Why All Student Affairs Professionals Should be Using Micro-Affirmations

Many student affairs professionals are aware of the terms micro-inequities and microaggressions.

'[Micro-inequities are] apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be different.' - Dr. Mary Rowe

Similarly, a microaggression is defined as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group”. 

A microaggression is more specific than a micro-inequity, as microaggressions always target members of marginalized groups.

An example of a microaggression is implying that a person did not earn their success — that they only got it because they belong to a certain social group. Other examples include assigning a nickname to a person so they’ll “sound more American” or ignoring and dismissing someone’s religious or cultural traditions.

More and more institutions are discussing micro-inequities and microaggressions through campus programming, giving participants tips on how to avoid committing these biases actions and how to call out others who do so.

And while it is indeed important to understand the negative effects of microaggressions and microinequities, it’s equally important to understand the positive effects of micro-affirmations.

'“[Micro-affirmations are] apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.' - Dr. Mary Rowe

Micro-affirmations can be simple statements and acts, such as saying “I’m glad you’re here” or “coming in was a good first step.” They can be encouragements, or they can be language choices, such as referring to things as “ours” (as opposed to “mine”) to affirm student ownership.

Micro-affirmations often point out positive personal attributes to encourage someone to pursue an action. For example, rather than telling my law school students that they’re being defensive, aggressive, or argumentative, I tell them that they are exhibiting strong self-advocacy skills. I then ask if they’ve considered using these skills to advocate for organizations or other people.

Micro-inequities, microaggressions, and micro-affirmations can all be small or subtle unconscious acts. But, while micro-inequities and microaggressions cause harm, micro-affirmations foster success.

Here are three ways that student affairs professionals can use micro-affirmations to benefit students and themselves.

3 Usages

1. Foster resiliency and grit 

Rowe believes that micro-affirmations can have three main effects. First, she says that  “appropriately affirming the work of another person is likely both to help that person do well, and to help [them] to enjoy doing well.” This effect aids with the resiliency and grit of students.

'“Grit involves working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. While disappointment or boredom may lead most people to change trajectory, the gritty individual stays the course.' - Psychologist Angela Duckworth

Grit works hand in hand with resilience.

Richard Sagor, the founder of the Institute for the Study of Inquiry in Education, described resilience as “the set of attributes that provides people with the strength and fortitude to confront the overwhelming obstacles they are bound to face in life.” 

Micro-affirmations can produce optimistic, inquisitive, attentive, and energetic students, which are qualities of a gritty and resilient student.

Appropriately affirming means being culturally competent and offering encouragement or support in a suitable way to the situation and person. 

Proper affirmation can help students do well, enjoy doing well, persevere, and be passionate about their work. Micro-affirmations are most effective when we are honest and sincere, and they can help students recognize adversity and address it productively. 

Micro-affirmations can provide a student with a realistic, yet optimistic, vision about the difficulties that they’re facing. Karyn Hall, director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, Texas, claims that your perception of obstacles makes a substantial difference in overcoming them.

It is important to note that grit can be an important component of success, and micro-affirmations can help with grit. However, none of this absolves our society of systemic problems related to poverty, class, and oppression.

`“Individual effort is still vitally important, but a student's circumstances still do impact [their] future, and we can't ignore these additional important factors.' - Linda Nathan

I’ve been able to incorporate micro-affirmations into my advising and counseling sessions with students to help with resiliency and grit. For example, I often say “I understand that you are frustrated about” then name the particular situation or challenge. When appropriate, I then follow that up with “I can also see that you have made progress in the following areas since (a certain date).”

I’ve also made sure that students are able to reflect upon their accomplishments. I’ve said things like “I can tell that you feel good about your progress” and “You should take some time to feel proud of your accomplishments and remind yourself of them even when you experience obstacles.”

2. Establish a sense of belonging and community

Mary Rowe also believes that “consistent, appropriate affirmation of others can spread from one person to another.”

Students come to us in a variety of emotional states and levels of confidence. By using micro-affirmations, we can not only boost our one-on-one counseling and advising sessions, but we can also create a sense of community throughout our institutions.

Unfortunately, we cannot reach every student individually, and not every student will approach us for guidance. However, if we can provide consistent micro-affirmations for those whom we do reach, then they, in turn, will affirm their peers and increase campus-wide belonging.

In his book College Students’ Sense of Belonging, Dr. Terrell Strayhorn emphasizes the importance of student belonging and its ability to predict student success. 

“It is undeniably clear that sense of belonging is a basic human need, vital for optimal human functioning and critical for students’ learning and development. Everybody wants to belong and one’s need to belong is heightened in contexts and settings where individuals are prone to feel alienated, invisible, (pre)judged, stereotyped, or lonely.”

To appropriately affirm a student is to be knowledgeable about the settings and contexts that our students encounter.

It also requires acknowledging the role that those settings and contexts play in a student’s ability to exist and succeed in our institutions.

Whenever I talk to students about a difficult situation, I try to use micro-affirmations – such as affirming that I know that the conversation will be difficult. Starting with “I know this is difficult news” or “I know this situation will be difficult to work through, but I am here to make sure that you feel heard” shows understanding and empathy. 

Additionally, indicating that you are concerned or that you want to be a student’s advocate can be tremendously beneficial. It signals to the student that you care about them, want them to be there, and are invested in their future successes. 

Micro-affirmations can also help let students know that there are a variety of resources available on campus to assist them. You can let students know that they aren’t alone and that many successful students need assistance and have utilized resources. Emphasize that these resources are meant to help students use the tools they already have to work through issues.

We want micro-affirmations to spread. So when students are hard on themselves, I often ask them to talk through what they would say to a friend who is facing the same issue. Students are often kinder to others than to themselves, so this type of roleplay can encourage self-empathy. Additionally, you can coach students on using micro-affirmations and assisting their peers who are facing similar situations.

Helping students with their problems is a staple of being a student affairs professional, but preparing students to help themselves and others is how we build welcoming and affirming communities.

3. Prevent Micro-inequities and Microaggressions

Finally, Mary Rowe points out that micro-affirmations can prevent micro-inequities and microaggressions:

“I may not always be able to ‘catch myself’ behaving in a way that I do not wish to behave. But if I try always to affirm others in an appropriate and consistent way, I have a good chance of blocking behavior of mine that I want to prevent. Many micro-inequities are not conscious but affirming others can become a conscious as well as unconscious practice that prevents unconscious slights.” 

Micro-inequities and microaggressions are often unconscious behaviors. As student affairs professionals, we need to eliminate the use of micro-inequities and microaggressions, especially because it can affect resiliency, grit, sense of belonging, and sense of — which are vital for the success and retention of our students.

Rowe posits that we need to pay attention to the small things. She writes that we can be clear and impartial about facts while still thinking about and affirming the feelings of others. 

That means that when delivering feedback, we should spend additional time thinking about:

  1. Our audience (specifically identities and how their identities are affected in our institution’s environment)
  2. When we say things
  3. Why we say things
  4. How we say things (such as tone)
  5. Where we say things (in a formal office setting or informally)
  6. What type of language we use (candid and direct, yet caring and affirming)

Rowe also believes that we can practice appreciative inquiry, which means leading rather than pushing; building on strengths and successes, rather than first identifying faults and weakness.” If we can change our own behavior, we can avoid some of the subconscious negativities that impact our students.

We can even help others prevent micro-inequities and microaggressions. Rowe says we should “reinforce and reward good behavior that, as it takes place, is inconsistent with, and blocks, the (bad) behavior that you hope will disappear.” 

The example she gives is that friends and colleagues can commend someone for giving up problematic behaviors. Even better would be if that person replaces the bad habits with positive ones.

Whenever I hold a student meeting, I remind myself of three things:

  1. Students will approach me in a variety of emotional states, which may inform what they say and how they say it.
  2. Before speaking, I need to actively listen
  3. Every student’s situation is unique, so I need to validate their feelings and concerns. 

Reminding myself of these things allows me to put micro-affirmations in the forefront and avoid micro-inequities and microaggressions.

Micro-affirmations are valuable tools for student affairs professionals. They are small acts, but their impact can be significant for individuals and communities. As we consider student belonging, retention, and success, micro-affirmations should play a role in our work.

Have you effectively used micro-affirmations? Tweet us at @themoderncampus and @MarceliusB with your stories. 

Marcelius Braxton

About the author: Marcelius Braxton (he/him) has a law degree and a master's degree in philosophy, yet he found his home in student affairs and couldn't be happier. He is passionate about issues related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice, and loves UNC sports. Learn how we can help get your students involved.