Authors: Holly Brazell, Alanda Posey, Victoria Salvat, Jamie Whitlock, Logan Wright
According to a 2019 Pew Research Poll, anxiety and depression are on the rise. Whether teens are personally struggling with these conditions themselves or know other students who do, mental health is a significant issue they face daily. Most students are faced with individual graduation plans and long term goals in the eighth grade. Students are more aware of the competitive admissions process along with the cost and want to provide options for themselves. When it comes to these pressures, academics tops the list with 61% of teens saying they feel the pressure to get good grades (Pew Research Center, 2019). As educators, we see our students every day in the environment that is causing much of the stress.
When considering the why behind monitoring and supporting emotional and mental health in schools, we must turn to the students. Jamie Whitlock, a SCASCD Emerging Leader and instructional coach, recalls an experience she had with a group of young ladies in her building:
"Recently, I was with a small group of seventh and eighth grade girls and I asked them why they feel so much pressure when it comes to school. I imagined I would hear them say that they felt they had to get all A’s for their parents or that their parents expected good grades and they did not want to disappoint them. Ironically, the six girls sitting with me told me that they felt the most pressure from their friends. As soon as a test was given back, they would ask one other what their grades were, and they were embarrassed or ashamed if they had the lowest grade. I feel as a teacher that this is a perfect opportunity to teach social awareness and relationship skills. Learning to be gentle and kind can have more impact on student success than the grade they were given on a test. “By teaching them [students] grit, resiliency, and self-care, you’re teaching a toolbox for any stress they may face,” emphasized Barbara Truluck, a middle school counselor who was recently named Georgia’s 2019 Counselor of the Year. Using mindfulness activities and building resiliency in students will give them skills to be better problem solvers and collaborators."
Teachers tend to expect their students to leave the drama and stresses of their lives outside of the classroom at the door and to focus on the task at hand not realizing how big of an ask that can be. Our students and teachers are struggling with mental and emotional health now more than ever. From feeling safe in the building to feeling overwhelmed with expectation, we can not expect students and teachers to overcome those obstacles themselves. So now we ask ourselves, how can we help? How can we help our students and teachers leave the drama at the door and not feel the weight of the world around them in the classroom?
Social and Emotional Learning
Integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) into the classroom setting is key. We have to look beyond just teaching content and remember that we are often the adults our students interact with most during the day. SEL focuses on students interactions with one other, responses to challenging situations, creating and maintaining positive relationships, decision making, and preconceived notions they come into the classroom with. Ultimately, integrating SEL means developing resilience and empathy. These are two key components to mental health and emotional well being.
SEL focuses on five main competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. A major mistake that is made with integrating SEL into a school culture is treating each competency as a separate lesson, as a once a month focus. This type of learning is continuous and should be fully integrated into the everyday experiences of students.
Monitoring for mental health issues requires us as educators to know when a change has occurred. We have to devote time to talking with our students about their day, and learning what their life is like. We must be prepared to check in daily to recognize a shift or pattern. A great way to incorporate this daily check is to greet each student at the door. Allow the student to pick a greeting and engage in a personal moment with that student. Simply being greeted by name while shaking the teacher’s hand or being given a “high five” can cause a positive mood shift. To be aware, we as teachers have to be present and engaged with our students every day.
Sometimes we get overwhelmed and bogged down in our endless to do lists. Taking time to meditate can be a huge game changer when we are feeling groggy and foggy. Sites like calm.com facilitate short meditation moments that can be used personally or in the classroom. Imagine meditating with your students before a big test. Getting in the right mindset and releasing the tension of the day can help relieve stress and refocus the mind.
Mental Health Services
Mental Health Services in schools may often be overlooked by teachers and parents. Often the lack of knowledge about the services are the roadblock to students getting the help that they need. Each school district in South Carolina has resources and partnerships available which provide needed programs and services . For teachers, there are resources such as the Employee Assistance Program that offer counselling or referral services for a range of issues.
As school leaders, we must know and realize that there is no time like the present to monitor and support the emotional and mental needs of all of our students. Creating awareness and giving students tools to cope with the stressors in their lives not only make them better students but also contributes to long term success. Likewise, teachers need to be aware of their own mental state and find the resources or support needed to prevent burnout or mental exhaustion. Teachers have countless responsibilities, duties, roles, and expectations placed on them everyday. Taking care of our students and ourselves must be paramount. As a community, we must be supportive of the emotional growth and needs of our students and continue to support monitoring mental health as well as social and emotional learning in our schools.