In the last three years, the likelihood of young people having mental health problems has increased by 50%. According to a report by The Health Foundation, one in six children aged six to 16 in England had a probable mental health condition in 2021, up from one in nine in 2017. The COVID-19 school closures in 2020 impacted many children and adolescents’ mental health and wellbeing and some are still paying the price today.
As teachers, it is essential to listen to students’ concerns and show understanding as well as empathy. And there are many ways teachers can support children’s mental health in the classroom.
Creating a safe and supportive environment
One thing teachers can do is model good coping behaviours for students. Teachers can be positive role models for their class. Children will look at you and learn from the skills you use daily to deal with stressful situations. Be calm, honest, and caring, and show a positive attitude towards your pupils.
Teachers should make time to check in with their students. They can talk about how they are feeling in groups or one-on-one. Teachers can create a safe and supportive environment for children to talk about their mental health by creating an environment where the class feels they can communicate feelings, thoughts, and emotions with their peers and teachers.
Providing children with a safe and supportive environment encourages them to
- try new things
- make mistakes
- learn and grow
- explore their emotions without fear of judgement or punishment.
Regularly asking your class how they’re doing can help them get used to talking about their feelings and know there’s always someone there to listen. To help with this, teachers can set up spaces within the classroom or school that promote collaboration and conversation. This could be a circle with materials to collaborate on (whiteboard, group games, etc.). Spaces that promote self-reflection may be set up with more privacy or comforting materials (e.g., sensory activities, journaling, or other mindfulness tools).
Mental health: identifying signs in pupils
According to the Mental Health Foundation, 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 (meaning these issues will continue to affect them in later life) and 20% of all adolescents will struggle with their mental health at any given point in the year.
Findings suggest that one in five children in a classroom of 30 is likely to have a mental health problem today. There are warning signs that may indicate that a pupil may be experiencing mental health issues. Some signs include:
- Changes in mood e.g., sadness that lasts two weeks or more
- Changes in behaviour or personality (fighting, anxiety)
- Withdrawing from/avoiding social interactions
- Hurting oneself/talking about hurting oneself
- Talking about death/suicide
- Intense emotions including outbursts or irritability/anger
- Out-of-control behaviour that can be harmful
- Difficulty concentrating (decreased performance in school)
- Unexplained weight loss or changes in appetite
- Physical symptoms such as frequent headaches/stomach aches
Be attentive to changes in students’ behaviours. Watch out for any warning signs of child behaviour that interfere with their ability to explore, play, and learn.
Mental health: strategies for responding
Teachers can provide lots of support if they feel a pupil is struggling. There are strategies that teachers can use to respond in a compassionate and effective way to pupils with mental health issues. These include :
- building supportive relationships
- creating a classroom environment where students feel they belong
- promoting good mental health
- preventing bullying and cyberbullying.
Staying active can have positive effects on mental health. It can reduce stress, anxiety and other mental health issues, and increase self-esteem (Mental Health Foundation, 2021; NHS, 2019). Encourage pupils to build physical activity into their daily routines, from taking a walk to participating in extracurricular sports activities.
With the daily pressures of teaching and increased workload, it isn’t uncommon for a teacher to go by a day without having a single conversation with their students. Some teachers put by ten minutes aside before lunchtime to catch up with their class. The catch-up is a welcome brain break from learning and strengthens the teacher-student relationship.
Tutoring and teaching assistants
Teachers may need to provide extra learning support if a pupil is finding it difficult to learn or concentrate. Tutors can help build trust and rapport with a student who might be suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety, and/or shyness.
Playing background music at the start and end of the day. A 2022 study found that mental health interventions featuring music helped boost self-esteem, decrease social isolation, and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in teenagers.
There are resources with strategies to help teachers.
- The UK government has published a list of sources of mental health support for teachers.
- The Mental Health Foundation has a Make it Count guide for teachers with suggestions for how teachers can help pupils look after their mental health in the classroom and school.
- The Anna Freud NCCF has free resources promoting positive mental health and outlining the importance of consistency and routine for wellbeing.
When more support is needed
There has been a 77% rise in children needing specialist treatment for severe mental health in England. As a teacher, you might need to refer a pupil to child protection services or mental health professionals for specialist help. Teachers who suspect severe mental health issues should access support services as a student might need counselling or other specialist support. Schools also need to clearly signpost areas where staff and pupils can go for support and advice on mental health.
Education is about providing children with the skills and knowledge they’ll need for life. By equipping them with tools to manage and understand their mental health, teachers are setting their pupils up to become happier, healthier adults.