Promoting Good Mental Health in Schools
Over the past few years, the emphasis placed on mental health in schools has helped to lessen the stigma surrounding mental health. But many children still struggle to communicate their feelings, know what resources are available, and understand that difficulties with mental health are nothing to be ashamed of. Luckily, there are steps that teachers and administrators can take to strengthen the mental health of their students.
What Issues Affect Student Mental Health?
One of the most important steps to improving mental health in schools is understanding what affects students’ mental health. Children can experience many of the same struggles that adults do, like depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. But, there are also unique pressures and struggles that children face, including:
- Learning difficulties and test-related stress
- Social media and the increasing role of technology in children’s lives
- Developmental differences
- Being LGBTQ+
- Body image and eating disorders
- Struggles making friends and handling social situations
What Can Schools Do for Mental Health?
School is a huge part of children’s developmental upbringing. While schools often focus on cognitive health, emotional wellbeing is just as important. Luckily, there are many ways teachers and administrators can help improve mental health in schools.
Know the Signs
The first step to bettering mental health in your classroom or your school is knowing the signs of a mental health problem, and how they differ in children versus adults. Symptoms that may be unique to students include:
- Sudden disinterest in learning or dropping grades
- Disinterest in subjects or hobbies they previously loved
- Withdrawing from social groups (on the playground, during group work, at lunch)
- Being constantly sad, scared, or anxious
- Self-harming or talking about self-harming (even if it appears to be joking)
- Sudden and inappropriate behavioral outbursts
- Mood swings and personality changes
Please note: Since children go through such rapid development, it’s crucial to consult a doctor and rule out health and other learning concerns before addressing mental health issues.
Educate & Involve Parents
As a teacher, you spend upwards of 35 hours a week with your students. Depending on their parents’ work schedules and their family situation, you may spend more time with them than their own parents. While a parent may think their child has just had a bad day, or even a bad week, you may be the first one to flag ongoing behavioral changes.
Parental involvement isn’t easy, but it’s important to do what you can to educate parents on the signs of mental health struggles in children. Plus, it’s important to keep them involved if you notice any changes in their child’s behavior.
Talk About It
The stigma around mental health does not go unnoticed, even by children. It’s crucial to teach students that it’s always OK to talk about their feelings and that you will always be there to listen and help.
One of the best ways to reduce the stigma around mental health in schools is to be a role model in your classroom. Talk about feelings with your class. Think out loud and model how to handle disappointment, anger, and frustration. Show how you can turn these feelings into resilience, creativity, and confidence.
If you want to extend the conversation, consider celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month in May in your classroom with some of these activities for mental health:
- Read stories about characters who struggle with their mental health
- Have students draw themselves and highlight what makes them different and special in a positive way
- Discuss bullying and what students can do to help themselves or another student if they are being bullied
- Talk about how students can turn negative feelings into positive ones
- Have students create metaphors or draw each of their different feelings
- Read a story aloud and have students react to it with facial expressions
The more we talk about and normalize mental health in schools, the more likely our students are to come to us or go to another trusted adult when they aren’t feeling like themselves.
Many times, a student’s mental health difficulties will be outside what you are able to help with, since you have so many other students. For this reason, it’s key to develop a network of support between teachers, guidance counselors, administrative staff, and even online resources. Knowing what resources are available will help you help your students find the care they need.
Here are a few great online resources to get you started:
- The Association for Children’s Mental Health
- The National Institute of Mental Health
- Children’s National®
- Child Mind® Institute
Mental Health in Schools During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a whole new set of mental health issues for students. Many of them are now learning virtually or in a hybrid model, and nearly all of them have seen major changes to their routine and home life. They may also have anxiety about COVID-19 itself, depending on how much they understand about the pandemic and how much their parents have explained to them.
Learning from home has also affected students’ social lives, as they aren’t able to see friends or practice social skills. They may develop difficulties sitting still, waiting their turn, or sharing without the structure of school and the classroom setting.
Furthermore, many students now have no easy access to a guidance counselor, especially if they wish to see a counselor without their parents’ knowledge. With working parents, students may not receive the one-on-one attention needed to notice and address changes in their behavior and mood.
How Can You Help?
Whether you’re teaching virtually, in the classroom, or a mix of both, speak out about mental health in schools. Send resources to parents to help them monitor their children’s mental health from home. Talk to students about the importance of talking through feelings. And try to find ways to spend one-on-one time with students, even if you just ask them to send you a personal email each week about how they’re doing. Keeping mental health top of mind will help your students now and in the long run when they return to school.