Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Theory Review Part I: Challenge & Support

By Olivia Stankey

With the conference season upon us, it is once again time to gather together and learn best practices and current research from each other.  It is a time of great learning, networking, and conversation.  But sometimes, those conversations can be stressful when a colleague brings up a student development theory that you have not heard of or have not brushed up on in a while.  That is what this blog post and those following are for.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be providing summary guides for major theories related to student development and leadership, as well as other relevant topics to our everyday practice.  These guides are designed for ease of understanding and translation into your professional practice with students.

Today, we begin with a foundational theory in student affairs: Sanford’s Theory of Challenge and Support.  The essence of this theory is that a student or individual develops through being challenged.  This challenge can be either internal or external, and only occurs if the challenges upsets the current equilibrium of the student (Evans, 2010).  In turn, the student may respond in a variety of ways.

If the challenge is too great and the student is not ready for the challenge, a student may go into a state of retreat, where they cease to develop and pull away from the challenge (Evans, 2010).  This is where support, and your work as student affairs professionals comes into play.  By providing support, you can help prevent this state of retreat.  However, if too much support is provided, the student may reach a state of stagnation, where the support is too much in proportion to the challenge and therefore becomes unhelpful (Evans, 2010).  In order to be most affective, you must provide enough support to prevent retreat, but not so much that the student stagnates in development.  Finding this balance is called Optimal Dissonance (Foubert, 2015).  A simple example of this is the idea that when you are working with a first-year student, they are likely to need more support for any challenges they encounter because they are new to the environment and are already in a state of constant learning, whereas, senior students are likely to need less support as they are familiar with their environment and culture around them and have had time to build higher order thinking and coping mechanisms.

Another key component of this theory is the idea of readiness, which happens when a student reaching a tipping point, either in body, mind, or environment (Evans, 2010).  According to Sanford, this idea of readiness is essential for development, asserting that the student must be ready for the challenge to be successful in developing through the challenge.  Otherwise, they may go into a state of retreat (Foubert, 2015).

In terms of student affairs practice, this theory is often one of the “go-to” theories because of the intuitive nature of the theory.  It makes sense that if a student is being challenged, that they are in need of some support.  Student services are often in an optimal place to provide that support.  However, there is one common misunderstanding to avoid with this theory.  Many student affairs professionals assume that they must be the ones to provide the challenge, when this is not a requirement and often not the case in practice.  Most often, the student’s life situation or the environment has already provided a challenge and professionals can then work to provide the support needed for the student to develop through said challenge.


* Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

* Foubert, J. (2015). Nevitt sanford: A founding student development theorist in all his complexity. [PowerPoint Document]. Retrieved from https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__oc.okstate.edu_d2l_le_content_1322078_Home&d=DwIFaQ&c=C3yme8gMkxg_ihJNXS06ZyWk4EJm8LdrrvxQb-Je7sw&r=QMxydpjOntoavhIpJb42DQ&m=rCNc_BsbbMRWWmh0eQcbqxUfUs9M902C_JVGbE6O_Cw&s=ZoauoRE8AKz_2LqnaggGbyJ7oVjvbPDFkmQ6S1CAesU&e=

Olivia works as a Program Coordinator for Residential Leadership at University of Oregon. She may be reached at stankey@uoregon.edu

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