transparent

The reality is that this isn’t the start of just another term. Normalizing the “new normal” is a way to put students at ease. They’re going to feel overwhelmed. They’re going to be confused and feel a sense of missing out on things that were previously part of the everyday routine. That’s OK. Being upfront about the changes through open dialogue can help relieve some of the anxiety students are feeling. And with changes happening every day, continuing to talk about the realities of a campus under coronavirus restrictions will reinforce the message.

3. Looking for warning signs of students in trouble 

It’s becoming a cliché, but these really are unparalleled times. The same holds true for what students at your institution are going through. Maybe their family is struggling with job loss, income worries or housing insecurity. Perhaps a loved one has (or had) COVID-19 or some other serious illness. Once on campus, the student could begin to feel isolated and alone, worrying about news from home (and news in general) in addition to their studies. The same can be true for students learning remotely, often under less-than-optimal conditions.

Social isolation, withdrawal and lethargy are all signs of depression. Does their personality seem to be changing? Are they irritable or constantly anxious? Are there marked changes in their concentration, motivation and class participation? These could all be signs of underlying issues. In the proper one-on-one setting, it’s OK for you to ask and show your concern.

4. Keep calm and carry on

Under the best of circumstances, starting the fall term is stressful and challenging for most first-year students – whether they are adults returning to school, transferring from another institution, or traditional age students leaving home for the first time. Toss in a global pandemic and things can quickly become overwhelming. So your patience, understanding and reassuring demeanor – even when the world around you may be chaotic – can set the tone for your students as well.

5. Be available 

With all of the coronavirus-related changes and new demands on your time, adding another responsibility to your list may seem counterintuitive. But it’s crucial that you make yourself available, as much as possible, for your students – even more so than usual. A student’s first year is a time when feeling homesick can reach its peak. Add to that the fact that students are being asked to distance themselves from one another and the loneliness can become palpable. Being able to talk with someone they trust and respect – whether it’s a question about class, an upcoming deadline or just a chance to chat – can help the student weather the emotional storm and continue on the path to their goal.

Need help pushing reset when student goals go off track? The answer is CLEAR.

The CLEAR Framework – Confirm, Legitimize, Evaluate And Respond – gives you a way to address student concerns by working through their frustrations and challenges, ensuring that you’re responding in the most productive way.

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