Can there ever be too much challenge and support?

Posted on July 15, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Ever since I learned about Sanford’s theory of challenge and support it has been one of, if not the most frequently utilized concept in my arsenal of student development theories . The interesting thing is that until recently I had been looking at this theory through only one lens: a lens where there could never be too much challenge and support come from external sources whether they be student affairs professionals, faculty, parents, mentors, etc. and never from the student themselves. I think this way of thinking creates a large hole within this theory and something that deserves further investigation. While I am positive that this topic could take up an entire thesis, here are some of my initial thoughts on the matter:

Having read The Net Generation, I am aware that one of the patterns among incoming college students is that they have had gratuitous support in all their endeavors. These students have basically had a omnipresent cheerleader  or in most cases multiple cheerleaders by their side throughout their adolescence. In my experience, it takes a lot more external support to accomplish something I am not motivated to do on my own or interested in doing myself, than when I’m internally motivated. I can only imagine that most other people are also this way. As such, the extreme amounts of support current students are getting may be a result of the extreme amounts of external challenges that were placed on them as children. After all, haven’t we all heard about children whose schedules are full of sport practices, music lessons, play dates, after-school activities and tutoring sessions?

Where do I see this playing out in student affairs?

First and foremost I think it is rather evident that some incoming students are primarily entering college because their parents want them there and provide copious amounts of support to get them enrolled. This is easily noticeable in the multitude of college applications that are filled out by parents every year, the number of first semester schedules that have parents’ hand prints all over them, and the number of students who admit that college wasn’t necessarily their choice, but just the next logical step in their lives. Personally I can see how this scenario could and in all likelihood does play out in several ways.

From a conduct standpoint, students who aren’t completely committed to being at college may be less likely to want to adhere to a college’s code of conduct. They aren’t quite sure what they are gaining by being part of the college community and therefore may not see the benefit of maintaining the communities standard of behavior. After all the code of conduct is part of a contract with students. The college provides the faculty, classrooms, and other facilities and programs necessary for students to get an education and in turn students conform to a behavioral standard. When a students doesn’t see the value in their education, they are hard-pressed to see value in the code. While, I haven’t personally had a lot of experience with this playing out in my conduct hearings, I would say that it is something that’s going to be on my radar.

I first came to see Stanford’s theory from this different angle while working orientation at San Jose State. To be honest, the first place I saw it was not in the incoming students, but among the student staff. It seemed as though many of them were not motivated by internal desires to help incoming students or to challenge themselves in new ways. Instead they had been motivated by mentors, other students, and sometimes parents to apply for the job. As a result, some found it hard to adapt to changes and challenges that they hadn’t been forewarned about and others were unmotivated to do more than the bare minimum to get by. In my mind this was a result of having a whole lot of support upfront, but very little support when the true challenges developed. These students couldn’t rely on the people who had got them into the position in the first place and they were hard-pressed to find an internal source of support to meet the new challenges.

Of course, I saw similar patterns among new students as well. Students who knew their parents would be helping them make schedules would pay little attention during advising. Students whose parents knew the campus would remain incredibly lost when on their own. The mere thought of not calling on external support to help them survive the one and a half day orientation was too much for most students as was evident by the sea of cell phone lights that dotted evening entertainment at the rec center.

I’m assuming that the full effect of students with lifelong cheerleaders will continue to have a huge influence on student affairs well into the future. I am quite sure that there is an extremely grey line between just enough and too much challenge and support from external sources. I hope to explore this topic more when I begin my internship with academic advising and find out how external support affects that area of student affairs. In the meantime, I am left with the question of how student affairs professionals can create programs and experience and ask the right questions to help student gain greater internal support and find ways to challenge themselves internally.


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7 Responses to “Can there ever be too much challenge and support?”

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Good post. This might be something to explore on a micro level with your student staff if you have the time. Perhaps take a few of them out to lunch, give them the theory in a nutshell, and then gauge their thoughts.

We shook up our New Student Orientation process a bit this year. Traditionally, on the first day of the two day orientation for first year students, we, along with all the other colleges, provide a general college level academic presentation for students and parents. Following the lead of our colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts, we decided this year to provide separate presentations for students and parents. This idea was driven by Teri Duever, one of our GTA’s, and she took the lead on creating the presentation and amending existing materials we had already created for parents. It has been a wonderful success. In the aggregate, the students have been more attentive because parents/family are not there taking notes for them. I think it also plays to the collaborative nature of the relationship between parents and net generation students, as they seem to gather and compare notes afterwards. We present orientation as a process that requires student-parent teamwork to fully experience all we are offering, and it seems to be yielding results.

Kerry, I am happy to hear that you are seeing a collaborative effort between students and parents when it comes to advising. I haven’t seen type of relationship at SJSU, granted I’m sure it’s there but maybe not so obvious to me. I have observed several parents hard at work on their students schedules and have had to explain many times that parents would not be allowed into the registration labs to help their students register. I think these experiences have impacted my previous post. With this said, I don’t think this issue is specific to advising or orientation.

In my mind the big picture has to do with what motivates students to make the decisions they make and do the things they do. My concern is that they are receiving so much outside support for every challenge that they face that when they finally run up against an internal struggle they don’t have the ability to seek support from within. My plan is to post again about this subject later on, so for now I’ll leave it at that.

I am glad that Sanford has had an impact on you…it is good to fully engage with a model and understand it to as full of extent as possible. I know when I was going through my grad program in Clinical Psychology; there was a very strong emphasis on “mastering” your understanding of a particular theoretical orientation. However, I found that as I moved on in my career no one theory could neither explain everything nor account for all the nuances of human behavior. I found that it took my finding complementary (and sometimes competing) theories in order to more fully understand any given phenomenon.
I wonder why Sanford has so fully spoken to you. Have you explored where your connection to this theory lies? Does it make sense in your world? Where does it not make sense? I think it is important for us to understand why something seems to fit our mind’s eye as we start adopting it and applying to the work we do with other people.
I like how you have pushed this theory into understanding of conduct issues and student connection to college. Hamerick, et al., have had some similar wonderings in their work. I wonder what specific challenges we can discuss to more fully understand the relevance of this model. How would this apply to a first generation student who is faced with, on the surface, a very similar challenge as a non-first generation student? However, the level of challenge may be higher for the former rather than the latter student. For instance, the parents fingerprint on a schedule may not happen for a 1st gen student. In other terms, how does challenge and support play out in terms of the third factor in Sanford’s theory, which is readiness?

Eric I think you raise a number of interesting questions, the first one being way Sanford speaks to me. I’m sure that this is not a complete answer, but my initial reaction to the question was that I think Sanford’s theory works for a diverse population of students and in lots of different areas of student affairs. Of the theories I have studied, Sanford’s seems to be the Swiss Army knifes of theories and I appreciate that. Of course, its seeming universal usefulness is also what compelled me to dive deeper into it and come up with a critique.

You make an excellent point about different, sometimes even conflicting theories needing to be used in order to create the best program or action possible. I think that an excellent example of this is the melding that occurs in my work during conduct cases. On the surface level we are dealing with the student conduct code, which is very in line with Kohlberg’s belief in a justice model (right vs. wrong, ethical vs. unethical, no cultural or situational relativism). Every student who breaks the code and is documented gets a letter from our office and is required to have a hearing. However, the hearing process is a lot more in line Gilligan’s ethic of care, which allows for personal situations to play into whether a decision or action was ethical. We spend enough time with each student to determine what factors were playing into their decision/action, how they feel about the incident, what they have already done to prevent another conduct violation, etc. We use this information, along with student input to create sanctions and therefore we are subscribing to a much more complicated concept of right and wrong.

I could not agree with you more that certain students face greater challenges on their entry into college and therefore must receive more support in order to succeed. Your example of 1st gen students is an excellent example of this. However, based on my critique of Sanford I want to add a wrinkle. Many 1st generation students that I have worked with this summer had to go through the whole application process, orientation, and class registration by themselves. They didn’t have parents or siblings there to make their schedules for them or read and fill out the paperwork. I think that having had to take accountability for their education will make some of them will be better prepared for the challenges of college than those whose parents did a lot of this work for them.

You definitely need to be careful not to overdose on Sanford.

Eric, I think you bring up an important point, that no one theory is going to work in every situation. While the concepts of challenge and support will continue to affect my practice well into the future, I also believe that the ways that I view these two concepts will continue to change. Programs and services that may be considered supportive to one student or a particular student population may be incredibly ineffective to others. The challenge of transitioning to college is always challenging, but for a variety of different reasons. In other words, the concepts are multi-faceted and are ever changing and therefore my application of the theory will change as situations dictate. I am also quite sure that my thoughts surrounding the balance of external and internal challenge and support will continue to evolve and may change greatly as new generations of students enter higher education with different experiences being challenged and supported.

Eric recommended this as an area of future study and I concur. If I ever decide to go back and get my PhD something in this area could be a great thesis topic.

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