The “nontraditional” student may be the new “normal” student.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines “nontraditional” in three different ways: delayed enrollment, familial responsibility, or financial constraints and lack of high school degree. And under this definition, the NCES found that around half of all students enrolled in U.S. postsecondary institutions are moderately or highly untraditional.
It’s important for career counselors to be aware of this statistic, as the NCES has also found that the more “nontraditional” characteristics students have (including age, job status, dependency status and so on), the more likely they are to leave school before getting their degree.
To help these students succeed, you’ll want to create an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable. Once they trust you, work with them to identify and overcome potential obstacles.
Establish a Relationship
“Rapport is one of the most important parts of any counseling session,” says Troy Dvorak, adjunct professor of psychology at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the author of “Psychological Keys to Student Success.”
He advises making sure you leave plenty of time in your day for the appointment so that you don’t seem rushed or preoccupied.
“You don’t want to communicate that you are just squeezing the person in between other things,” Dvorak says.
To further put students at ease, remember to smile, be friendly and show you’re interested in them as people. The first couple questions you ask should be unrelated to school. Try openers like: “How was your weekend?” “What are you looking forward to?” “Is your day going well?”
Pinpoint the General Problem
After you’ve made the student feel a little more relaxed, you can start getting into the actual issue.
“I like to start by asking about his or her situation rather than delving immediately into what he or she is personally doing or not doing,” Dvorak says. “This reduces defensiveness.”
If you don’t immediately get an answer, he recommends gently bringing up the reason why the person booked the appointment. To engender trust, make sure you remain patient.
The Job Search
Dvorak assesses a number of factors to determine why a student’s efforts to find employment aren’t working. First, he asks practical questions, like “Do you have a resume?” or “What resources are you using?” and “What types of work are you applying for?”
If the student’s answers raise any red flags—for example, maybe he or she doesn’t have a well-crafted resume—you can start making a list of ways to help.
But you may have to go a little deeper. Dvorak will also inquire about students’ schedules, interests, transportation options, which can limit their ability to go on interviews, and what exactly they’re doing to find a job.
“Sometimes students say they are looking, but this means they surfed the Internet for 10 minutes one day,” he says.
He suggests asking how much time they’re spending looking and where they’re looking—but not too early in the session, as these questions can make students feel defensive.
“I personally want the person to know that there are many challenges associated with getting good grades. Some of the challenges are personal, while some are situational,” Dvorak says. “As a show of respect, I let them know that I am interested in learning more about what those challenges might be, and I ask if they are willing to share some of their personal experiences with me to help me understand how I might be able to help them.”
You’ll want to look into whether or not the student is supporting anyone or raising children, and if so, whether he or she has access to day-care. In addition, ask whether the student is working while he or she goes to school.
Dvorak also recommends asking:
- Does the student have family or social support? Does he or she live with someone?
- Is English the student’s first language?
- Does the student have transportation? Is he or she regularly attending class?
- Has the student recently experienced a hardship (loss of a home, death of a loved one, divorce/relationship break-up, etc.)?
The student may also be struggling with personal factors such as study skills and habits, time management abilities, self-confidence, mental health, previous academic experiences, and motivation and goals. To get to the root of these issues, Stacy Haynes, a licensed clinical psychologist and the chief executive officer of Little Hands Family Services in Turnersville, New Jersey who has a doctorate in education and helps people of all ages with academic struggles, likes to ask questions such as:
- What subjects are you having a difficult time in?
- What makes learning difficult?
- What in the learning environment makes it difficult to learn?
- Is there something the teacher is doing or not doing that is making it harder to learn?
- What’s your favorite method of learning something?
No matter what, make sure you’re always showing respect for the student.
“These people have significant life experience,” Dvorak says. “Many have worked for a long time. Many are from other countries. They speak many different languages. They have children to support. They have limited time. And they are often trying to better themselves and the opportunities for their families.”
To allow students to open up, he believes you should always spend more time listening than talking. If you’re too quick to offer suggestions, the person you’re talking to will likely become non-responsive.
If you use these tips and questions, you’ll be able to discover why students are struggling, which will make finding solutions to their challenges that much easier.