How one student’s research is opening doors to greater accessibility.
It isn’t easy asking for help when you are struggling with mental health issues. Believe me, I know. As a resident assistant, I am often the front line on mental health support when someone is struggling. As a tutor at the WORD Studio, assisting my peers with written communication, oral communication, reading, and design—the “WORD” in WORD Studio—for the past year, I have also seen the impact mental health has on my peers’ success and overall well-being. And, as someone who has mental health struggles myself, I know how difficult it can be to ask for help. Just getting in the door can be a challenge.
As a part of my training to be a writing tutor and my experience as a student in need of support, I researched and wrote a paper entitled “Mental Health Accessibility in Writing Centers.” I discovered that only 28 percent of tutor training programs discuss how to tutor students with mental health concerns or illnesses. With the support of the WORD Studio director, I decided to change that.
By redesigning how university resource centers engage students, they can improve mental health accessibility. The approach is simple: tutors need to be trained on understanding different mental health conditions and how each requires a different model of engagement. Tutees need a safe space to get the help they need.
To begin advocating for changes at St. Lawrence, I founded a wellness committee at the WORD Studio, which immediately designed and distributed wellness-themed bookmarks displaying meditation and breathing techniques, grounding techniques, and quotes of affirmation. We also organized workshops providing tools for mental health-informed tutoring, training on how to recognize potential warning signs, ways to couple both academic and emotional support in a tutoring session, and strategies for how tutors can best care for their mental well-being as tutors. The committee continues to work with the University to create a sensory-friendly tutoring space and to codify the importance of these efforts in a mental health accessibility mission statement.
Overall, we need bold, systemic changes to achieve mental health accessibility, especially with the continuing effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic. I am trying to do my part, educating others on what change needs to happen, and implementing that change directly at St. Lawrence in the WORD Studio.
Getting in the Game
Clearing away the hurdles to getting the help needed can make the difference in getting a student to the finish line.
Making an Appointment
My assignment is due tomorrow. I have to make my WORD Studio appointment. Course? Professor? Is it required by the professor? Would I like to notify the professor? What is that professor’s email? What kind of assignment is this? When is the assignment due? Describe what I’m expected to do for the assignment. What would I like to accomplish in this tutorial?
Tedious or convoluted appointment-making processes lend themselves to becoming an obstacle for those who deal with attention or motivation challenges.
Create an appointment system that is easy and straightforward with minimal required information.
Entering the Studio
Is that the WORD Studio? Where do I go when I get in? What do I say? What will happen? Is this even the right place? My chest hurts. My heartbeat is way too fast. My ears are ringing. I feel sick. I can’t do this. I’m leaving.
How a writing center is set up can be a barrier. The uncertainty of where to go or what to do upon entering could cause a student with anxiety to feel too anxious to enter the center.
Clear wayfinding signage is necessary. Giving students directions in confirmations of appointments before arriving helps boost confidence even before a session begins.
Some mental health conditions provoke a negative interaction with physical spaces and sounds: the inability to focus with in-person distractions, discomfort toward crowds, or sensory overload.
I can’t hear my tutor. I hear every single word of every single other speaker in the room. The loud grumbling of the tea kettle. The whoosh of the door as another person enters. The click click click of the pen in my tutor’s hand. The constant tap tap tap of someone’s foot against the chair at the table behind me. The clack clack clack of the student typing furiously across the room. I can’t breathe. I’m going to cry. I have to go.
Offer optional remote sessions. Provide an isolated or sensory-friendly room.
‘Universal’ Tutoring Techniques
Traditional, universally positive tutoring strategies may be disadvantageous to tutees with certain mental health conditions. For instance, tutees with ADHD may not be able to sustain their attention or retain content when reading aloud or being read aloud to.
OK, your tutor is reading your essay to you. Pay attention. Listen to what the tutor is saying. I wonder if the tutor just heard my stomach grumble. At least the meal exchange at the Pub today is Strips of Fire. Oh no, I didn’t hear any of that!
Allow tutee room to pace, doodle, or to engage in multi-sensory delivery of content.
Hill presented her research at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing to writing center directors and graduate and undergraduate peer tutors from all over the country in November 2021.
St. Lawrence University is grateful to the Munn family, Steve Munn ’64 and Ann Munn, Michele Munn Celestino ’90, and Robyn Munn Gengras ’94, who supported the original writing center, which, in 2007, became the WORD Studio.