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“Are You OK?”: Caring for the Whole Student

  • “You’ve been late to class several times recently. Are you OK?
  • “You seem to be in a really bad mood today. Are you OK?”
  • “Your score on that exam isn’t showing how smart you really are. Are you OK?”
  • “Your behavior in class today was really poor. Are you OK?”

When I have a problem with a student, I almost always ask if that student is OK as part of my initial expression of displeasure. In virtually every case, this question gets immediately to the heart of the matter and leads to a genuine solution to the problem.

When the Student is OK

Sometimes the student will say, “Yeah, I’m fine.” At that point (assuming it’s a sincere statement from the student) I turn the conversation to the problem, whether it be poor performance on a test, being aggressive with me or other students, arriving to class late, whatever. But having started the conversation with “Are you OK” lets the student know that I think s/he is a human being with real human feelings and problems. It also reminds the student that I am a human being and that I have compassion for the student. This simple expression of care initiates a very different conversation than starting the conversation with something like: “You’ve been late to class 3 times recently, and that is unacceptable.”

Most often, if the student says s/he is “fine,” the next thing I get is an apology for the behavior. With younger students more explanation about the behavior is necessary. I may well inform a student that his or her behavior is unacceptable, but I won’t say that until after I’ve established that the student is OK.

In a very few cases, this kind of compassionate approach doesn’t lead to a quick solution. Sometimes students are obstinate or simply don’t want to address the problem. In those cases, additional measures, conversations, even consequences may be required. But they are rare.

With younger students, who have not yet matured to the point where they quickly see all this or do not yet have the emotional intelligence to understand, the situation can take longer. In those cases, the dialogs become another form of education.

When the Student is Not OK

Most of the time when I ask a student if s/he is OK, I learn that there is a problem I was not aware of:

  • Another teacher is consietently letting the student out of another class late;
  • something bad happened with a friend or family member the evening before;
  • the student is working too many hours to be prepared for class;
  • the student is experiencing severe anxiety or depression.  

When I learn of these problems, I help the student by letting him or her talk (sometimes just listening is enough), suggesting a solution (talking to the other teacher), or helping the student find the resources needed (the school’s clinic).

Then I turn the conversation to the class. I remind the student of the goals of the course and how the issue is interfering with the student’s ability to achieve those goals. Sometimes it’s appropriate for me to provide flexibility or to come up with something creative. Other times, it’s appropriate for me to remind the student of the expectations and allow him or her to deal with it. 

The important point is that 1) If there is a real problem, I notice it and help the student deal with it as well as possible; 2) We approach the topic from a deeply human and humane position.

Lasting Benefits

Students are usually very grateful to a teacher who notices they are in some form of distress. And, even if they are not in distress, students are grateful to the teacher who cares to find out if they are. 

I have had many students thank me for asking if they are OK. And from that point forward they become more engaged in the course, making it better for everyone. Sometimes students are genuinely surprised when I ask if they are OK. This is sad because it indicates that this is rare. It shouldn’t be.

Finally, I have learned that an email or in-person conversation is equally effective. In fact, a quick email, “I notice you were much more quiet in class today than usual. Are you ok?” can be very effective. Yes, I often assume–correctly–that the student just didn’t do the reading, so didn’t have anything to say. But when I notice and ask, “Are you OK?” I find that student doesn’t ever come unprepared again, and I never made an accusation.