Communication with Students 101

by Mort Neely

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Perhaps George was referring to communication with a teenager.

The first year of college is an unprecedented period of personal growth for most students, representing a grand step from dependence to independence. Many students will make this transition smoothly with no need for external supervision, guidance, or support. Others, however, will experience varying degrees of difficulty related to academic, social, or legal issues. No matter the difficulty a student encounters, there are support resources available to provide assistance. The most dedicated support resource any student has is his/her parent/guardian. The trick, however, is often convincing students to utilize them. The goal of this article will be to provide you with some background and insight that may be useful in terms of maximizing open communication with your student.

The average student at Pennsylvania College of Technology entered college directly from high school. High school represents an environment characterized by a system of support that closely monitors student success at a variety of levels and ensures parents/guardians are kept abreast of problematic issues. Additionally, virtually all high school students reside at home, a reality that provides parents/guardians the opportunity to engage and communicate with their student on a daily basis. At the very least, parents/guardians have the opportunity to see their student and gauge body language and other non-verbal cues that may signal distress. In addition to gathering information related to a student’s well-being, parents also have access to smaller, simpler bits of information that can translate to the likelihood of success or failure. Such information includes whether or not a student was present in class, attended a social gathering on a weeknight, spent the night at home, and/or invested time to complete homework assignments.

The opportunities to gather information change dramatically and abruptly once your student leaves for college. First and foremost, your student has now entered an educational environment that functions according to the tenets of the Buckley Amendment. The communication of information pertaining to a student’s academic record, including issues such as attendance, is now illegal if done without the student’s consent. Additionally if a student is living away from home, parents/guardians will no longer have daily contact to gauge non-verbal presentation, witness the completion of homework assignments, or provide/deny consent to attend a social gathering on a school night. In very simple terms, your student is on his or her own. Couple this with the reality that a student may feel hesitant to pass along information they believe their parent/guardian will find troubling and there’s the potential for communication to grind to a halt. The end goal of open communication is therefore to create a dynamic wherein you receive pertinent information from your student about their experience and conversely have the opportunity to provide meaningful support and feedback to encourage their success.

A few strategies have proven useful with regard to maximizing open communication; ensuring that the support and feedback you provide is accepted and implemented and likewise, that you continue to receive pertinent information from your student.

Embrace your new role…

You will always be your child’s parent and their most stalwart, dedicated advocate. That will never change. The same is not true of your student. The moment a student sets foot on campus, they enter young adulthood, a new world beyond the realm of the external supervision and guidance characteristic of high school and living at home. They move from an environment characterized by “no child left behind” to one characterized by “survival of the fittest.” In addition to new demands related to self-discipline and personal responsibility, students are also conversely entering a world that provides far greater freedom to make decisions without the need for approval from the authority under whose roof they lived until college. In very simple terms, the student must now self-govern. Where previously parents had the opportunity to enforce certain standards of personal responsibility, the student is now left to make decisions on their own regarding which standards of responsibility they choose to embrace and which they choose to discard. Parents that have maintained the most consistent and open communication during this transitional period seem to have done so by transitioning from the role of parent to coach. They shift from giving instruction regarding responsibility to using the student’s experiences as opportunities to discuss and highlight the efficacy of personal responsibility as a value.

Communicate ownership…

Messages sent are not always the same messages that are received. Young people, for example, may interpret parental advocacy in the form of encouraging responsibility as an attempt to restrict their freedom and individuality. What young people often fail to recognize is that the feedback given is intended to help them achieve more favorable results for them, not their parents. For instance, failing to demonstrate responsibility in college carries consequences that the student will ultimately bear, not their parents. The simple truth is that quality of life is almost always contingent upon demonstrated responsibility. If a student does not demonstrate responsibility in college, they will almost assuredly diminish their capacity to achieve the quality of life they desire or to which they’ve become accustomed living at home. This reality can easily become muddled, however, when discussing the importance responsibility. To a young person, a conversation about the value of responsibility can be received as a discussion of what they ought to do rather than what they may or may not do. Students typically internalize the value of responsibility through the process of discovery, not instruction. The trick is finding ways to guide students to that discovery. Communicating ownership in the form of I messages is often helpful in this regard. It’s the difference between inadvertently threatening (“You’d better study or else.”) and clarifying reality (“I’m concerned for you because if you don’t study, you’ll likely fail.”) Once discovery occurs, parents have the opportunity to coach their student through it.

Remember that it isn’t willful…

A wise man once said, “The hardest part for me as your father was recognizing that what came off as carelessness and irresponsibility was actually just inexperience.” That man was my father and he made a salient and forgiving point. Students do not make mistakes or treat important issues casually through deliberate effort; they’re just doing what young people do. Remaining cognizant of that truth can aid not only communication with your student but also your blood pressure. Remember that poor and/or irresponsible decisions are not the result of willful intent. Rather, they are signals of a student’s behavioral competency and as such provide opportunities to identify areas of developmental need and respond to them. In addition to being a value, personal responsibility is also the chief component of a skill-set one must have to succeed in independent adulthood. Without responsibility, all other competencies related to career success have diminished value. Like any skill, responsibility must be learned, developed and honed in order to be of maximum benefit to the individual using it.

In closing, please know that the support staff at Pennsylvania College of Technology are ready, willing, and available to help in any way possible. Should you have questions, concerns or find yourself in need of assistance, please do not hesitate to communicate with us…we’ve encouraged your student to do the same.

Pennsylvania College of Technology
One College Avenue
Williamsport, PA 17701


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