Students Aren’t the Best Rule Followers

Just knowing how to keep themselves safe is not enough for students to actually do it, advises Lee Burdette Williams.

June 15, 2020
 
 

Every day brings a new story about campus leaders making the decision to physically open for business this fall and sharing the extensive mitigation plans being put in place to manage the health and safety concerns presented by the COVID-19 crisis. A number of those efforts will rely on changing student behavior in significant ways. And that presents some challenges.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time throughout my career trying to figure out how to nudge students in one direction or another. Rounding up participants for an orientation activity. Getting students to sign up for appointments with their adviser well ahead of registration. Pushing them to exit a residence hall while an alarm blares over their heads. Encouraging them to walk away from a fraternity party where drinks are being spiked with sedatives. Occasionally I’ve been successful. About as often, I haven’t.

I have, though, learned things along the way, and the most useful thing I’ve learned is this: information is not adequate to elicit behavioral change. It’s useful, and there may even be students who, upon hearing a speech or reading an email or viewing a poster on a residence hall bulletin board, make smarter choices for the coming weekend. It’s why we keep plugging away, providing that information in various forms. It’s why we employ health and wellness educators, alcohol and other drug education specialists, sexual violence prevention advisers, and others charged with delivering the best information available. But information alone doesn’t change behavior. If it did, people wouldn’t smoke. They would not binge-eat Crunchy Flaming Cheetos. They would visit the career center in their first year on campus.

But all the visually interesting posters and all the visiting speakers in the world are not enough to guarantee successful change. Ask any student health services director for statistics on the number of sexually transmitted diseases they treat or how many unwanted pregnancies they see, and you’ll have all the proof you need that just knowing how to keep themselves safe is not enough for students to actually do it.

Add to this the limited time horizon that most traditional-aged college students have. Even though college is, in many ways, designed exactly to propel a student into the future, the students I’ve worked with are so much better at living in the present. This is not a criticism. In fact, I envy them. I wish I was as skilled at living in the moment. Maybe I would be if my moments were as much fun as theirs.

Lessons From the Good Times

What I recognize and have often reminded myself is that much of what I have seen and responded to as a dean of students is the result of brain development. Students are rarely dumb. They are, however, often young, and the part of their brain that supports clear judgment and mature behavior -- that all-important prefrontal cortex -- is still a work in progress. Some are further along than others, of course, but I’ve made peace with the fact that students are often going to do things that I, a middle-aged person, find stunningly stupid. So in many years of interacting with students, especially while serving in a role that often has to interrogate the reasoning of a student in trouble, I’ve learned a few things.

I’ve learned to believe in the developmental power of redundancy. I don’t know who first said that, but I heard the phrase in graduate school and have clung to it ever since. When people hear a message multiple times, from multiple sources, the message starts to sink in. It can happen slowly, or arrive as a seemingly explosive epiphany that has, in truth, been building up for some time, waiting for a switch to be thrown. Either way, the ultimate result is positive.

I’ve learned that students, like most of us, are unaware of just how much power they have to change themselves and their behavior. Once, I was sitting at the table in my office across from a student who was in trouble for about the fifth time. He explained in great detail how the fates were stacked against him, how the universe seemed to have singled him out to be caught in various infractions by residence life staff or public safety staff -- both of which, he said, were determined to write up every student they could. He wasn’t, he assured me, a bad person.

I agreed but told him that a few weeks hence, about 400 of his classmates would walk across the stage and receive their diplomas, and, I said, “Almost all of them will do so never having -- once, even -- been in that seat you’re in, never having their name on an incident report. Are you sure,” I asked him, “you’ve had no role in the trouble you’re in? How is it you’re so unlucky?” He reluctantly acknowledged that perhaps his current situation was -- maybe -- part of a pattern for which he bore some -- a little -- responsibility.

Perhaps most important, I’ve learned that students are generally more concerned about taking care of their friends than themselves, and that they actually have a pretty good eye for problematic behavior in others that they completely miss in themselves. That is why most will say they don’t engage in high-risk drinking but will report that many of their friends do -- not recognizing, of course, that they themselves are the friends their friends are referring to.

For the most part, I have found my students’ questionable judgment to sometimes be concerning, sometimes entertaining, sometimes endearing. I made enough bad choices at their age to always feel some sense of connection. What I have rarely felt as a result of their questionable judgment is threatened. For the most part, as I have often intoned, “their choices, their consequences.” But that is no longer the case for the staff and faculty who interact with students and who share space with them. As we’re seeing in settings around the world, the actions of one person asserting their freedom from restrictions, or just being careless in their actions, can cause great harm to others.

Suddenly, our students’ developmentally typical, occasionally selfish actions are a threat not just to themselves or their peers (as is often the case with high-risk drinking or unprotected sex) but also to the very staff charged with looking out for them, to the educators committed to teaching them. I have loved most of my students, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been willing to put my health, or the health of my family, at risk in order to work with them. It’s not that we don’t expect some risk when working with students. Anyone who works on a college campus knows the wisdom (and occasional futility) of a flu shot and frequent hand washing. It is just that the stakes have never been so high.

And yet most of us cannot walk away from our jobs. So how do we reopen our campuses this fall if our students demand it and our leaders require it? Can we stay safe in the company of our students? I go back to the lessons I have learned over many years and many conversations with students: do not rely on singular messaging. Speak with many voices and say the same thing to students, over and over. Rely on the developmental power of redundancy to help those messages sink in.

Remind students -- every day -- of their own agency, of their own power to influence the options they will have, especially if they want to continue to be on campus. They need to know their behavior -- good and bad -- can make a difference in how a campus community responds to the virus.

And don’t expect students to do the things they need to do just to keep themselves safe. Their motivation to keep their friends safe will carry considerably more weight with them, and in doing so, they will make a difference in the safety of everyone on campus.

If students always followed the rules, many of our jobs wouldn’t exist. And if they always did what was expected, the powerful learning that occurs when things go wrong would never happen. We need to find the right balance between risk taking and compliance that will allow us all to stay healthy and our campuses to support what we do best: learning in community. Reminding ourselves of what we know about students in good times will help us weather these difficult times.

Bio

Lee Burdette Williams is senior director for mental health initiatives and the College Autism Network at NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

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