When a professor is a licensed therapist, students sometimes seek help in more than academics. Here, a tool to help them while preserving boundaries.
ABD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Temple University
ABD and MEd in Human Sexuality, MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, BS in Psychology
Nitasha Strait, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at Temple University, recently received her first thank-you card from a student.
“She was a freshman who was away from her parents for the first time,” Strait recalls. “She was very quiet. She didn’t participate much in class, although she did well on assignments. She had suffered an eating disorder in high school, and during that first semester in college she felt herself slipping back into old habits.”
The student, like all the others in Strait’s Introduction to Psychology class, went through a semester-long self-care assessment and journaling exercise. “This project is intended to help students to regulate themselves, and to allow me to stay in my educator role and not become their therapist, too,” Strait explains.
This student said that The Self-Care Assessment Project helped her seek healthier coping strategies—and adopt some of them. “She decided she had the right to put herself first, and to say ‘no’ more often,” says Strait. “She wrote to say she felt very empowered after the project.”
Challenge: Too much stress, too little self-care
When Strait began teaching college freshmen, she found that these students were becoming overwhelmed and falling behind—not just in her class but in many classes. This is common enough, but it presented a special challenge for Strait, who is also a licensed marital and family therapist. “Students kept coming to me for therapeutic advice, and they crossed a lot of boundaries that made me uncomfortable,” she relates.
Common issues among freshmen—particularly in the fall semester when many are away from home for the first time—include having anxiety over wanting to be “perfect,” doing too much partying, stressing about gaining the “freshman 15,” and dealing with romantic separation or breakups. “There’s a lot of growth that happens in that first semester, and a lot of people struggle to regulate themselves in a way that’s healthy,” she says.
The course content in Intro to Psych opens a door, Strait suggests, that can lead some students to look to her for support; however, it would be unprofessional for her to provide this level of attention in her capacity as an adjunct professor. Still, she felt that “doing nothing” was not an option either.
Innovation: Having students take stock of self-care
Strait’s solution was to create a self-care project that is academically useful and also shifts the responsibility for the students’ emotional well-being back onto them. The students use professional tools to assess and address their emotional states at the beginning of the class, over the course of the semester, and at the end of the course. They are expected to record their thoughts about these self-reflections in journal entries and, at the end of the semester, in a brief paper.
“The Self-Care Assessment Project makes the students responsible for their own well-being. It makes them less likely to bring me a lot of life issues—or to become stressed and not know what to do with that stress,” Strait says.
Course: PSY 1001 Introduction to Psychology
Frequency: Two 80-minute class meetings per week
Class size: 40
Course description: How do scientists study human behavior? How do others influence our behavior? What is a psychological disorder? These questions and more are reviewed in this course, which covers the basic concepts, methods, theories, and findings in psychology. Topics include research methods, the nervous system, human development, social psychology, personality, and psychopathology.
In her words: “Intro to Psychology is a survey course, and most students are freshmen. This is their first time away from home; they are really coming into themselves as young adults. My goal for the course is for them to learn what they need to in order to move on in their academic career, and to provide some life lessons along the way. My intention is that they should learn about human behavior and interact in a more beneficial way to themselves and others around them.”
PSY 1001 Introduction to PsychologySee materials
Lesson: The Self-Care Assessment Project
Students are given this assignment very early in the semester. “Usually, when I’m going through the syllabus, I’ll introduce it and will talk about how important self-care is,” Strait says. “I explain what self-care is, what it can look like, and what it’s not.” For example, late-night partying—or excessive studying at the expense of eating and sleeping—fall into the “not” category.
Strait also discusses why students should not simply accept stress and poor self-care as an immutable fact of college life. “I explain that being kind to yourself and working on your own well-being is just as important as getting good grades or learning the material,” Strait asserts.
For educators seeking to help students become better stewards of their own physical and emotional health, Strait suggests these strategies:
Have students take inventory
At the start of this project, Strait introduces students to three tools commonly administered by mental health professionals:
- Burns Anxiety Inventory (BAI), from The Feeling Good Handbook (1990)
- The Beck Depression Inventory (BDI-2)
- Self-Care Assessment Worksheet, from Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization, by Karen W. Saakvitne, Laurie Ann Pearlman, and the Staff of The Traumatic Stress Institute/Center for Adult & Adolescent Psychotherapy, LLC (1996)
Each of these poses statements that students read and respond to, using a rating scale to identify how frequently each is true.
But remind them not to self-diagnose
Strait explains to students that these assessments are not intended to take the place of professional counseling. The inventories are intended purely to provide them with insights into their own relative emotional well-being, as well as the process by which mental health professionals measure these states.
“I have had people take the assessments, look at their scores, and decide to see a therapist professionally, and they have really appreciated it,” she says. “Other students will just fill in all zeros, assume they are fine, and find the whole exercise silly. But at least they understand how the assessments are made.”
Temple University provides guidelines by which professors (including adjuncts) can call attention to a student in apparent need of mental health services, but in three semesters using these inventories, Strait has yet to see a self-assessment indicating such a need. She also uses the weekly journals to monitor any mental health service needs throughout the semester. Here she has not seen any major issues, but she has been able to comment back to the students with helpful hints—such as words of encouragement as the students are coming into midterms or advice to reach out to a friend during a tough breakup.
Encourage them to choose areas to improve
The Self-Care Assessment (Saakvitne et al.) asks students to evaluate themselves on a 5-point scale, with 5 being the highest, with respect to the following categories:
- Physical self-care, e.g., exercising, taking vacations
- Psychological self-care, e.g., writing in a journal, reading for pleasure
- Emotional self-care, e.g., staying in touch with friends, laughing
- Spiritual self-care, e.g., spending time outdoors, meditating
- Workplace or professional self-care, e.g., taking work breaks, creating a welcoming workspace
- Balance, e.g., striving for balance between work, family, relationships, play, and rest
Next, the students must select 12 “activities”—including at least one per category—focusing on those for which they rated themselves below a 3. Students are allowed to create their own activity if they do not have enough below a 3 from the Self-Care Assessment (Saakvitne et al.), as long as they would also rate this activity below a 3.
Ask for their thoughts and feelings—in writing
Though the assessments are key for providing perspective, The Self-Care Assessment Project consists mostly of journaling. Each week, the student selects one of the 12 self-care activities mentioned above, then journals about it. Previously, some students procrastinated and churned out these entries during the last weeks of class. The point, Strait says, is for the students each to do one self-care exercise per week and then recenter themselves. To ensure that this happens, Strait now requires journals to be handed in at regular intervals.
Journal entries are entered in the online course portal, called Canvas, which ensures privacy and streamlines teacher-student communication (no lost journal pages, for example).
Circle back to check for progress
Toward the end of the semester, Strait has the students retake all three assessments. Finally, each must write a 1–2-page self-reflection paper, commenting on the differences between their pre- and post-assessment scores, as well as anything else they learned about themselves. Strait hopes that this final assignment will prove the worth of their self-care efforts and encourage them to continue to self-reflect on a regular basis.
Students are often initially resistant to journaling, which strikes many of them as a burden and a waste of time. But by the end of the course, students almost always write that the exercise has been helpful and that they will continue maintaining their self-care journals after completing the course. Still, student reviews have been mixed. “Some of them like the project, and some don’t, and that’s a little disappointing,” she says. “When you develop something, you want everyone to like it, but that’s not realistic.”
Here are a few quotes from students regarding The Self-Care Assessment Project:
“I have worked hard to decrease anxiety levels by negotiating with my work, so I have more time to do schoolwork, and by making more time for myself to do things that are enjoyable to me. For a while, I felt that I barely did anything for myself, and I remember feeling as though I was losing sight of who I was outside of school and work. I really do feel like the self-care helped me bring more mindfulness to this fact and, in turn, helped me change it.”
“I thought this project would be annoying and that I wouldn’t have time to do any self-care, but I was proved wrong … I don’t think this project was stressful for me, in fact, overall it certainly has aided in decreasing my stress.”
“The journals that followed the activities were actually a great help because it gave me a chance to explain and write about my experiences. I enjoyed this assessment and found it much more interesting than a simple project due at a specific deadline during the middle of the semester because it allows you to grow and gradually improve your emotional needs.”
“I was a little more skeptical about some of the activities that had to be done, but afterwards I started to enjoy the commitment that was made and just to venture out to areas and situations that would allow me to experience new things.”
“After the second week, I realized that not only was I clearly seeing results, but I was excited and looking forward to being able to try out a different self-care act for the following week.”