Helping Students Shed Disempowered Narratives - Interview with re:MIND Author Kristin Taylor
Updated: May 30, 2020
Tarragona Associates, 5/12/20
Kristin Taylor, M.A., a trained therapist, started her higher ed career as a student success coach for Inside Track in 2007, where she became a director and started training other coaches based on her signature narrative coaching approach. Since then, she has broadened her focus to include executive and life coaching.
Most recently, Kristin has developed re:MIND and re:Mind the Basic. Offered through the Ed-Tech courseware provider Perceivant, re:MIND helps students shed their disempowered personal narratives through a unique combination of behavioral therapy techniques, neuro-science and mindfulness. Suzan Brinker sat down with her for an interview about how to improve student mental health during the Covid-19 era.
What made you focus on higher education as your chosen area for your career?
I never thought it would be higher ed, to be honest with you. I thought I would always be a therapist or work in the healing arts in some capacity, and that’s where I started. I earned my Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and I was trained as a therapist, specifically in what is called narrative therapy. Narrative therapy is about deconstructing our stories and understanding that, often, we are attached to stories that are very disempowered.
At one point, I saw an ad for a student success coach and I was curious about it, so I applied and was interviewed. This was through a company called Inside Track, who partners with colleges and universities to provide enrollment and retention coaching for students. And man, it just fit. Over my nine years there, during which I became a manager and director and trained other coaches, I was able to marry coaching philosophy with that narrative approach.
Because a lot of student coaching is very much about skill acquisition, where coaches ask, “where are you now, where do you want to be, and how are you going to get there?” Or, they’d say, “Let’s budget your time, let’s create a plan, let’s teach you how to do this. Let me show you the website, let me show you how to navigate this.” I realized something was missing. All of those things are super important, but if a student believed that either they didn’t belong in college or if a student was like, “I have three children and I’m working full-time - all I know is that I’m struggling and I’m hurting, and I need a degree to advance my life”, talking about skill acquisition was not the right conversation to have a lot of the time.
All of this doubt and fear many students experienced needed to be addressed. It wasn’t that they shouldn’t learn the skills in coaching, it was that they didn’t believe in themselves and weren’t ready for that conversation. You can have as many conversations as you want showing them how to do something, but it’s missing the real crux of what they need, which is, do I believe I should even be here? I realized most people are not trained or skilled as a coach to know how to do that well.
So you’re saying that before they can even think about how to get their grades up and how to study and how to budget their time, you have to go to the place where they start believing that they belong in college and see themselves as appropriate and suitable for that environment?
Maybe they are not even completely aware that they have a lack of belief. But then it comes up as self-doubt when let’s say it’s their first week of school, and they have had a really stressful week, and then there is an issue with ordering the book. Immediately, that little bit of evidence or struggle has them feeling and doubting that maybe college isn't right for them. They start to fall into a disempowered personal narrative - a problem-saturated story that can really take off. And so what most coaches will do is focus on figuring out how to order the book. But if [the student is] already showing up feeling like maybe this wasn’t the right idea, and self-doubt is in the driver’s seat, you need to be able to help them step back, ask questions, and cultivate a mindset that allows them to address and minimize self-doubt so they can then be able to focus on solutions.
People are whole human beings and there are a lot of emotions showing up. There are a lot of past stories and a lot of belief systems that make them less receptive to learning what you’re sharing with them, remembering what you’re sharing with them, and then believe that it’s worth the effort to get to the other side of obstacles. And that’s what narrative coaching does - it primes them to be ready to learn by fostering a more deeply seeded belief in themselves, but updating their narrative.
Mental health has not always been a key concern in higher education. More recently, there has been more awareness around mental health, especially in terms of how social media has negatively affected it, along with other stressors for students.
Yes, I am seeing what everyone is seeing. The pace of life is so incredibly fast, for all of us, but young people in particular. There is this elevation of, “I don’t have enough time, I don’t have a steady ground beneath me, whether that’s financial, academic, or emotional. Even when you think about the climate crisis, there is so much existential fear and there is so much divisiveness, culturally and politically. Young people are just thrown into this landscape, and then you bring in social media, where the rate of information is just laser-quick. That is taking a huge toll on the collective psyche of us all, and we are not taught how to slow down. We are not taught how to inquire inward, we are not taught how to emotionally self-regulate. And when connection is happening so much digitally, the relationships that allow the slow passage of time and the ability to self reflect, the ability to create these open, trusting relationships, is more in jeopardy.
And that’s why re:MIND and re:Mind the Basic came into being because not everyone knows how to have that conversation with students. It takes a lot of skill and experience. I want to be able to create a platform and engineer and design an experience where students can learn to self reflect, examine their story, and move into a different relationship with fear and stress and anxiety. And, incredibly importantly, they can learn to recognize their unique strengths and see the wins that they are having that often can be drowned out by all the noise and all of the anxiety. Because those wins are often happening, but if we are not staying mindful and are not pausing to notice, we can miss them and lose the opportunity to leverage them as a part of who we know ourselves to be.
Why is the time on a college campus particularly relevant to helping students reshape those stories about themselves?
Because they’re signing up to change their lives. And the process, not just the degree, is an opportunity for personal transformation. When I earned my degree, so much of what happened was beyond just the content I learned, but extended to the experience of seeing myself grow.
Your course re:MIND seeks to provide institutions with a set of tools that put mental health front and center, that help institutions empower students to become more disruptive of their own negative stories or narratives. If a university has not yet invested a lot of time and attention into finding solutions that help students with their emotional and mental health, what are the steps that can make the biggest impact? What can they implement right away? What will take a bit longer to establish?
One thing that is very very basic, with the hurried pace students often find themselves in, it’s simply teaching people how to name a feeling. Usually, for all of us, and this can be especially true for men, they get the message to just “shake it off, dust yourself off, how you’re feeling is not a big deal, get over it and suck it up.” I feel terrible for some of the messages so many young men receive about minimizing their feelings. What a study out of UCLA has shown - they call it affect labeling: simply putting a name to an affect already begins the process of emotional self-regulation. And it moves you from your amygdala, which is that primitive response when emotions are firing, to activating neural pathways towards the prefrontal cortex, where we are far more resourceful, calm and creative.
This can start to happen, simply by saying, “I am feeling anxious, scared, overwhelmed, angry, confused, frustrated.” So if that is the one simple basic thing they learn from re:MIND - although there is so much more than that - students can start to practice the ability to self-soothe. Also, learning that there are different words for different feelings and slowing down to actually feel their feelings in different places in their body, rather than seeking to numb out is an incredibly important route to experiencing some relief. What we are really talking about here is the practice of mindfulness. Practicing basic and simple mindfulness helps to heighten students’ emotional intelligence and their resilience.
It probably also takes signals from others that it’s okay to say that out loud.
And what comes to mind is that higher education for the longest time was very judgmental of any negative feelings - any anger, any sadness, any weakness.
I love that you used the word weakness. It was considered a “weakness.”
And so it’s a true culture shift. It’s not just about the students, it’s about an entire system of education that needs to say, “Emotions have a place here. Emotions actually make us stronger and help us relate to one another and make us more compassionate.”
Absolutely. I don’t even like the term managing your feelings, like you have to get them in control. Instead, emotions are a part of the dynamic human experience and emotions are not something to get rid of, they’re something to invite because they create space for self-awareness, empathy, creativity, and passion. Emotions can connect you with your values. We are walking and breathing sense receptors -- our bodies are extensions of our brains. So, when we experience uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings, one of the first things we do is we over identify with our feelings, like “Uh oh, I’m feeling self doubt, something is wrong with me. Uh oh, I am anxious and my heart is pounding, now I feel like a walking embodiment of anxiety.” The other thing that we do is we have an aversion to them. We feel like we need to get rid of emotions as quickly as possible and run the other way. Actually no, pull a chair up at the table and then ask the emotion what it needs.
When I coach people, I encourage them to ask the emotion what it needs, not why it is there. Because when you ask why an emotion is there, people very habitually will go to the story of their brokenness: “because I don’t have enough money, because I’ve always been bad at math, because I can’t do this, because I am not smart enough or because I am weak.” What I say instead is, really, ask the emotion, “what do you need from me right now?” Well, the emotion may need to be heard, it may need to be reassured, it may need to know it’s going to be okay, it may need you to get a glass of water, it may need you to talk to a friend. Nurture the emotion, comfort and soothe, as that’s often exactly what it needs - not harsh judgment and criticism. It’s that idea of whatever we resist persists. So instead of resisting feelings and emotions, simply allow them - be with them and know that, paradoxically, the more you tend to them, the more they tend to recede. The more you flee them, the larger they have the potential to grow.
Does the busy-ness of today’s campuses lend itself to that kind of inquiry?
It depends, and that’s why you’ll find a whole spectrum of tools in the book. You can do a less-than-one-minute breathing exercise to get you from your amygdala hijack to your prefrontal cortex. So it’s situation-specific. You’re given enough resources that you can start to pick and choose: ask, “how am I going to care for myself?” Because we can say we don’t have enough time all day long; however, your emotions aren’t going anywhere and ignoring them comes at a cost. We need to make time. And often, that can literally mean taking 48 seconds.
These tools bring to the forefront the necessity of treating people as the entirety of who they are, which includes their emotional experience. We need to normalize as part of the responsibility of higher ed to graduate people who can go into the workforce and handle the challenges and stress and be able to connect and communicate in a way that brings out the best of who they are, which includes their ability to understand their emotions.
I would assume that it impacts not only academic performance but also teamwork and how students can collaborate with others, which translates directly into how they will perform and experience the workplace, right?
Absolutely. re:MIND teaches emotional intelligence because it’s influenced by cognitive behavioral therapy, it’s influenced by narrative therapy, but also by neuro-science and mindfulness. And it provides insights and stories and asks students to reflect on their own - often unexamined - stories, so that they can learn to become more self-aware as they practice greater personal agency and resilience in the face of stress.
How do you encourage colleges and universities to measure shifts in the mental health of their student populations?
re:MIND has a mindset inventory. We focus on seven non-cognitive competencies: resilience, emotional intelligence, perseverance, self-control, growth-mindset, self-advocacy, and confidence. We assess each of them before a student engages in the process of re:MIND. Then, students go through the re:MIND journey, and after they have completed it, they then retake the assessment, and it highlights how their relationships to those competencies have shifted as a result and how their personal narratives have become more empowered - which deepens their belief in themselves.
I’m assuming that one key objective for an institution would be retention and persistence, perhaps a mass improvement of academic performance, but also student engagement and satisfaction, and dare I say happiness on their campus?
Ideally, yes. What I want to do is pull people more into a relationship with one another from a place of greater self-awareness, with the by-product of people showing up with more courage, being able to understand what’s happening for them emotionally, and to be less likely to isolate and more likely to ask for help and engage in college life. Yes, this level of connection and resilience will also foster better academic performance, greater persistence, retention, engagement, satisfaction and graduation rates. It’s not the panacea, but I think of it as an essential part of the tapestry of addressing mental health and bringing in critical infrastructure and content that can be transformative to the student’s experience and better educational outcomes.
So how does it work?
re:MIND is course content provided through a company called Perceivant, who creates courses for higher ed. re:MIND and re:MIND the Basic can be online or hybrid, it’s really flexible, regardless of the LMS that colleges and universities are using. It’s all laid out, there is an instructor’s guide and learning activities. All the content is provided and it’s broken into 8 modules or chapters. Some colleges use it as a stand-alone course, while others use it as supplementary material to add to an already existing course. The students are on the receiving end of the experience. There are discussions and activities and things that are graded versus not graded, there are journals, and so it’s all built out.
But also there is re:MIND the Basic, which was designed to address the urgent need of rising anxiety that has only been amplified given the pandemic. It is shorter and designed to be used in orientations and seminars. It’s targeted to quickly address anxiety and cultivate students’ emotional resilience and adaptability. It’s less comprehensive, but for many could be a great starting place to respond to the immediate needs of students currently.
So we’re in the middle of this global pandemic. Students are not on their campuses. Oftentimes, they are very stressed out and don’t know what the future holds. This is a very relevant tool for students at this time, isn’t it?
Yes, I feel like we are having this collective amygdala hijacking because of this escalated level of fear that we are all immersed in, understandably. And so with Re:MIND the Basic, it's providing a base-level of neuro-science that primes students to understand what is happening in their brains when they experience anxiety. And then, using mindfulness practices and narrative coaching exercises, it helps them learn how to identify their feelings, feel them, have compassion for them, and, most importantly,to de-escalate them.
What re:MIND invites people to do is to say, “Oh, self-doubt is working overtime to convince me that I’m not good enough and that I’m not capable. I need to breathe and I need to remember that I have faced many hard things in the past. This is just one. And my narrative is becoming that I am growing more resilient. This is but a hurdle and one that will help me move towards an important goals that I care about."
Learn more about Kristin Taylor and re:MIND at Perceivant.
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About the Author
Suzan Brinker, PhD, has dedicated her career to helping higher education initiatives build strong value propositions and communicating them to the right audiences. Having served as Director of Marketing at both Penn State and Northeastern University, Suzan now leads Viv Higher Education and consults for Tarragona Associates. She specializes in online education, internationalization, and enrollment marketing