Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Dread and Hope of Homesickness

Homesickness.  A word that enters the lexicon of many first year college students and their families.  When it strikes it creates a palpable sense of dread and fear, if not outright panic in some.  Often those involved merely think of this malady as "missing home" and nothing more.  But there is much more to this phenomenon and the way out depends on comprehending it more deeply.

Nearly all students will feel some degree of homesickness, as do many older adults for that matter.  So thinking and fantasizing of home while away is a fairly common state.  Actually, it can be a positive sign of the health of the family when it is not excessive.  There are those, however, who become fixated, even obsessed, about returning home, to the point that they simply cannot function well in their new environment.  When students are so distressed that it causes impairment in daily academic and personal functioning, there is a problem.  This problem can lead to broader concerns having to do with adjusting to college life (a topic which will be more fully addressed in a later post).

So what is really going on if homesickness is more than missing home?  It is a signal of a need to gain adult coping skills such as distress tolerance, stress management and resilience, or facing adversity competently.  As all students are on a journey of independence and autonomy, many, if not most, will weather this process well and without too many bumps and bruises.  The homesick student, however, arrives at school a little behind in this stage of development and therefore must undertake intentional decisions and actions which promote their growth.  Sometimes the home environment was so nurturing and comfortable that the student did not experience much in the way of stress, negative life events, or situations which required their being engaged in active problem-solving.  Oddly, the opposite can be true as well.  Some homesick students may have been under-nurtured and came to rely solely on what was familiar to them, such as the house in which they lived or their high school friendships, no matter how meager these resources were.

There can be signs which may predict later homesickness and/or other adjustment difficulties.  A few illuminating questions may help to discover these signs:
  • Did he need a lot of supervision at home (homework, chores, etc.)?
  • Do her parents talk to other adults for her?
  • Did he have problems with responsibility in work, groups, or teams?
  • Does she lack self-confidence and assertiveness?
  • Has peer pressure been a problem for him?
  • Is it difficult for her to make or keep friends?
Among the best antidotes for homesickness is raising children and teens in such a way as to promote the achievement of developmentally appropriate milestones.  As children age it is ideal for them to acquire increasingly complex defenses and skills, such as assertiveness, problem-solving with peers and adults, active engagement in school and community projects and programs, and establishing supportive relationships and other resources.  If they don't do this before college the pressure to do it when they arrive will be immense. For some this can be too much to bear all at once, partly because they have other immense demands already, such as doing well in school.

Should a student encounter homesickness one approach is to assist them in focusing on developing these same skills, as opposed to providing the same expectations and responses provided in high school.  Encourage them to spend time with classmates, roommates and others, actively getting to know them.  Give them information about how to get involved on campus and in the community.  Most schools have dozens, if not hundreds, of student organizations and work opportunities.  Options for volunteering and engagement in social or political causes abound everywhere; one needs only to take the steps to access them.  As they encounter stress and conflict, which is inevitable for everyone, preach patience, assertive communication, and adapting, rather than escape.

In most cases homesickness will drain away rather quickly for students who focus on this path.  It passes for a simple reason.  They have learned to create another home.  This is an essential life skill which will be involved in many later events such as starting a new job or family.  Parents have an important role in this process as they too must be patient and have faith their adult children will become who they are intended to be, while still remaining connected to home.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

An Educated Parent's Guide to Being a Good Student

Kids, I have been around a while, and I have a lifetime of evidence that the advice below will work if you give it a chance.  So listen up.

Number One, Get organized.  This will take care of about half, maybe more, of what it takes to do well in school.  You can’t do well if there is no discernible pattern or rhythm to your life.

a.    Sleep: Wake up around the same time each day.  Don’t take naps even if you choose to go to bed late.  Disconnect from devices before you go to bed (this means turn them off).  Daytime learning best gets into long-term memory if there is adequate sleep, meaning not too little and not too much.  Six to eight hours of sleep is all you need, but only if it is of high quality.
b.    Time: Use a calendar and load all classes, work time, study time, and deadlines into it.  Treat each entry as you would an appointment that you have committed to keep.  Set multiple alarms on important assignments, exams, and deadlines.  Your cell phones, for which we pay monthly, are great tools if you use them to be productive.
c.     Space: Clean, organize and de-clutter your living spaces.  It really does have an effect on our moods and brain function.
d.     Exercise: Three or four times per week, 30-40 minutes each time.  Almost anything you can do in this area is better than nothing, and it will help your brain function at its best.
e.    Study: In your calendar you should schedule study blocks in the gaps of time you will have between waking and work or other committed time.  Shoot for no less than two or three 90-120 minute study blocks each day, including weekends.  Each block should be dedicated to a different subject.  Disconnect from devices when you study.  Study only in quiet environments with few distractions, and try to choose the same environments every time.  Avoid studying in your beds and in front of the TV.
f.      Rewards: Only engage in rewarding behavior such as cell phone use, TV use, listening to music, Facebook time, hanging with friends, etc., AFTER you have kept your appointments for the day.  You will have less stress and worry if you do this because you will get things done, and when it’s time to play you will be guilt-free.

Number Two, Get involved in productive pursuits.  Part-time commitments and campus organization activity are proven to be associated with better grades.  Vegetating with friends, sleeping all day, watching TV, doing little meaningful activity is proven to be associated with poor grades.  It’s as simple as that.  A good rule of thumb to go by is to engage in this type of activity at least once or twice per week, outside of school and your regular work.  Don’t listen to those who want to pull you away from these activities or your study time.


      Number Three, Use proven study methods.  It is already known what types of studying work best.  These include:

a.     Use all your senses while studying: Using vision (reading), hearing (listening to recordings, rehearsing) and touch (highlighting, writing and re-writing notes and index cards) while studying is superior to using only one, like reading.
b.     Use the Cornell method of note-taking: (See for more information on this method).  Also create index cards for every significant category of learning from class, and for quizzes and exams.  (See for information about using index cards).
c.     Use chunking for comprehension of material: In all your reading and note-taking, take time to group information into meaningful categories containing no more than three or four items each, and assign a level of significance to each grouping so you know what to focus on when studying later.  Using highlighters to categorize is very helpful.
d.    Use a study group or the buddy system when studying, especially for exams: This is a form of rehearsal in that you can quiz each other and listen to how others have grasped the material.
e.    Use repetition: Use your study blocks to repeatedly go over the same material, which should be easy if you use the methods above, because you will already have written and highlighted material.

f.      Use distributed studying and avoid massed studying: This is a fancy way of saying that study in small blocks over a long period of time is superior to cramming.  Our brains embed things in long-term memory better this way.

The last tip, Number Four, is the most important and that is to remember and stay focused on why you are in school.  Keep your hopes and dreams close to you at all times.  We don’t ever get to a destination if we don’t have some sort of compass to consult.  Look closely at what successful people do; they know there is no short cut and it takes consistent hard work.  Your Mom and I believe in you and want only the best for you, but we can’t live your lives for you.  We’ve lived long enough to know that there’s nothing more hellish than a meaningless or wasted life.  And life goes by faster than what you think right now.  So we pray that you choose a path which will enable you to leave something good behind you.  No matter how lofty our goals are, we cannot accomplish them without some basic discipline and good habits, like the ones listed here.  Now go get ‘em!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Vital Organizations Supporting College Mental Health

There is a lot of variety in this field in terms of represented professional disciplines and organizations.  This is both a strength and political weakness at times.  More on that subject later.  I will focus here on three organizations which I believe are of fundamental significance to the prosperity and growth of college mental health.  Anyone interested in this field would do well to become acquainted with all these organizations have to offer.

International Association of Counseling Services, Inc.
IACS is an accreditation agency which has developed, in my opinion, the most comprehensive set of standards in this field.  College mental health services of all kinds would do well to aspire to and achieve accreditation.  Among other things, being accredited is evidence of best practices and benchmarks centers against other facilities nationwide.  It is also is central to the pursuit of improved resourcing and status in the academic community.

Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors
AUCCCD is a community of center administrators which provides a wonderful annual conference and an equally impressive listserv.  These vehicles provide many networking and consultative opportunities which are essential to the development of professionals and resources.  The listserv in particular provides nearly instantaneous feedback and support for the challenging questions and situations which arise in this work.  New administrators are especially benefited by the wide range of wisdom, expertise and support this organization provides.  More recently AUCCCD is undertaking prospects of becoming politically active on behalf of those involved in college mental health, as there is simply no single entity effectively representing the field at this time.

Center for Collegiate Mental Health
CCMH is an entity housed at Penn State Unversity which serves as a data collection repository and conducts extensive research into the mental health of college students in the United States.  It employs standardized data sets collected from 173 college counseling centers across the nation.  The development of CCMH is an extremely significant milestone in the history of college mental health.  Two annual reports have been produced thus far, representing the early stages of research development.  Soon it will be possible to provide comprehensive, real-time data concerning the well-being of and issues faced by students.  This will be enormously helpful in terms of addressing nationwide, regional and local comparisons in order to improve services, and in terms of correcting media depictions of these issues which are often erroneous and harmful.  Centers ought to seriously consider becoming a member of CCMH and utilizing the resources involved.

While there are other organizations involved in some way with college mental health, these are most essential in my opinion.  Check out their web materials to learn more.