Think back to when your son or daughter was young. Did you read books and articles to help you understand the development of your infant, toddler, child, pre-teen, or teenager? Well, your son or daughter has not stopped developing. College student development can take many forms, and there are many experts who have written volumes on the development that your student will experience during his or her college years. As a parent, a basic understanding of student development theory may help you to prepare for the changes that your son or daughter will undergo throughout the next few years.

One of the main theories in college student development is by Arthur Chickering and Linda Reisser. Chickering and Reisser use a Vector Theory to identify the primary areas in which students will face challenges during their college years. The vectors are in order. Thus, you can expect that your son or daughter will need the most assistance with the first one or two vectors during his or her first year. You may see him or her struggle with the later vectors a few years from now.

Developing Competence: “Can I Make It Here?” During college, students will be developing competence in three areas: intellectual skills, social and interpersonal skills, and physical/manual skills. Competence in these areas is essential in order to move successfully through the next vectors.

Managing Emotions: “How Do I Handle My Feelings?” Students will be learning how to manage their emotions, including caring, anxiety, optimism, depression, anger, shame, guilt, and inspiration. Students increase awareness of these emotions and learn to adjust them, thereby developing self control when dealing with provocations, new situations, and criticisms.

Moving Through Autonomy toward Interdependence: “From Parents to Peers”  Students develop individual support systems and begin to rely less on their parents. Students also learn to solve problems on their own, without seeking help.

Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships: “Friends and Lovers” Students develop tolerance for others and their value systems and are able to respond to people as individuals without engaging in stereotypes. The quality of intimate relationships becomes deeper and more meaningful.

Establishing identity: “Who Am I?” Students establish their own personal system of behaviors that are satisfying to themselves. Students learn to understand, change, and accept themselves.

Developing Purposes: “Where Am I Heading?” Combined with the question of “Who am I?” students ask themselves “Where am I going?” Students answer these questions with clarity and conviction by developing meaning and direction in vocational and recreational interests, vocational plans, interests and aspirations, and general lifestyle considerations.

Developing Integrity: “I Know My Values” With the development of purpose and identity comes the development of integrity. This is the clarification and establishment of a personally valid set of beliefs that have consistency and that provide a guide for students to work through the various experiences and conditions that they will encounter.

What Does Student Development Theory Mean for Parents? The college years are a time of growth, change, and exploration. It is a time for students to gain the life skills they will need to become successful, independent adults. Parents can be an essential source of support, encouragement, and advice. However, it is important for parents to allow students room to fail, experience disappointments, and question their identity and beliefs. These are learning experiences that help students understand the consequences of their actions, prepare them for the ‘real world,’ and help them to develop a true sense of self.

Source: Chickering, Arthur W. and Reisser, Linda. Education and Identity. (2nd edition, 1993). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.