(note: This is the second in the “student development 101” series that used to live on the RCblog and is reposted here. Aimed at the parents of the young men I work with, please forgive the masculine pronouns…I’m on a deadline. jb)

Think for a moment about teaching a child to tie their shoes. If you hand the child a pair of Nike’s and say, “Here, kid, lace ‘em up,” they will probably give it a try, but quickly give up in frustration. On the other hand, if you tie their shoes for them every time without asking them to give it a try (and help them through the process), you will likely still need to tie their shoes during their first year of college!

Many learning experiences incorporate a balance between challenge (”Here, kid, lace ‘em up!”) and support (”let me tie them for you…”). Sanford (1962) found that college students go through significant personal growth and development, much of which is influenced by the college environment itself (that includes what goes on in the classroom as well as what goes on outside of the classroom). He believed that for growth and personal development to occur, a student needs to have a challenge/support balance.

The basic idea of this theory is that for growth to occur, a person needs a balanced amount of challenge and support as appropriate for the task. Take a look at the figure below, which illustrates the impact of imbalance. Too much support (A), and the student will never really learn what they need to grow and develop…too much challenge (B), and the student will become frustrated and possibly quit trying.

A third factor of this model that Sanford added in 1966 is the element of readiness. Simply put, an individual cannot grow until they are physically or psychologically ready to grow. For example, introducing quantum physics to a third grader is probably not a great idea…he/she is simply not ready for it (if they are, I’m sure our admission’s office would like to meet them!).

How does all of this relate to the real world? The college experience is one of the greatest periods of growth in a young person’s life. For that growth to occur, each of our students need to be challenged (and supported) appropriately through a variety of experiences, both inside and out of the classroom. Some of these experiences may be unpleasant, like a failing grade in a class. Challenge and support does not imply that the student will never experience failure or negative consequences, but what it does imply is that when those consequences take place, there will be individuals and processes in place to support the student as they learn from the experience.

Support comes from a lot of places, including faculty, dean’s office staff, peers, and parents & families. A major component of that support comes from the encouragement we all give to the student to keep trying and to ask for help.

Sanford, N. (1962). The American college. New York: Wiley.
Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society: Social change and individual development. New York: Atherton.