Thursday, April 5, 2012

Helping Derailed Students Get Back On Track

When working with students who have set goals and are working to attain those goals, it is important to remember that, sometimes, life gets in the way.  Thus, there are times when even the best goals and plans get derailed.  When this happens, it helps to have some ways to help the student who is now looking to get back on track.

Here are a few.  Feel free to add to the list by commenting below.

Remember.  You are not alone.

Remind the student that you are part of her team.  You are invested in the success of the goal and that she is not alone.  Sometimes a simple reminder that you are there to help and support the student goes a long way.  Knowing she is not going at it by herself can be the boost she needs to get back to her goals.

Be honest with yourself.

The student does, however, need to be honest and come to grips with the fact that he has gotten off track.  Students may be tempted to offer up multiple reasons and excuses.  That is normal, but don't allow the student to get stuck in that way of thinking.  Recognize that factors sometimes cause plans to go awry.  Then, work to get the student to be honest and identify where he could have prevented the situation from going to where it is.  Once he is able to accept, honestly, the situation, he is likely to move forward effectively again. 

Accept responsibility.

This is similar to the previous suggestion.  The difference here is that in addition to honestly accepting reality, the student must also accept that she had a role to play in the derailment.  Where she is responsible, she needs to accept responsibility.  This does not mean she needs to punish herself, not does it mean you, as guide, need to make her feel bad.  Rather, this is an opportunity to learn from mistakes and begin to recognize when similar mistakes are lurking.  Accepting responsibility takes courage and courage is often what is needed most to push through the challenges of achieving worthwhile goals.  Chances to build courage should be embraced, not hidden from.

You are the same person who got this far.

While the student may have made some changes in the process of attaining goals, he is still basically the same person who started the journey.  The skills and determination that got him to this point, can serve to move him back on track.  In other words, "You got this far, you can finish."

Reflect on last success.

Sometimes, the reason why it is so hard o get back on track is that the student cannot remember where the derailment happened.  She wants to get moving again towards achieving her goals, but is having a problem with where to start.  Reflecting on your last success can help remind the student about where exactly in the process she was in order to get back on at the appropriate point.  When in doubt, I suggest risking going back too far back than ahead in the plan. Ground already gained is easier to make up than moving ahead and realizing that important pieces were accidentally skipped.

Find your “point.”

When lost or stranded, one strategy is to find a point in the distance that can be easily seen and use that point as a reference to make sure you move forward instead of in circles (which is our tendency when lost or confused).  A similar strategy can be used here.  If in the planing phase the student identifies easily accessed "reference points" for their progress, you can refer to those points to help the student get back to making progress on his goals.


An unexpected derailment can cause some anxiety, but it may have also revealed some hidden opportunities.  Maybe the experience has opened up a new way of achieving the goals.  Maybe a new goal has emerged.  Some reflection on the actual derailment focused on any hidden opportunities can get the student thinking positively, which could naturally jump start their desire to get working again.

"The Question"

One of the most difficult challenges I needed to overcome in pursuit of my Ph.D. was getting started.  I had plenty of doubts about my ability to finish, whether I really wanted to do it, etc.  At this point my wife asked me "The Question" - "You are going to be 40 one day anyway.  Do you want to be 40 with or without a Ph.D.?"  That one question made a huge difference for me.  It was the answer I needed to make in order to get myself moving towards accomplishing the goal.  Since then, I have used a version of "The Question" with students and have found good results.  Often, students get caught up in the daily challenges and forget the bigger picture.  "The Question" can help refocus them, or at least challenge their motivation.  If they no longer want to attain the goal, "The Question" gives them a chance to discuss it with you.


Finally, reminding the student about why they chose that goal helps them in a similar way as "The Question."  Assuming the goal, in some way, is going to help the student "be better", remembering why the goal is important can raise motivation and help the student move forward.  While "The Question" clarifies what the student wants, answering "Why do you want to achieve that goal?" forces the student to articulate their motivation; a motivation that may have been lost in the derailment.

It is important to note that these tips work just as well with people other than students.  As an administrator, I am often called upon to help teachers with their goals.  These strategies have been as effective with teachers as with students.

If you have any additional suggestions or any experience using any of these tips, please feel free to comment below.
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