First published in Dutch on the 6th of August 2013
In my counselling, I focus for the largest part on strengthening the self-management of the students. The reason for this is simple. Every improvement that the student desires will have to be a result of a learning procress. I have indicated more often that I consider David Kolb’s cycle of learning an apt model for this process (a cycle of Experience, Reflection, Abstraction, Action). Three of those four steps (reflect, abstract and act) demand an orderliness of thought and behaviour. A weak self-management undermines this. Impulsiveness, chaos and ad hoc actions may be fun, but they are also exceptionally bad in facilitating stable improvements.
To improve self-management, the current self-management needs to be exposed. I arrive at this by making the individual write time. In this assignment the person has to note everything he or she does, from early in the morning till late at night, for at least a week. This visualizes which activities are factually undertaken, safeguarded from desires, fears and conceptions. Some students think they do “nothing”, while others feel they do not have any time left. Often, such experiences are wrong. One student may do “nothing” on self-study but is active in many other study-related areas. Another student, who experiences no leeway in his or her day, might have some useable hours after dinner. In other words, time writing is an exercise in creating an overview.
Overview can quickly generate benefit. The student sees that the “doing nothing” is not as bad as its seems or he or she sees that there is plenty of time and room that is left unused. It becomes more irksome when I emphasize the intersections. These are moments where unforeseen things intersect with one’s own plans. Typical intersections with students are: an unexpected request (from the employer, fraternity, partner, etc.), the teacher is unattainable, the assignment proves to take longer than expected or turns out to be unclear, the information appears to be incomprehensible, the fellow student is neglectful, one suddenly becomes ill, and so forth.
I call such moments intersections because the surprises force one to make a sudden decision that can lead to different paths. “What will I do now? Which way do I go?” are questions that are asked and need to be answered. This is irksome because in these situations the students often do not experience an intersection. They feel they are at the mercy of the circumstances that determine their behaviour. They seem to experience a sort of highway without exits or turns, without a real choice. “If I do not understand the assignment, I cannot go on, right?”. This student actually has many options. He or she can ask for help from a fellow student, reread his or her notes, work on under an assumption, skip the part, and so forth.
What is interesting in these intersections is that they expose what the student has a propensity for. From the unexpected, so to speak, emerge one’s true colours. I often tell my students that their capacity for self-management is not visible if everything goes smoothly; a nice spring day in May with a soft breeze in one’s back. Their true skills in self-management becomes visible if it rains and hails unexpectantly, if they have to go up the hill with strong gusts of wind and a flat tyre. How someone deals with his or her intersections, thus, is a litmus test for real self-management.
Locus of control
Engaging in intersections is largely dependent on how the individual interprets them. To what does the person ascribe the situation? Ascribing to factors outside oneself is called an external locus of control. Students with this locus ascribe successes of failures to (bad) luck, public transport, the teacher, the internet, etc. This is opposite to an internal locus of control, where the person ascribes the effects to his or her own effort, perseverance, creativity, and something in that same vein. In my counselling conversations, I am very interested in how the student reacts to surprises in his or her life. To what does the student incline in the ascription of causes?
Strong self-management profits from a balanced locus of control where internal and external factors are ascribed in a realistic and manageable way. I focus a large part of my counselling on the improvement of this balance. A well-known saying that I often use is: “Accept what you can’t change, change what you can’t accept, and be smart enough to know the difference”.
The central vantage point with every form of counselling is always that we cannot choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we deal with those circumstances. The “how” is essential and it is precisely on these intersections that we have a choice. You can say “no” to your boss or fraternity. You can ask for help from fellow students. You can go to the room of your teacher in the hope to get hold of him or her, etc.
A depressed student
I have counselled a student who wanted to pick up his study after a long interruption of therapy, but who still suffered from severe dejection. Quite soon in the sessions he came to a session saying that the past week had been disastrous due to depression. I showed my sympathies and asked why he had not followed through on his schedule. His answer: “I just told you. I was very depressed”. My response: “I understand, but why did you not follow through on you schedule?”. His doubtful reaction: “Because I was depressed!”. I persisted: “but why falter on your schedule?” I interrupted the conversation before making him feel that I was ridiculing him and explained why I asked this question: you cannot choose your depression, but you can choose your reaction. It is possible to be depressed and still study. Perhaps you cannot give a 100%, but perhaps 80%, 60% or 40. Even 25% is decidedly more than 0%. In other words, you do have a choice!
Think, do, and feel
These are, in my eyes, crucial counselling moments. Of course, it is easier said than done, but my perspective is undeniably true. There is no physical or material impediment present that makes it all impossible. The student can factually think and do other things in given situations. What makes it all so complicated is that he wants to feel differently as quickly as possible. I view this as a circumstance that we cannot determine. We are as much subjected to feelings of dejection, a shortage of motivation, stress and fear as we are to the unreliable public transport, erratic teachers, and vulnerable computer systems. It is a given, and now we must proceed.
When a student is dissatisfied with his or her situation, the student needs to be pointed to the turns he or she has taken on different intersections. The student has taken several decisions that have led him or her to come to that place. If the student resists formulating alternative actions (alternative turns on intersections) and says that “this is just how I feel”, then it must be made clear to the student that this is not an argument. This is the case for the remarks: it is a lot, difficult, vague, no fun, and so forth. All these remarks include a component of feeling that the student is unable to control. A justified reaction is, “All right, it is hard, but what are you going to do?”. There are always several turns on an intersection. If one direction does not lead to the desired destination, one simply has to turn back and take another turn, until the unacceptable has changed and the unchangeable accepted.