Relationship Goals Part 2: Facilitating student staff engagement in self-care practices by Yolande Graham

There is no question that the student staff that work with us in  Housing and Residence Life are some of the best leaders on campus. They are students of high academic achievement and engagement. They are intentional and engaged in their communities. They want to help the students they work with to succeed.  They also tend to be highly involved–for some overly involved–in multiple spheres of campus life.

For many of us, when we hire new student staff, we ask them questions about how they would priorities their responsibilities if hired.  We tell them that they are the front lines of ResLife—the first welcoming face and often the first point of contact for students in need. We teach them the importance of  intentional conversations with their residents. We engage them in discussions around their role in supporting students who are experiencing crisis or an emergency. In many cases, however, we do not engage our student staff around healthy and meaningful ways to engage in self-care throughout their time with us.

This year, during our fall student staff training, I had the opportunity to lead a session focused on helping students to begin the process of building a self-care plan. In the previous post, Claire shared that engaging in self-care is important for us as ResLife professionals from both a personal and professional standpoint. This statement also rings true for our student staff.

Reasons why engaging student leaders around self-care is important

  1. Many of our student staff have their own personal wellness and mental health concerns that are often only exacerbated by the stress of their academics, their job in our communities and their many extracurricular activities.
  2. As our student staff are on the front-lines of their communities, they can find themselves carrying the burden of  the concerns and needs of the students they live and work with.
  3. For many of our student staff, the concept of self-care is murky and often limited to binge watching endless hours of their favorite shows or eating their favorite food. While theses are not bad strategies, there are many more strategies available to students that they may not have think count as self-care.
  4. On many of our campuses across the country, we have seen an increase in mental health related concerns and incidents with students living with us. Our student staff are often closely connected with these students in their communities.
  5. Student Staff Burn-out. We have all seen it happen to members of our staff. They start the year off strong, they do ok in the middle and by the end of the year they are disengaged.

With all of these things in mind, I began to plan what my session on self-care would focus on. It was important from the start that the participants needed to leave with some tangible sense of what self-care meant for them. I wanted them to  begin to build their personal self-care plan.

Where am I Now?-Building Your Self-Care Plan

My research led me to resources from the University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work which focused on “Developing Your Self-Care Plan”. These resources included a number of worksheets that called for reflection on current coping mechanisms and self-care practices. It gave space for individuals to make a plan for day-to-day self care, emergency self-care, and it offered steps on how to put your plan into action.

At the start of our time together, I explained to participants that the point of our time was not for them to judge themselves about where they were on their self-care journey. Rather the focus was on increasing their self-awareness and equipping them with tools to take charge of their personal wellness. Engaging with these resources in the session led to some  interesting discussion with the participants about their understanding of self-care.

One student staff member, in our discussion of the Self-Care Assessment, said that they had never thought of taking a break when sick as self-care. I was at first surprised by this, but then thought about all the responsibilities that our student staff have on a weekly basis. It also led me to question myself–how often do we as professionals choose to model similar behaviors to our students. We discussed the challenge of feeling selfish when engaging in self-care and finding and making time for themselves. At the end of the session, all participants left with the beginnings of a self-care plan. It became very clear to me that this needed to be an ongoing conversation on self-care  that we had with our student staff.

Making self-care  a part of ongoing conversation

Here are a few ways that you can begin to make self-care a consistent part of your interactions with your student staff.

  1. In staff one-on-ones: You can ask one of two question–What does self-care look like for you this week? or How are you prioritizing yourself this week? Challenge them to lay out tangible steps they will take during the week.
  2. Holding staff accountable to their self-care plan: in the same way that we check in with students regarding various responsibilities of their jobs, it is important that we are also intentionally checking in on how they are engaging in their self-care on a regular basis.
  3. Challenge the narrative of busyness and over commitment: For many of our student staff, undergraduate and graduate alike, busyness is a badge of honor. Our role as mentors should be to kindly, yet intentionally, ask the hard question. What are their priorities? How do the things they are involved in lineup? What are the effect of this over commitment on their personal wellness?
  4. Facilitate times of reflection: Many college students do not engage in reflective practices on a regular basis. Reflection, in its many forms, is how we begin to process our lived experiences. Create spaces and times where they can write about where they are (both literally and figuratively) in their personal wellness and on their self-care journey. Have them look at emerging themes from their reflection and then make a plan for how these themes will be address. In engaging them in these practices, we can help them to become more self-aware.
  5. Remind them that taking care of themselves is important:  I had a staff member tell me in a recent 1-on-1 that they had often been told about taking care of their career and their academics, but had only heard about taking care of themselves since working in our community. We as housing professionals should not only encourage self-care practices, but should remind students of their importance.

In my opinion, if the students who work in our departments end their time with us and are so burnt out that they not able to pursue their future goals, then we as housing and residence life professionals have done them a great disservice. As their mentors and supervisor, we need to create spaces where students can engage in self-care practices in whatever way works for them. We should be facilitating conversations and reflections on their personal wellness.

Select a practice and make it a habit

Self-care should not just be another thing we add to our to-do list. Self-care is about the small practices that when repeated become habits. Spend 5 minutes a day on reflection. Take a short walk regularly. Connect meaningfully with people who are important to you. Rest when we are sick. Workout regularly.

Developing these habits early is important, especially for those student staff members we know are interested in entering the field of higher education and student affairs. The work we do with students is rewarding but can be very challenging at times.

How will your prioritize you today? How will you facilitate engagement in self-care practices with your student staff? 


Developing Your Self-Care Plan. (2016, July 12). Retrieved July 23, 2018 from

About the Author:

Yolande Graham is entering her second year as the Residential College Director for Dunham College at the University of Oklahoma. Prior to her time in Oklahoma, she completed her masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Baylor University (Sic’em Bears) and her bachelors in communication at the University of Maryland, College Park (Go Terps). Yolande is currently a member of the CHRL Directorate Board.

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