SIP 11.1 Supporting Versus Coddling

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

As professors, we want our students to succeed. We diligently prepare curriculum, devise pedagogical strategies and set expectations. But when our students don’t progress, we often struggle to find a way to help them without lowering the bar. How much help constitutes support, and where do we cross the line into coddling?

Students sitting in desks in classroom.

Take a SIP of this: supporting versus coddling

Coddling is when you do something for your students that they could do for themselves, or when you set expectations at a level lower than their potential for meeting them. Coddling also enables students to perpetuate unproductive or even counterproductive behaviors inside and outside the classroom, such as disorganization, procrastination or even cheating. Supporting, on the other hand, is identifying what you would like your students to know or be able to do and then helping them close the gap between their current abilities and your desired outcomes.

Coddling typically carries a negative connotation. However, the modern age of “helicopter parenting,” technology-enhanced parental vigilance and over-scheduling frequently prohibit the development of age-appropriate independence. Students often have a lower level of independence and a higher level of anxiety and depression than same-age students in prior times and may be more attuned to coddling than to self-advocacy. In an interview for Inside Higher Ed, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, co-authors of the book “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” suggest that contemporary society has “unwittingly taught a generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people.”

Haidt and Lukianoff say “children suffer under a culture of ‘safetyism’ where parents endeavor to protect their offspring from harm, and in doing so, prevent them from developing the necessary skills of resiliency.” As faculty, especially during the formative years of college (at whatever age that might be for our students), we have a responsibility to combat this trend and to foster the personal and intellectual growth that will contribute to independence and forward momentum for career and life.

Here are a couple of ways you can avoid coddling or enabling and focus on supporting your students in the classroom:

  1. Make your students feel secure. When they feel safe in the classroom and in their interactions with you, they are more likely to try new things and stretch their abilities. Make sure their basic needs such as food and shelter are being met, and work with campus programs or officials to support your students if you find that they are not. See SIP 8.3, “Responding to Food Insecurity and Poverty in the College Classroom”; SIP 5.2, “Supporting Undocumented Students”; and SIP 10.6, “Universal Design for Academic Supports” for ideas on how to do this.
  2. Figure out what your students are able to do on their own at the beginning of a semester, curriculum unit, etc. (personally as well) and then build your course with the appropriate scaffolds and expectations. Check out SIP 6.2, “Meeting Students Where They Are,” for techniques that will help you do this.
  3. Make sure to understand if students have an accommodation letter from the Access Center or other documentation that tells exactly what their need for support is. Even if they don’t have a formal letter, though, involve your students in the identification of their need for support. By encouraging self-awareness, you empower your students to move more independently toward success. On that note, work to normalize asking for support in your classroom. Open discussion around individualized support takes away the “shame factor.” If everyone needs some kind of support, it is OK for everyone to ask for it and receive it.
  4. Encourage students who disclose a disability and are seeking accommodations to register with the Access Center. Leave it to the Access Center to determine appropriate accommodations to support the student based on their disability. Providing additional accommodations that are not indicated on their accommodation letter because you feel they need them is coddling and should not be done.
  5. It’s OK to have different expectations or rules for different students. Build in the ability for students to negotiate the terms of assignments, participation, tardiness or even attendance so that their individual circumstances are honored but they are still working toward your course outcomes. SIP 5.5, “Grading Contracts,” and SIP 10.9, “Flexibility With Deadlines,” provide great examples of how to do this.
  6. Support but don’t “helicopter.” For example, scaffold a writing assignment with multiple rough-draft reviews and work with students to meet them, but give students space to meet the deadlines and encourage them to talk to you when they can’t.
  7. Supporting has a lot to do with equity-minded practice in the classroom. Equity is about leveling the playing field for all. Ask yourself what supports you need to provide to ensure that all your students have the same opportunity to access your content and succeed in the course.
  8. Be comfortable with slight conflict or pushback. Enabling allows students to “coast” at their current level, but supporting will require them to stretch. Stretching is hard! Be ready to hold your ground in a kind and empathetic way and then praise the outcome of the effort.
  9. Even when you support students well, sometimes they will fail. Help students to understand that there are natural consequences to their approaches to schoolwork, etc., and that sometimes they will suffer them. If you erase or fix the consequences, you are enabling students and they will repeat the same behaviors. See SIP 7.4, “Productive Failure,” for more insight on this idea.

You might find that you get the highest student ratings when you are a supportive and interested teacher instead of an enabler. You also might find that real learning in your classroom goes way up.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this: supporting versus coddling

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