Its likely that at least 3 of the students in your classroom right now suffer from mental illness of some type.
1 in 5 children between the ages of 13-18 suffer from mental illness. 1 in 10 children between ages 5-16 suffer from a diagnosed mental condition. These children are at higher risk of dropping out, substance abuse, trouble with the law, trouble learning, self-harm, and a host of lifelong struggles that are exacerbated when not addressed early.
As a teacher, you can help!
Here are 7 ways to support these students:
1. Relationship Development
What's good for students with mental health issues is good for all students. Establishing relationships is key to any healthy classroom, but you knew that already! Some key tips that help build a supportive mental health environment for your students are as follows:
- Comfortable physical enviroment (appropriately sized chairs and reading nooks, muted lighting)
- Student work displayed prominently and updated frequently
- Clean and uncluttered work environment
- School-wide activities and cross-grade groupings
- Multi-age recess
Students should feel that the whole school has a culture of support and care, and that their individual contributions are celebrated!
2. Family Involvement
Home visits have gone by the wayside in many school districts, but can be critical opportunities to connect and have face-time with caregivers and parents.
Other ways to create a system of support for students with mental health issues is to provide parenting classes, support services, and myriad opportunities for parent involvement during and outside of school hours.
The family connection is arguably one of the most important for students. True mental health support cannot funtion well without the involvement of the home support system.
3. Recognize Warning Signs
All teachers know to look for radical changes in students. Grades slipping suddenly, behavior markedly different, agitation, exhaustion, withdrawl or lashing out, all point to something of concern to address.
However, did you also know to look for an uptick in fidgeting, disorganization or looking flushed? Paying attention to early warning signs can make a huge difference in their lives.
4. Identify Resources
Does your school have a counselor or psychologist on staff? Are you familiar with the referral process? Do you have some contacts of local counselors who work with children? All of these connections to resources help.
Additionally, do your support staff personel (secretaries, lunch workers, paraprofessionals, etc) also know how to access these resources for students? This web of connection is key for supporting students.
5. Engage the Whole Class
Daily class meetings and self-management practices (reflective assessments, journaling) are good for the whole class. Collaborative problem solving (talking though problems as a whole group) are also invaluable for all students and especially for those with mental illness. Remember that teaching social skills is high on your priority list. The hours you spend with students can change the world of tomorrow by teaching future leaders to engage with care and cooperation!
6. Respond with Calm & Confidence
Earlier we mentioned practicing stress management techniques with the students and in front of the students. Modeling deep breathing, stretching, or taking a quick break is immensely important for students to see.
Even more, it is critical that your response as a teacher is not based in emotion or frustration, but in practiced care. What brings about the best outcome in students? Research and practice show that your response needs to be calm, confident, and consistent.
7. Teach & Model Stress Management Techniques
Let the students see you stop and take a few deep breaths after you've rushed in late because of traffic or after a lockdown drill. Let them see you use these techniques and then lead them in the same when they are taking tests, or when there has been a disruption to class. It is almost impossible to quantify how meaningful it is to have students witness you practicing what you preach.
Students with mental health issues especially need to see this. They will learn, as they grow, that stress exacerbates whatever symptoms they usually have. They will be asked by therapists and doctors to learn these mindfullness practices to manage their illness and surely they benefit all of us. Give them a head start by making them part of your school day in a visible way.
The students in your classroom with mental health issues rely on you for guidance and support just like the other students, and have specific needs. You can meaningfully and positively impact their educational journey by practicing these techniques.
What benefits have you seen in your classroom?