If Student Affairs Had a Hammer – A Strategy to Teach Adaptive Skills

Whenever I have heard variations on the quote “If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” it has been used in a pejorative sense indicating that one has few resources or ideas to address any issues with which one is confronted. No matter what the issue is, the same response is used. I want to use this hammer and nail saying in a positive manner.

In my most recent blog, I wrote about the need for Student Affairs to reorient our work to address a critical learning need for students. That critical need is for students to acquire experience in learning about and in practicing adaptive skills. I have been honing the list of skills for years, and the list I’ve settled on includes interpersonal communication skills; cultural intelligence; and social responsibility. After reviewing the many lists of competencies suggested as essential for college graduates over several years and asking for feedback from faculty, Student Affairs professionals, and students, I am confident that these categories of skills are sufficient to meet the career and personal needs of college graduates.

I am also confident that my strategy to help students acquire these competencies and skills will have a powerful impact when employed effectively. The hammer that I think can address many of the challenges we see among students and, frankly, the population in general, is the implementation of co-curriculum laboratories attached to or embedded in academic courses and programs. The co-curriculum laboratory is the hammer that can be applied to the nails/ challenges that prevent many colleges and universities from fully realizing their learning goals for students.

For example:

If students see themselves less open to having their views challenged than they think they ought to be, this is a nail. A co-curriculum laboratory can be the hammer to help students practice interpersonal communications where controversial issues can be discussed with a skilled facilitator present.

When tragedies occur such as the mass murders at the church in South Carolina last week, there are many nails to pound such as racism, gun violence, and the call for civic engagement. A co-curriculum laboratory can be a hammer because it provides a safe space for the discussions to occur.

When tragedies occur caused by natural disasters such as the recent devastating earthquakes in Nepal, and students appear not to have empathy for the victims, this is a nail. A co-curriculum laboratory can be a hammer to require discussions about other countries and cultures and to assign students to make deliberate connections with people beyond the home country in order to better understand the impact of a tragedy on people who are not within students’ inner circles.

If students have little experience in figuring things out on their own and appear not to have practical skills for functioning, this is a nail. A co-curriculum laboratory can be a hammer to help students take incremental steps towards independence aided by peers who role model and encourage personal growth and maturity.

The concept of attaching co-curriculum laboratories to or embedding them into academic courses and programs can be an effective strategy to address many of the challenges we face in helping students acquire adaptive skills. Yes, co-curriculum laboratories are the hammers Student Affairs can use to reorient the focus of our work in effectively contributing to holistic and transformative learning for our students.

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