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While attending college away from home, a seemingly frustrated young adult female sits with the counselor to talk about her emotions.

Staff and faculty can remember to PRACTICE empathy and trauma-informed care when engaging with students.

SDI Productions/Getty Images

As college students continue to demonstrate increased mental health concerns, many college leaders grapple with how to teach campus community members to engage with students in a caring manner in a way that is not overwhelming or burdensome to personnel.

At Indiana University at Indianapolis (formerly Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis), Christina Downey, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education and dean of university college, developed a brief but catchy acronym that can guide faculty and staff interactions with students to benefit student success. The phrase, PRACTICE, teaches stakeholders to prioritize students’ mental health and foster positive relationships with faculty and staff.

What’s the need: Faculty say they want training on how to help student mental health, but providing the resources and time to engage all campus stakeholders on trauma-informed pedagogy can be a challenge, particularly for adjunct faculty members who may have other responsibilities, Downey explains.

Instead, administrators look to provide information in a way that is aligned with best practices of trauma-informed care, but is more accessible and memorable, so it can be applied in real-life situations.

What it is: PRACTICE is an acronym that stands for:

  • Predictability—Providing early notice of relevant policies and practices and sticking to them.
  • Relationships—Building in structured opportunities to connect students to staff and with their peers.
  • Access—Ensuring students know how to reach staff and for which needs.
  • Choice—Giving students control of the aspects of their experience, wherever possible.
  • Transparency—Being clear in instructions and expectations, showing appropriate models of success.
  • Intention— Sharing the rationale for each decision staff members make, or the tasks assigned, including anticipated benefits.
  • Care—Using language of care when engaging with students verbally and nonverbally.
  • Empathy—Asking students about their experiences and imagining the world through their lens.

Downey intentionally chose PRACTICE as the focus word because it is both a noun and a verb form that can be adopted and actively exercised.

“All of us have opportunities for leadership in different parts of our roles, and I fundamentally believe that practice improves our effectiveness as leaders,” Downey says.

Emailing Student Success 

The Weekly Student Success Update at Indiana University, Indianapolis is distributed to over 200 staff members across academic and student support roles. The email opens with key data points, including DFW rates, persistence and retention numbers, survey responses, or other institutional data of interest.

The newsletter also includes an actionable takeaway or points to an existing unit on campus that can support student success.

Christina Downey, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education and dean of university college, has written the email every week since starting in her role over a year ago. “Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive due to not only the information disseminated, but also the sense of unified direction and coordinated conversation on student success that it has facilitated on campus,” Downey says.

Putting it into PRACTICE: After developing the framework, Downey has worked to share the principles throughout her own circle of influence and beyond.

Downey first shared PRACTICE with IU Indianapolis staff through a Weekly Student Success Update email in March to encourage them to integrate wellness strategies into all interactions with students.

Email recipients responded positively, writing engaging emails that indicated they’re taking the concept seriously and appreciated the framework, Downey says.

The framework was also shared in a LinkedIn post by the division of undergraduate education communications team to provide an example to other institutions and practitioners across the nation.

Downey hopes the framework can be adopted into practitioners’ daily lives to improve student outcomes and promote wellbeing.

Do you have a student wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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