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How to Talk to a Student

Addressing Concerns and Motivating Change  

  • Wondering what to say when a student shares personal mental health concerns with you?
  • Looking to help a student recognize and seek help for a health or behavioral issue?
  • Need strategies for encouraging a student to overcome ambivalence and move toward positive change?

This part of the website is all about talking with students about mental illness, sharing your concerns about their well-being, and helping them understand and cope with specific issues.

Example Conversation Starters

Naming the things that you've noticed can help set the stage for why you're asking about their mental health 

  • You seem ______ (down, distant, different, angry, upset, disappointed…)
  • I notice… (you've been missing class, not turning in assignments....)
  • It seems to me…
  • I’m curious about…
  • I’m sensing that you’re feeling overwhelmed by today’s class discussion (or nervous about the upcoming test, etc.). Talk to me – we’ll figure it out together.
  • You mentioned that you always feel sick and tired during first period. Tell me more about what that feels like.

Asking in a direct way:

  • Sometimes when people are (feeling the way you are, stressed like you are,...) they have (depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide). Do you?
  • It can be helpful to talk with a professional, would that be helpful for you?

How to respond: Listen and show you care.

  • You're dealing with a lot.
  • Talk to me, I'm listening, It can be helpful to talk with someone.
  • Will you walk with me to the counselor's office?

Your Tough Conversation Toolkit

Whether you’ve decided to approach the student one-on-one or include your school’s mental health professional in the conversation, your talk will go better if you do some preparation first.

This section breaks those difficult talks down into manageable steps, using some aspects of a technique called Motivational Interviewing, proven in research and practice to leverage the inner resources for change inside all of us.

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a conversational technique that helps individuals “hold a mirror up to themselves,” looking constructively at their behaviors, then deciding for themselves what they want to change and how they’ll go about making changes. The technique was developed for use by trained therapists and counselors, but has some very practical applications for all of us looking to have more productive and meaningful dialogues. Although there is far more to MI than is covered on this website, by learning some of the basic concepts and practicing some of the skills of MI, you may find it easier to begin and continue a dialogue with a student who may need your help to recognize and address a troublesome behavior.

If you’d like to pursue MI in more detail, you’ll find a link here to an in-depth primer on the subject developed by experts at the University of New Mexico for therapeutic use with patients struggling with substance use issues. Another helpful resource is the book “Motivational Interviewing with Adolescents and Young Adults” (Sylvie Naar-King, Mariann Suarez, 2011 Guilford Press.) The techniques covered in this section are based closely on the methods outlined in their training manual.

You’ll increase your chances of a successful conversation if you develop and practice the following conversational skills: 

  • Communicate respect for the student. Overcoming the “power structure” of the teacher-student relationship isn’t easy; it requires that you act as a compassionate and knowledgeable consultant, while respecting his/her freedom of choice and self-direction.  Asking permission to share your concerns is a good way to demonstrate respect.
  • Express empathy. Use reflective listening to help show that you understand, reflecting back what you hear the student saying in your own words and checking to confirm that you heard them correctly. Identify the emotions they are expressing such as embarrassment, sadness, anger or worries and normalize those emotions as difficult.  
  • Help students see the difference between where they are and where they want to be. You may need to help them compare the consequences of change versus maintaining the status quo. 
  • Avoid arguing. You are not seeking to prove a point or convince, but to help the student explore the pros and cons of change (including seeing that the positives he/she associates with the current behavior may not be so positive – without trying to convince them they are wrong).
  • Roll with resistance rather than meeting it head on. You should expect ambivalence and resistance; they are normal. The more you push, the more they will push back.
  • Affirm the positive attempts the student has made so far. Your optimism can reduce the student’s discomfort and help them feel more confident that change is possible.

The First Step:  Build Motivation for Change

The conversation begins with strengthening the student’s own motivation to make a change. The following tactics make up your toolkit for this stage:

The basics

The following approaches are sometimes referred to by the acronym OARS – Open-ended Questions, Affirmations, Reflective Listening, and Summarization:

  • Use open-ended questions. This allows the student to provide more information than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Use prompters such as “Tell me more” or “Is there anything else?” to ask about feelings, ideas, concerns and plans, instead of suggesting them.
  • Affirm, reinforce and compliment – acknowledge the positive to build responsibility and self-esteem.
  • Use reflective listening. Reflective Listening is the primary tool in MI – the more you practice this skill, the more successful you’ll be in overcoming a student’s ambivalence about change. Repeat back, in your own words, what you think the student is telling you. For instance, if the student says something like “I am just so sick and tired of people always telling me what to do” you might respond with “You don’t like people ordering you around.”
  • Summarize – especially toward the end of the conversation, to make sure you and the student are working on the same things. Remember to include the positive along with the negative.

More helpful skills:

  • Elicit self-motivational statements from the student, rather than preaching or making ultimatums. 
    Ex: “What do you think you want to do?” or “Do you have any ideas or suggestions about what you think might help?” This lets you hear what the student thinks about the situation.
  • Create a “gentle paradox” to turn the tables on the student’s current thoughts/attitudes/beliefs.
  • Listen with empathy, which also requires active or reflective listening techniques. Empathy helps minimize resistance, communicates respect and reconciles what you think you are hearing with what he/she means to say.
  • Present feedback – Ask permission to review objective data related to the concern (grades, attendance, etc.)
  • Handle resistance – learn the signs and practice meeting them with reflective listening rather than by putting up resistance of your own. Remember: when it comes to ambivalence or resistance, your behavior plays a huge role – the more you rely on MI tools, the less resistance you will encounter.
  • Reframe his/her statements into more direct ones. This encourages him/her to consider his/her perceptions in a new light or a different way.
    Ex: if the student says something like “I don’t know why I keep doing this. I am not an idiot, I know it can kill me, I just don’t have any willpower I guess…” you might respond with “You are aware of the dangers and keep looking for ways to stop.”
  • Offer a Menu of options to choose from.
  • Ask Permission. Instead of offering advice as the expert, ask if it would be okay to share some other ideas.

Examples of how to get the conversation started, and how to incorporate basic MI tactics into your conversations, along with a worksheet to help you prepare to talk with a student, can be found here.

The Second Step:  Strengthen the Commitment to Change

This phase of MI begins once the student has expressed on his/her own a desire to take steps to make a change. It may take place in a follow-up discussion rather than your initial conversation. 

Before you begin talking specifics, you might want to use a few more open-ended questions to get the student thinking more concretely about making a change:

  • “What are some of the reasons you think now is the time to make a change?”
  • “What are your plans for this week /this semester/preparing for your senior year?”
  • “What other things do you think you might be able to do? Why do you think you’ll be successful?”

Here are your tactics for this stage:

  • Discuss a plan.  Transition from the reasons for change to negotiating (not prescribing) a plan for change. Elicit suggestions from the student for the plan.
  • Communicate his/her free choice. 
  • Review the consequences of both action and inaction, reminding the student that it is his/her choice.
  • Provide information and advice after asking if it is desired by the student. For example, “Would you like more information about…” or “Would you like to hear my suggestions?”
  • Deal with resistance without fighting it. The more you push, the more they will push back.
  • Develop a CHANGE PLAN WORKSHEET.  
  • Recapitulate – review  things again to clarify and identify gaps and answer questions.
  • Ask for commitment.
  • Ask how likely it is that the student will follow through with the plan.

Examples of how these tactics can be used in conversations, and as well as a change plan worksheet, can be downloaded here.

Practice
These communication techniques take time and practice to master. While you can’t predict exactly what the student might say during your conversation, you can anticipate many of the likely statements and responses he/she might rely upon, and construct different scenarios.  Use the sample conversations and preparation worksheets included in this section to map out several scenarios, practicing how to properly phrase questions and statements within each. You may wish to jot down notes and prepare and rehearse a few statements in advance of your conversation.