I was recently coaching a college student through some anxiety she was feeling. As she shared her struggles, it became evident that she did not feel heard, understood, or valued in key relationships. I was reminded of the importance of truly listening to the young people in our lives. As we head into the holiday season, where we are interacting with family and friends, it is a good time to refresh our listening skills.
I wish I could say I am really good at listening, but it is one of those skills I am constantly having to practice and hone. While it seems simple, it may be one of the most difficult leadership skills to develop and practice because it requires us to set aside our own perspectives, interests, and need to be heard to focus on another person and what they are thinking and feeling.
Today, with the constant noise and distractions of social media, news feeds, YouTube, and the busy world around us, we often give things our partial attention. This can become a habit that inhibits our ability to listen fully to those with whom we are interacting.
Active listening requires that the listener move from passively hearing to actively engaging with the speaker. This type of listening uses both verbal and non-verbal communication methods and shows the speaker you are interested. So, let’s reflect on some skills that are important for active listening.
The National Student Clearinghouse released their latest college enrollment numbers on October 15, 2020. They are showing that a month or so into the fall 2020 semester, undergraduate enrollment is running 4% below last year’s numbers. “Most strikingly, freshman students are by far the biggest decline of any group from last year, with a decrease of 16.1% nationally and a 22.7% drop at community colleges in particular. First-time students account for 69% of the total drop in undergraduate enrollment.”
It is not surprising that many undergraduate students may be putting their college plans on hold amid uncertain times. This means a lot of students who might otherwise be in college are doing something else right now. I couldn’t help but wonder what this season looks like for those who are waiting to reengage their college plans. While mental health risks for college students were high prior to the pandemic, we are now seeing an increase in depression rates for college students since the beginning of the pandemic. It is critical for students today to have support and encouragement in this season as they make decisions that will allow them to thrive amid the uncertainty.
If you know a college-aged student who has put their plans on hold, or who is reconsidering their plans, here are a few ways to encourage them:
In this season, our relationships have adapted to a world of social distancing and virtual interactions. Whether we are spending more time with our kids as they homeschool or do virtual courses, or spending less time with students or employees who are learning and working from home, there are unique opportunities to encourage and support the young people in our life. One way we can do this is to identify and acknowledge how they are smart, the natural intelligence they have, and affirm and encourage them in developing their abilities.
This is a generation that is incredibly individualistic and is growing up in a world that tells them identity is fluid. This can create uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety. This is further complicated as social media creates a tendency to compare ourselves to others. Young people today need confidence to understand themselves and grow in their abilities. We can help them.
Dr. Kathy Koch, in her book The 8 Great Smarts, talks about the different types of intelligences we can watch for in the lives of the Gen Zers around us. She gives descriptions of how each type of intelligence thinks, responds, and learns. There are great suggestions for activities to do with young people based on their interests, and ideas for guiding them into a career field that fits who they are.
The eight great smarts that she delineates are:
· Word Smart
· Logic Smart
· Picture Smart
· Music Smart
· Body Smart
· Nature Smart
· People Smart
· Self Smart
I highly recommend Dr. Kathy’s book. As a parent who is Word Smart, it has given me so many great insights as I raise Picture Smart and Nature Smart kids. As a People Smart coach and educator, I have learned to better appreciate and relate to the Self Smart people I coach and teach.
As you engage the Gen Zers in your life, I encourage you to pay close attention to the “smarts” they possess, encourage and guide them as they develop the unique intelligence they possess.
I have missed seeing many of you in person this year as face-to-face events have been canceled and schedules have changed. Like many public speakers, my calendar looked strangely different after travel restrictions began to take effect in March. In this unique season, I have often found myself, like so many leaders, pondering what the future holds and how to navigate it. Amid all the uncertainty and change, I have been encouraged and challenged by the following reminders and questions:
As the complexity and uncertainty in our world increase, I am challenged to lead intentionally and find ways to help the next generation of leaders thrive. If I feel overwhelmed by the events in our society today, then our kids, teens, and young adults who do not have the perspective that comes with age and experience are even more likely to feel overwhelmed. In times like these, I seek inspiration from those who navigated change and uncertainty in the past.
Winston Churchill is one of my favorite leaders. Notwithstanding his rough childhood, unruly behavior, and peculiar habits, he was a man of conviction. When desperate times called for a determined leader, he rose to the occasion. On June 4, 1940, in light of devastating military losses in the Battle of France, he addressed the House of Commons. The speech he gave that day is one of his most memorable:
“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender...”
And they didn’t surrender. Instead, Britain and the Allied powers went on to win a war that spanned the globe. We cannot even comprehend the valor, sacrifice, and conviction of many individuals whose names have been long forgotten. The WWII generation is referred to as the Greatest Generation. I too want to be a part of a great generation. I believe the current uncertainty in our world requires that we embrace an opportunity to lead with purpose and courage.
Our culture today has absorbed the values of deconstruction, tolerance, and entitlement. While not all bad, these influences have eroded and dampened the conviction of many. Perhaps more than ever before, we are in need of dedicated leaders. Are you one of them? What are the firmly held beliefs you would sacrifice for, die for, and lead others to be committed to? Do you lead like Churchill, pursuing your conviction despite the odds? Can others rally around you and receive encouragement and strength from your dedication? May we be leaders who inspire new generations to greatness.
Here are a few strategies to consider as we look to lead with conviction and commitment in a time of uncertainty and change. These strategies are invaluable as we model healthy commitment, and mentor young people in their own sense of conviction.
During two decades of teaching in both K-12 and college contexts, I have had to adapt a lot of my teaching strategies to the many changes we are seeing in technology and students today. I have taught online courses for several different schools and developed a deep appreciation for the opportunities that exist in virtual classrooms. I believe virtual learning can provide opportunities that are unique to the online setting. As you engage students online, here are a few keys that I find essential to effective online education:
Key 1: Allow for Choice
When we have some choice in a situation, we tend to feel more motivated. As a result, I often give options for assignments. For example, sometimes students can choose between participating in a written online forum discussion (introverts tend to prefer this!) or a live virtual discussion (verbal processors love this!). On some activities, I allow submissions to be either written or a recorded video. They can often choose between a paper or a project. I also like to give some freedom, when possible, for students to choose topics or applications to explore in course assignments.
Key 2: Encourage Student Ownership
Sometimes students prefer that instructors do the hard work of teaching and providing feedback but engaging them in these processes ensures better learning. I like using peer reviews, student-led presentations, and group activities to maximize student ownership in learning.
Key 3: Get Feedback!
The greatest contribution to my learning as an online educator has been student feedback. I do at least one mid-course feedback survey/form with open-ended questions, in addition to final course evaluations, in every class I am teaching. I ask the following: what is working, what is not, what would improve your learning experience? I immediately respond to areas of concern and make changes to the course based on helpful student input. Students value that I listen to them and care about their learning experience.
Key 4: Learn from Colleagues
I have found solutions to so many of my challenges in online teaching by connecting with and learning from colleagues. I also regularly take courses or watch webinars that help me learn new tools and methods. It can be easy to get into a routine, so adding some new tech tools regularly helps keep our online teaching sharp!
I hope you find these tips helpful and encouraging as you engage students in online learning! For more on this topic, check out the most recent episodes of The Leading Tomorrow podcast.
For the past decade, I have been a part of the “gig economy,” working remotely with clients around the world, and teaching online for four different schools. As a speaker, consultant, and coach, I have facilitated virtual trainings, conducted research remotely, and coached clients via phone and video conference.
Over the years, I have identified some best practices for effectively teaching and leading in a virtual context. Here are four of my favorite tips:
-Tip 1: “Push” Important Info to Students/Team Members
We live in a world where notifications and reminders help us focus on what is important amid the onslaught of information we encounter. As a result, we need to “push” important information to students. I do this by posting and emailing weekly updates, highlighting what is important in each module. During the first couple of weeks of class, or when there is a new type of assignment or activity, I post/send a special reminder or explanation, even though all this info is also clearly posted on the LMS. Students benefit from knowing what to focus on, understanding how to manage their time, and getting information that minimizes mistakes or confusion. Team members appreciate the reminders of important meetings or tasks.
-Tip 2: Be Present/Engaged
In the online context, students and employees cannot “see” us the way they do in a classroom or office, so we need to be intentional to show we are present and engaged. We can do this by contributing to discussion on forums, liking or responding to comments, and making specific comments unique to each student or participant when responding. I also try to reference student comments or insights when giving video lectures or facilitating discussions to show I am paying attention to what they are saying and doing.
-Tip 3: Be Personable/Authentic
Being personable online requires us to really express our personality. Including some videos and facilitating live discussions helps convey our teaching style. I always host a virtual orientation the first week of class so we can see facial expressions and hear voices. We can let our personality shine through in videos, posts, and comments by sharing personal fun facts and stories or using emojis. Also, responding to employee or student needs and requests for help with empathy goes a long way toward building rapport.
-Tip 4: Connect Individually
Learn specifics about each student or team member, reference these, share resources they might find interesting given their interests, etc. I create an introduction forum and ask everyone to post a short bio during the first week of my courses. This helps me learn and remember names and backgrounds. Responding promptly to questions and creating times or opportunities for appointments if students or staff need to connect via phone or video chat communicates you are available to help them.
Like many of you, I remember the days before social media and smartphones. Now, it seems we can’t live life without them. From checking in with family to accessing the weather, news, and sports, most Americans now seem inseparable from their devices. These devices also accompany us to work, where we utilize them there as well.
As a Generation Z researcher, I wanted to see how this generation uses technology in the workplace, and how employers can utilize their innate expertise. Having grown up in the late 90s and 2000s, Generation Z has always had the internet and smart technology at their fingertips. A 2019 study by Adage indicated that 98% of Gen Z’ers surveyed owned smartphones and 94% owned laptops. Gen Z engages with friends, interests, and now school almost entirely through their devices.
Several recent studies also revealed that Gen Z is more comfortable working from a tablet or smartphone than laptop or desktop in a work environment and use their smartphone at work as their primary communication tool. Gen Zer’s want to work in an environment that has fast, reliable tech, and wants to use this tech to communicate with their supervisors and colleagues. Gen Z are well-acquainted with video tools like Zoom and Skype, having used FaceTime and Snapchat throughout their teen years.
COVID-19 has forced many employers to shift to remote work. While many Gen Zer’s, Millennials, and Gen X’ers are used to using applications like Zoom, MS Teams, and Skype, learning to navigate these apps under the pressure of working from home can be difficult and stressful for many older employees. We’ve all received the frantic text, call or message, “How do I turn on my camera??”. To assist older employees with using video, chat, or other workplace technology, I recommend utilizing your Generation Z employees’ expertise.
Utilizing Gen Z’s technological skills may help your company in a couple of ways. Appointing young employees as leaders in this area may help you better engage with and retain this group of employees. Research shows that Gen Z needs to feel a sense of purpose, achievement, and advancement in their job, or they will quickly move on. Designating Gen Z’ers as the go-to for team tech questions will give them a sense of accomplishment and an opportunity to display leadership even if they are in frontline or entry roles.
Pairing older employees with Gen Z’ers may also have an added benefit – as members of Generation Z communicate with and help their team members, the mature team members also have an opportunity to get to know the younger members. Perhaps the director or VP who would never get to know the frontline employee is suddenly relying on them for virtual tech assistance. What an amazing chance for a learning exchange to occur! While the Gen Z employee assists with technology, the more tenured employee also has an opportunity to mentor or provide wisdom to the younger employee, which may outlast the tech questions and strengthen the virtual team.
Note: I recommend inviting rather than assigning Gen Z’ers to help their team members access and troubleshoot tech– you will receive a much more favorable response (a monetary or non-monetary incentive such as an extra day off, small gift, or bonus may also help).
Growing up in an age of rapidly expanding technology and a constant information stream, Generation Z possesses skills and ideas that organizations should employ. Utilizing Gen Z’s technological skills is one way to engage younger employees and strengthen your virtual teams during COVID-19.
Last time, I wrote about some of the challenges facing Millennials and Gen Z while practicing social distancing. These include the increased potential for loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Here, I would like to share a few strategies for those of us who are parents, teachers, mentors, and leaders as we seek to engage and support the young people in our lives at this time.
- Pause and be present. As my husband and I have been juggling work with the kids at home full time, I often feel like I am always scrambling to catch up. Last night, my daughters were tired and stressed. So, we turned off all the devices, and just sat together in the dark stillness of the living room for a while. After a few minutes, one of my daughters started sobbing. When I asked her what was wrong, and just waited, she began sharing a situation that was making her feel stressed. We talked about it and I was able to encourage and affirm her. Everyone went to sleep with smiles. Sometimes, amid the busyness, whether it is with our kids, a student, or a young colleague, we need to make sure we are creating spaces to just pause and be present with them.
- Be proactive and intentional. As we are having fewer face-to-face interactions these days, it is important to be proactive and intentional to ask young people how they are doing. Engage them with open-ended questions (What is most difficult for you during this time? How are you feeling about…? What activities help you? How can I support you?). Practice active listening skills. Asking good questions and attentively listening is one of the best ways to communicate interest, care, and support. In many cases, young people do not need us to give them the answers, they just need to feel like they are not alone, and that someone is encouraging them as they work out the solutions.
- Extend grace. We are living in unprecedented times as globalization and technology are accelerating the change and impact of events in our world. We are absorbing information and change in ways people have never experienced before. While daunting for all of us, young people often lack the experience and maturity that help provide perspective and stability. As a result, we need to extend some grace when behaviors, statements, and attitudes in the lives of those around us are less than optimal. Love and acceptance help create opportunities for speaking wisdom and encouragement that can equip a young person to grow through this time.
- Model healthy coping skills. Many of us are managing extra stress and anxiety these days. One of the greatest gifts we can give young people is to model and engage them in healthy coping strategies. Take your kids for a walk or bike ride and get some exercise instead of turning on a movie. Have a “game night” with colleagues or extended family and talk while you play cards over video chat. Set aside time to “unplug” from all devices and read a book or build a puzzle. Serve someone in your community together.
History shows us that adversity and difficulty can build resiliency and character, if engaged effectively. As we mentor the young people in our lives, may we leverage the opportunities during this unprecedented season to build memories and skills that will help them for a lifetime!
Clinical psychologist, Benjamin F. Miller, wrote that America was already on track to face a mental health crisis before the COVID-19 outbreak. While many Americans are feeling the emotional toll of the pandemic, Millennials and Generation Z represent particularly vulnerable groups. Many were already suffering from declining mental health. The new normal of social distancing is increasing the loneliness and isolation that so many within these generations are experiencing.
Many argue that technology allows us to connect effectively even while separated physically. While this is true, we know that in-person interaction is better for emotional health than virtual connection. Jean Twenge, in her book, iGen addresses this issue. She explains that if virtual connection were as valuable as face-to-face connection, then “teens who communicate via social media and text should be just as happy, be just as likely to dodge loneliness, and be just as likely to avoid depression as teens who see their friends in person or engage in other activities that don’t involve screens.” However, the research demonstrates that, “teens who spend more time on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy….all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” As we consider this research alongside the fact that most classes, church groups, sports practices, even some camps, not to mention almost all social interactions, have been moved to a virtual format involving screens, the potential for increased depression, unhappiness, and loneliness is evident.
While technology is undoubtedly a gift during this time, it is not without significant risks. Twenge reports that “the correlation between social media use and loneliness appears across all demographic groups: boys and girls, Hispanics, whites, and blacks, and those both lower and higher in socioeconomic status.” Twenge also reports that “eighth graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27%, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework cut their risk significantly” and that “teens who spend more than three hours a day on an electronic device are 35% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor.” Research by Brigham Young University indicates that loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity and present a risk for premature mortality.
Nicolas Kardaras in his book, Glow Kids, explained children between the ages of 10 and 17 today will experience nearly one third fewer face-to face interactions with other people throughout they lifetimes as a result of their increasingly electronic culture, at home and in school. He goes on to explain that “an emotional connection is built, however, when eye contact is made during 60-70% of the conversation…the less eye contact, the less a connection is made.” Our kids, teens, and young adults today desperately need the emotional connection that comes from meaningful face-to-face time.
Peter Gray, my favorite researcher on the importance of play, notes a correlation between a decrease in playtime and a rise in major depression, anxiety, and suicide. Gray writes, “If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.”
As we navigate a season where many playgrounds are closed, sports and team events are cancelled, and other activities are being held virtually, we must be vigilant to monitor the mental and emotional health of the young people in our lives. Reduced emotional connection and increased risks for loneliness and depression are serious threats to the well-being of our young people at this time. We must be proactive to find ways to meet their needs for face-to-face interaction, emotional connection, and healthy activity and play in ways that will allow them to thrive.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!