Counseling Students

Professor and student conversing on outdoor balcony at Clark Center

Counseling Students Overview

Whether you are a professor, instructor, or graduate student, many students will look up to you. At times, you may find yourself in the position of counseling a student about matters beyond the scope of your official academic relationship. For some teachers, this is an uncomfortable role, with murkier boundaries than intellectual mentorship. For all teachers, it is a challenging balance between respecting the limits of your position and wanting to offer as much support to a student as possible. The following suggestions are offered as guidelines for effective counseling.

Counseling Strategies

Know Your Limits

Although you are not expected to act as an amateur psychologist, you can function as a concerned and understanding support person. In cases where you are uncertain about your ability to help a student, however, it is best to be honest about this. Trust your intuition when you think an individual’s problem is more than you can handle and the assistance of a professional is warranted. You can consult Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for advice or help in your efforts to assist a student. Call CAPS at 723-3785.

Clarify Your Role

When you assume or are placed in the counseling role, role conflicts are possible. Some students will see you as an authority figure, which may make it difficult for them to be totally straightforward. It may also give your advice or opinion added “baggage,” if a student thinks it will influence his or her outcome in your course. Other students will see you as a friend, complicating things when you need to evaluate their performance in your class. If you feel role confusion or conflict, address it clearly by letting your student know how you see your role.


Productive listening is a skill acquired with practice. When a student shares a problem or questions, refrain from immediately imposing your opinion. Withhold advice unless it is requested; concentrate instead on understanding the feelings and thoughts of your student (rather than your own). Allow the student enough time and latitude to express their thoughts and feelings as fully as possible.  See Effective Listening and this diagram of effective and ineffective listening behaviors.

Help Clarify Concerns

Sometimes students simply need the opportunity to figure out what is bothering them without being directly advised. You can help a student clarify their concerns by “mirroring” the feelings and thoughts you hear expressed and by helping them define the area of concern as precisely as possible. Once both you and the student understand the nature of the problem, you may then want to provide honest and considerate feedback, if it is desired.

Offer Support

Offer support by directly expressing concern, understanding, and empathy, and conveying an attitude of personal acceptance and regard for the student. Support does not mean you have to endorse every action, thought, or feeling that a student shares with you; it simply shows that you care about their well-being.

Suggest Alternatives for Action

Students will often generate the best plans of action themselves, but you can help a student assess and use both personal resources and outside support for solving problems. If requested, you can also suggest alternatives. Try to do so, however, only after the person in need has exhausted his or her ability to generate ideas. However, if the problem is merely a need for information, provide it or point the student to someone who can.

Follow Up Your Efforts

If a student has made a decision or approached a conflict with your help, politely and nonintrusively check back a few days or weeks later to get feedback on what has happened. Such information can be rewarding if your help has been useful, and corrective if it has not.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

Introduction to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

CAPS (723-3785) has a staff of professionally trained psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric social workers, and counselors whose help is available to students without charge (except for long-term treatment and special services such as biofeedback or medication management). The staff works with individuals, couples, or groups of students and offers consultation, counseling, psychotherapy, and referrals to other mental-health professionals. CAPS can assist students with personal problems and difficult concerns or situations they encounter while at Stanford, including stress, anxiety, depression, relationship distress, low self-esteem, procrastination, sexual concerns, or family problems. Special services are available for minority-group members, women students, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students from staff members who focus on the concerns of these groups.

Referring a student to CAPS should be neither difficult nor intimidating. It is the natural course of action when you recognize that your help may not be enough and that a student needs professional assistance. The following information is provided so that referrals, when necessary, can be made with confidence and understanding.

A widely used service

Each year, about 10 percent of the student population makes at least one appointment at CAPS. The average number of visits is five, with half the students coming for four or fewer visits. These students come with a variety of personal issues. The stereotype that one must be “sick” or seriously disturbed in order to seek counseling is simply not the case for Stanford students. Referring a student for professional help, then, need not be a monumental or traumatic undertaking.

How to bring it up

If you decide referral is appropriate, discuss your thoughts with the student involved. You can make the process of referral a comfortable one by expressing your concern and letting the student know that going to CAPS is neither complicated nor atypical. If a student turns directly to you for help, be aware that a referral can feel to a student like a personal rejection. If a student chooses to confide in you, it reflects a degree of trust in you and your judgment and possibly is an expression of a desire to know you. Too quick a referral in such cases might well be felt by the student as a lack of interest on your part instead of a show of your concern. To prevent this, hear the student out, show understanding and empathy, and let the student know explicitly that in making the referral you are not turning them aside.

Working with student attitudes

In referring students, it is also important to be sensitive to differing attitudes toward seeking professional help. These attitudes range from strong resistance to definite acceptance and vary according to the student age, sex, cultural and family background, and geographic origin. While attitudes toward seeking help have changed in the direction of general acceptance, prejudices and stigmas based on inaccurate information still persist. Discussion of such reservations can reduce fears and misgivings.

The first step in a referral, then, is to go over such issues with a student. Attempt to demystify the process. Explain that seeking help in time of need may be a valuable learning opportunity and is a sign of strength, not failure or weakness. If possible, it is most helpful to have students arrange their own appointments, which requires only a brief phone call or visit to CAPS on the second floor of Vaden Student Health Service at 866 Campus Drive. People who seek psychological help voluntarily generally benefit more than those who are coaxed, forced, or threatened into doing so.


You can be certain in any referral that confidentiality is guaranteed.  If confidentiality becomes an issue, discuss it frankly so that misgivings and misunderstandings can be removed. Keep in mind that for purposes of confidentiality CAPS cannot verify or inform you that a student did or did not use the service. When you recommend CAPS to students, follow up. Let them know that you would like to hear how things went with their appointment. Do not push for such feedback as some students will want to keep these experiences private.

Academic Coaching

If you are unsure about the nature of the problem, or if the student who is seeking your support is ambivalent about accepting a referral to CAPS, you can refer the student to CTL’s Academic Skills Coaching service. The academic skills coach coaches students experiencing a broad range of problems and helps them develop pragmatic strategies for achieving academic success at Stanford.