6 Risk Management Principles You Need to Understand to Support Students

Risk management gets discussed a lot on college campuses.

Fraternities and sororities talk about risk management for their social events, administrators consider risk management for university-sponsored travel, and health and safety departments manage risk to minimize illness, injury, and damage to campus property. 

These are just some of the most common examples. Nearly every member of a college community has to consider risk management in some way as it relates to their work, the well-being of others, and the smooth operation of the institution.

Of course, those who work in health promotion and wellness know that “an ounce of prevention is a pound of cure.” Because so much of their work focuses exclusively on prevention, they can be allies — not only in risk management but also in risk prevention

Building strengths and skills in this area is critical for any higher education professional today. 

If you’re looking to learn more about risk management, you’re in luck. Here are six areas in which you can become more professionally equipped to engage in risk management and empower students to become allies in this process. 

6 Principles

1. Responsible decision-making

Teaching students how to make responsible decisions can be half the battle in risk management.

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In a previous post, I talked about decision-making workshops that help students strengthen this skill. This not only equips them to become more confident and comfortable with making decisions, but it can also help reduce risks for themselves and for others on campus. 

Responsible decision-making is also an important part of ensuring college and career readiness. It’s one of the five competencies of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) outlined in this piece about incorporating more SEL into high school experiences to set up students for academic and career success. Here, responsible decision-making is defined as “making ethical, constructive choices about personal and social behavior.”

The definition offered by The Connecting Link also includes safety concerns, social norms, and a consideration of the well-being (of oneself and others) as part of the decision-making process. Author Jill Rockwell proposes that responsible decision-making is the most important of the five SEL competencies.

Teaching students responsible decision-making skills related to high-risk situations will help ensure that your policies and procedures are followed. Moreover, it can help students make this a regular practice in their lives.

Whether it’s risk management regarding events on or off-campus, individual alcohol use, or conflict resolution skills with roommates, it’s easy to see how helping students improve their decision-making skills can help them succeed while minimizing risk to themselves and to others.

2. Harm Reduction

Harm reduction focuses on empowering people to reduce the harms they may expose themselves to in the decisions they make. 

Harm reduction is a way of preventing disease and promoting health that ‘meets people where they are’ rather than making judgments about where they should be in terms of their personal health and lifestyle.” – the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

As a result, harm reduction is an ideal fit for helping college students reduce high-risk behavior. 

NCHRC notes that harm reduction programs emphasize public health and human rights while respecting individual dignity and autonomy. For example, a harm reduction strategy related to alcohol use may involve encouraging a student to have three drinks in one sitting instead of four or to drink two nights per week instead of three. 

Allowing people to experiment with behavioral changes in small increments can feel non-threatening and non-judgemental. This can result in less resistance to change and perhaps motivate students to make further changes after noting their small successes. 

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As a study in the Harm Reduction Journal notes, individuals who struggle with high-risk and/or chronic conditions like obesity and substance abuse can benefit from a harm reduction approach. The authors’ proposed approach emphasizes shared decision-making between provider and patient. They write that “harm reduction can be thought of as a universal precaution and applied to all individuals.” 

In the same way, students may respond well to a collaborative approach with harm reduction. Working alongside staff to explore and manage high-risk student behavior can engage them more than telling them what they “should” do. 

3. Social Norming

Social norming addresses the discrepancies between our attitudes, behaviors, perceptions, and reality, and are primarily used in substance abuse prevention

The social norms theory is based on the fact that people often overestimate what their peers are doing in certain areas of life and thus, often choose behaviors to keep up with this fictional majority. In reality, however, most people choose moderate behavior most of the time, making fairly healthy choices. 

Social norms, then, is a way to dispel the myths and share data to encourage healthier behavior within a population — such as a college campus.

The National Social Norms Center (NSNC) notes that the social norms approach does not use scare tactics or stigmatize unhealthy behavior. Rather, the approach focuses on “positive messages about healthy behaviors and attitudes that are common to most people in a group.”

The social norms approach also avoids moralistic messages about how a target group “should” behave. Instead, this approach simply presents healthy norms information and highlights healthy behaviors within a community. This is usually done through social norms marketing campaigns, with a focus on core statistics and messaging. According to the NSNC, these campaigns are a form of “health promotion and universal prevention,” which both support risk management efforts. 

For risk management and social norming related to alcohol and other drugs, many institutions utilize surveys from The CORE Institute. These surveys quantify and document students’ attitudes, perceptions, and opinions about alcohol and other drugs, plus measure behaviors and consequences of their use. 

Information from these surveys can be used to create social norms campaigns. Check out some tips and case studies here.

As part of a comprehensive prevention and wellness plan, social norms data and campaigns can encourage healthier behavior within a student population, thus reducing students’ overall risk. 

You can also adapt the social norms approach to other areas of risk management. Consider: Do the majority of your fraternity and sorority chapters maintain a high average GPA each semester? Do they go without hazing or other major incidents, and exceed volunteer or philanthropy dollars year after year — yet do you encounter students in these communities who believe that “partying hard” is the main goal? If so, sharing the data about what the majority of the FSL community is actually achieving may help refocus the conversation. 

These kinds of efforts have indeed proven to be impactful. The U.K.’s Behavioral Insights Team, for example, has dramatically improved on-time tax payments simply by telling people about the large number of citizens who paid their taxes on time. 

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To learn more about social norms, check out this information from Partners in Prevention and the social norming resources and examples they provide. 

4. Environmental Management

You can’t manage risk if you don’t also manage the environment in which you’re trying to prevent harmful incidents from occurring. Environmental management acknowledges that behavioral change is not only about the individual but also about the environment around them. In fact, the CDC has determined that our physical and social environment contributes over 50 percent to our state of health. 

The authors of an article in The Scientific American assert that “Our decisions are constantly shaped by subtle changes in our environment.” Behavioral scientists use the phrase “choice architecture” to describe how the environment influences our decisions. 

Based on the social-ecological model of public health, environmental management considers the examination of the individual, particular at-risk groups, the community (including both the campus and its surrounding community), and societal factors such as public policy. 

This is according to Dr. Beth DeRicco, a consultant in the areas of prevention, wellness, and health promotion. In my conversation with her, she said that “Basic public health models tell us that we are all products of the environment in which we make choices, and that we respond to factors in the environment as outlined by the social-ecological model.”

Environmental management is about much more than preventing illness; it’s about overall health. 

“For many campuses, a focus on health has meant a mitigation of risk and consequences to risky behavior; alcohol prevention is a great example of this.” – Dr. Beth DeRicco

Risk management includes environmental management — which addresses the way a space is designed and maintained, the guidelines for its use, and how a community can be “nudged” to support the health and well-being of others. The policies that exist and are communicated also play a part of environmental management since they set the expectations for the community space. 

Take, for example, a student organization that chooses to host an event with alcohol at a third- party venue. Environmental management includes knowing the venue’s occupancy limit or attendance limitations from a national headquarters. It means having snacks and non-alcoholic drinks available, sober monitors and/or easily accessible transportation, as well as trained security officers and bartenders.

Environmental management is part of why student organization advisors do not encourage alcohol to be the focus of any event advertising. 

Planning an event on campus that includes animals, university-sponsored travel, or athletic events are just a few other examples of situations wherein environmental management should be part of a risk management plan. 

Another excellent example is residence halls. They often have policies regarding quiet hours, alcohol use, trash, guests, and use of common areas. Spaces like these are designed with environmental management in mind to reduce risk, which frees up room to focus on students’ health, success, and growth. 

 5. Bystander Intervention

Bystander intervention is a means of equipping others with risk management skills. Helping your students become educated and empowered to intervene at the first sign of concern can prevent incidents from occurring or decrease the severity of resulting problems. 

For example, if students know the signs of alcohol poisoning and how to intervene appropriately, they will be better equipped to prevent the possible injuries or even deaths of their peers. It’s the difference between staying with an intoxicated student and calling for help and leaving them alone to supposedly “sleep it off.” 

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Bystander intervention programs like “Step UP!” (which provide training across a variety of high-risk situations including hazing, alcohol and relationship abuse, and discrimination) can be heavy-weight champions in your risk management efforts. The skills and strategies taught by these programs can help more people feel equipped to intervene. It also makes risk management a community expectation and responsibility. 

To better utilize bystander intervention as a risk management tool, look for ways to involve more students in your campus bystander programs. Find opportunities for mutually reinforcing activities wherein areas on campus invested in health and well-being, risk management, and student engagement can cross-promote messages about bystander intervention and risk management. Work with colleagues to incorporate more bystander intervention information into your current student training or programming efforts. 

For more resources on bystander intervention, check out these resources on theories, programs, and exercises from PreventConnect.

6. Motivational Interviewing 

Motivational interviewing (MI) can also be a valuable asset to risk management. As I explained in my previous post, MI is most often used in mental health counseling but is applicable to other settings. It focuses on helping people explore their ambivalences, acknowledge the challenges of change, and elicit internal motivators for change. 

Managing risk largely relies on communal cooperation and buy-in. Yet, we understand that knowing policy is not enough to guarantee compliance and being aware of a procedure is not enough to ensure its proper completion. If that was the case, everyone on every college campus would abide by every policy and procedure meant to reduce risk. 

The use of MI in risk management encourages pausing to acknowledge the ambivalence a student may have toward a policy, the challenges of following it, and their internal motivators for engaging in it. For example, consider the difference between simply telling students they need to have sober monitors and having a conversation to talk through their stuck-points about it. 

New student leaders may be especially hesitant to “make” their peers serve as sober monitors. They may also doubt if this role is helpful, wonder what sober monitors are even supposed to do, or debate how to choose who will serve as sober monitors. 

Student leaders may be unsure how to explain to their organization why this role is important and why monitors need to remain sober at the event. They may also now know how to equip monitors to serve in their roles. Eliciting internal motivators for change might include linking organizational values to the risk management issue at hand, as well as personal values and aspirations for their legacy in that student role. 

MI takes a conversation from “here’s the policy for you to follow” to “here’s the policy; now let’s talk about your concerns and go from there.” This extra step can make your risk management efforts more productive and effective. 

Lastly, student affairs professionals should learn about the well-being model. As more institutions are moving to this (and away from a traditional siloed wellness approach), risk management becomes a shared responsibility rather than the sole responsibility of one area. 

The five conditions of collective impact — which is the guiding framework for the well-being model — including having a common agenda and mutually reinforcing activities. These two conditions can work together to reduce risk in a variety of situations faced on a college campus. 

For more resources on risk management, check out TNG Consulting, a company whose services include risk management work with higher education institutions. NASPA also offers this resource on mindfulness and risk management as well as this one on campus safety and violence prevention. 

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Have any additional risk management skills to share? Let us know at @themoderncampus or @priyathomas757.

Priya Thomas

About the author: Priya Thomas (she/hers) is a wellness and leadership development director and consultant, with 15 years of experience in Student Affairs. She is the former Director of Prevention & Wellness at Florida Gulf Coast University and actively volunteers with Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Learn how we can help get your students involved.