Fortunately, I have had experience working with students in crisis (see my post about 9/11). Every semester I get at least one or two who are having to deal with a real crisis outside of their life (often terminal illness in their family). I am always surprised when my students thank me for my understanding of their situation. It seems that some professors don't understand the importance of support to a student who is undergoing crisis and the importance of maintaining structure for these students.
So here is what I have learned when teaching students in crisis:
- Students need to be heard. Asking what is going on and just listening is a good start. It is not necessary to offer advice or even probe further than a student is willing to tell. But listening and letting the student know that you understand this a significant influence on their life at that point is important.
- Come up with a game plan. Negotiate due dates, outline communication expectations, and bring in others (counselors, administrators, other instructors) if you both agree to it. Hold the student to this game plan, but be flexible to renegotiate if the need arises. Sometimes, also, it is necessary to bring in adminitrators to come up with options. I have had 2 different semesters where students have broken their jaws in a speech presentation class. They were in different parts of the semester and I had to work with administrators to determine what options I could offer the student.
- Check in with the student. Sometimes when their life is in turmoil, it is important to take the inititive so the student is reminded they have parts of their life that they can focus on. This also gives them some structure to hold on to when their life seems like it is in crisis.
- Don't expect them to "bounce back." I remember a colleague whose teenage sister was killed in a car accident. Six months after the accident, she was sent to Mexico City. While there, she was in the last major earth quake to hit the city. When she asked for a leave of absence, partly because of the stress of the earth quake, but mostly because the earth quake brought back the stress of her sister's death, our boss told her that it was time she got over her sister's death. This did nothing to help her post tramatic stress which was later diagnosed. It was not just her sister's death, but the combination of the death and then being part of the earth quake within such a short period of time.
I know my students and I will get through this. My heart goes out not only to the people of Haiti, but also their friends and relatives who now must wait. I understand what it feels like. Not knowing is almost worse than getting the bad news. Trying to keep your hopes up, yet feeling that sense of dread is a horrible feeling.