How to use the SCARF model to help stressed students


how to use the SCARF model

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop on Mental Fitness for students run by Matt Smeed from SISU Psychology. Mental fitness has a variety of definitions, some of which focus on specific cognitive performance (doing a task well) and others of which are more closely related to mental health and wellbeing. Each of these perspectives on mental fitness has a great deal of relevance to the work we do with students.

One part of the workshop I found particularly interesting was when Matt talked about the way that stress can impact on our ability to function and be effective. To explore this further he asked all of us in attendance to decide which of the following scenarios would cause them the most annoyance or fear:

You apply for a job. You are unsuccessful and…

  1. …you find out that someone you know got the job instead. You don’t get on very well with this person and you’re sure they won’t be as good at the job as you.
  1. …the employer gives you very little feedback as to why you didn’t get the job and what they did say was ambiguous and a little confusing.
  1. …it turns out they changed the job spec after you interviewed and are now looking for a different set of skills.
  1. …you find out that three of your friends have just been offered jobs – you feel like you are getting left behind.
  1. … the employer gives you feedback on what was missing from your performance, but there wasn’t even an opportunity to demonstrate those skills in the interview.

Once we had identified a scenario that we found particularly compelling Matt explained that our choice actually revealed the kind of situations that are likely to trigger stress for us. To explore this further he introduced us to something called the SCARF model. Devised by David Rock, the model provides a framework for developing a better understanding of our individual stress triggers. Each respective scenario that Matt introduced directly relates to the distinct elements within the SCARF model:

Status –  Our relative importance to others

Certainty – Being able to predict the future

Autonomy – A sense of control over events

Relatedness – A sense of safety with others

Fairness – A perception of fair exchanges between others

Matt explained that if an individual perceives a potential or real reduction in status, experiences uncertainty, feels a reduction or lack of autonomy, senses adversity or thinks that a situation is unfair it can result in them experiencing significant stress. This exercise was great in that it showed students the kinds of scenarios that increase their stress, but the session as a whole didn’t provide any techniques for managing these triggers. I wanted to explore this area further, especially given the impact of stress on many of the students we see as careers practitioners.

A closer look at the SCARF model

The SCARF model is based in social neuroscience, the study of how and which parts of our brain react to different stimuli experienced through social interaction. Social neuroscience has demonstrated that the individual motivation for social interaction is driven by the desire to minimise threat and maximise reward. In addition, the brain treats social activity in the same way as our primary needs for food and water.

In other words, when an individual encounters a stimulus their brain either tags it as ‘good’ and engages in it (‘approach’) or ‘bad’ and disengages from it (‘avoid’). This approach-avoid response is essentially a survival mechanism designed to help us stay alive by quickly and easily learning what is good and bad for us in our environment (if you’re interested in finding out more about the science behind this I’d recommend reading David Rock’s article on the SCARF model). Unsurprisingly, this approach-avoid response has a significant impact on our ability to problem solve, deal with stress and make decisions.

Going a little bit deeper, each of the five components of SCARF relates to a social domain that drives human behaviour: status, certainty, autonomy, relations and fairness. We may, for example, avoid situations that we are uncertain about or perceive to be unfair, as this would likely result in stress. Conversely, we’re likely to be drawn to situations that will make us look good or that provide us with choice, as these are more likely to result in rewarding feelings.

How to use the SCARF model in everyday life

Used in the right way, the SCARF model can help us to begin minimising threats and maximising rewards. Rock argues that if we are aware of its components we can have a greater awareness of situations that may otherwise impair our performance. We can also understand our reactions and feelings more deeply following a stress-inducing (or threat response) experience. Interestingly, Rock suggests that having an awareness of the different components of the SCARF model can also allow us to design ways to motivate others and ourselves more effectively.

How to use the SCARF model in careers work

Although the SCARF model is used predominantly in business and leadership circles it’s an effective framework for use with students too. As careers advisers we have the chance to support students through situations that in the terms of the SCARF model may be triggering stress. I’ve provided a few examples below that could be used with students in one-to-one settings, making links between each component of SCARF, common career transition issues and their related approach-avoid responses.


Example: If a student compares themselves to others in their peer group or receives negative feedback following an interview

How to help students with this issue:

  • Provide regular positive feedback
  • Draw attention to incremental improvements
  • Focus on achieving larger or broader goal(s)


Example: If a student doesn’t know what they want to do after University

How to help students with this issue:

  • Use action plans
  • Discuss possible situations and desirable outcomes
  • Break down overwhelming choices into manageable steps


Example: If a student feels a transition is involuntary (e.g. they have to move back to live with their parents)

How to help students with this issue:

  • Encourage the student to see the positives in their situation
  • Help the student identify factors they are in control of
  • Make links between these and things they want to change


Example: If a student feels they are losing their social connections as a result of a transition

How to help students with this issue:

  • Encourage them to build new networks
  • Offer repeat appointments
  • Maintain regular contact after appointments


Example: If a situation feels unfair to a student or if their job search is not immediately rewarding

How to help students with this issue:

  • Talk to the student about why comparisons are important to them
  • Get them to reflect about successes they have had and how others might have felt
  • Use modelling; encourage the student to identify action others are taking

Final thoughts

David Rock’s SCARF model provides a really useful way to understand and reflect on our students’ approach-avoid responses and the impact this may have on their career thinking and decision-making.

By being mindful of or even openly discussing a student’s threat response (or ‘stress trigger’ which may be a more accessible term) we can work towards reducing its negative impact, and even better they can actually become powerful tools for self-improvement. At the same time, becoming more reflective, self-aware and conscious of our own stress triggers will be of great benefit to the work we do as careers professionals.

Further reading on how to use the SCARF model

If you’re interested in how to use the SCARF model with your students (or seeing how it applies to you) a good place to start is the free SCARF questionnaire. To learn about the social neuroscience that underpins the model, as well as how to manage stress triggers, take a look at the article ‘SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others’.

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