by Pam Clifton
Getting enough exercise, taking all your vitamins, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, drinking lots of water, getting a good night’s sleep and so on and so forth — all of these things are necessary to stay healthy.
Mental wellness is also a vital part of one’s overall health, but maintaining this is not as simple as eating an apple, drinking a glass of water or taking a long walk. When someone is physically ill, they seek medical treatment, like for a broken bone or sinus infection. However, people do not often seek treatment for mental health issues. In fact, some are often embarrassed and hide their struggles instead.
Research has proven there is a connection between mental health and academic performance. When students are healthy, both physically and mentally, they are more likely to flourish academically. The importance of mental wellness became a timely topic when schools across the nation first came face to face with the COVID-19 pandemic. Students suddenly went from seeing their teachers and peers in class every day, to being completely isolated at home. Although some students connected through computers or other devices, many did not have those opportunities.
Prioritizing mental health
Ongoing COVID-19 concerns and lack of human interaction have taken a toll on kids. With schools shut down, many students were not motivated to learn and struggled academically. They experienced stress and had difficulty coping with anxiety. The current generation of students is experiencing the highest rate of mental health issues that schools have ever seen. So, now is the time for schools to prioritize mental health.
Schools need to implement mental health education. Kids need to be given tools to manage challenges they face and be assured that their feelings are being acknowledged.
First, schools must increase awareness of mental health issues and emphasize the importance of self-care. This should take place in every grade, from pre-K through 12th grade.
Second, students and their families should learn about the recognition of mental health problems. In other words, what are some visible signs that someone is struggling with their mental health?
Third, watch for warning signs so early intervention can take place. Is the student experiencing changes in thinking or behavior? Does he or she seem depressed, nervous or anxious?
Fourth, those who struggle with mental health should receive support to manage negativity from others. Students and parents should receive information on mental wellness as well as how and where to access help.
Mental health education should also include teachers and staff because they must set a good example for students. Schools must promote positive mental health by encouraging open communication and encouraging kids to discuss important issues that affect their mental health. Educators need to make real connections with kids.
Connecting with kids
St. Charles R-6 teacher Ashley Horsfall said relationships and connections are such an important part of her school and classroom culture. The staff there learned about restorative practices and using circles in their classrooms to connect, resolve conflict and learn.
Horsfall starts each morning with a class circle. On Mondays, she asks students if there is one thing from the weekend that they would like to share. For other days, students share what they’re thankful for, what brings them joy, ways to spread kindness, how they own their learning to achieve success, how they’re currently feeling, and more.
The school counselor at Lincoln Elementary teaches students about the Zones of Regulation which allows everyone to share how they are feeling so they can best care for each other.
“Checking in with students in this way, first thing each morning, is so important and has become one of my favorite times of day,” said Horsfall.
She said students are never forced to share. But she’s learned that when students hear their friends share, they are also willing to be vulnerable, too.
“I think this time really allows us to see each other as real people and allows us to love and care for one another as well,” she said.
Because she values building relationships with her students, Horsfall gets to know her students “beyond academics.”
“When I am able to learn about my students’ interests, families, likes and dislikes, I am able to make connections for them even while we are learning,” she said. “Whether it is a math problem that mentions their favorite sport, or something else they have shared with me, or a book that has a character they connect to, I find that these things help to personalize their learning and help students have greater interest in what we are learning.”
Horsfall emphasized that this isn’t always easy and doesn’t always happen, but it is very impactful and makes learning come to life for her fourth-grade students.
She also discussed the importance of building time for students to connect with one another. “As much as I crave connection and relationships with my students, I must remember that they, too, crave connection and relationships with one another,” she said.
For example, after learning a new concept in math, students often have the chance to practice new skills with the support of a peer if they are not quite ready to work independently. Students who finish math or writing tasks and show proficiency are invited to offer support and feedback to other classmates as they work to complete tasks.
“What I have found is that students love to help each other,” Horsfall explained. “Allowing them the opportunity to support one another further strengthens their ability to explain their thinking and deepen their understanding of skills they are helping others with.”
Horsfall said independent work is important and collaborative learning is one way to support students on their way to independently accomplishing assigned tasks.
Personalizing student learning
When Leigh Rogers, a high school English teacher at South Callaway R-2, first became a teacher, she had the “make it work or you don’t, get tough or get out” attitude. She was strict with due dates and rarely worked around late assignments. She felt this approach was necessary to prepare students for college.
“I was very unaware of how much time I had in my life at that time and the privilege that time was,” she said.
Five years into her career when Rogers had her son, he became a huge wakeup call for her. She suddenly realized that time is a limited resource for some people, regardless of time management. She also discovered that anxiety is a “very real and terrifying condition and emotion and it’s not something someone can shut off.”
“If you are in a heightened state of anxiety on a regular basis, hardly anything exists outside of that anxiety,” she said.
This became even more apparent to Rogers as an adult trying to navigate her own mental wellbeing. She still did not fully understand how to prioritize her own mental health until after living in “constant survival mode for an entire year due to loss of sleep with a newborn and largely solo parenting while my husband traveled out of state for work.”
At one point, it became apparent to Rogers that her students were experiencing many of the mental health struggles she had gone through over the course of the previous year. However, they did not have all the resources and information she had to pull themselves out of a mental health crisis. That’s when she decided to prioritize mental health conversations in her classroom.
Although this has looked different over the last three years, Rogers has utilized a variety of strategies such as requiring students to use a planner to schedule a minimum of 15 minutes a day to do something they love, providing weekly mental health tips for productive habits and having them specifically explain their academic or organizational struggles to brainstorm solutions.
For her students who have not realized they are in a survival state of mind, they discuss time management throughout the week, plan, make priority lists, discuss the importance of taking time for themselves and set boundaries. Everything is a balancing act for students to accomplish goals, meet responsibilities and take care of themselves.
Rogers believes it’s important to teach her students how to set boundaries such as when to complete schoolwork and how to build in “me time” to focus on things they enjoy. In addition, they have classroom conversations about being aware of with whom they surround themselves.
“If you are constantly surrounding yourself with negative people and negative thoughts, it’s going to make you a pretty miserable person,” she said. “If you are spending more time being thankful and surrounding yourself with positive people who push you to be your best, you will be a happier and more driven person.”
As an English teacher, Rogers’s students use literature as a chance to explore text-to-self relations with books they read.
“We take a lot of time to look through the psychological lens of texts and examine why characters are feeling the way they are, making the choices they do and what may be the effects of those choices,” she said. “My hope is that students will make the connections to their own lives through these text relationships.”
Rogers said her school works to support mental health and emotional wellbeing with a monthly mental health checkup where students share how they’re feeling about school, life and more. Students’ responses then spark conversations with teachers. Daily positive intercom messages encourage students to reflect on their choices and whether they are harmful or advantageous.
Within her class, Rogers personalizes learning when possible. She used her experience from when she obtained her master’s degree while also teaching full-time. She realized the advantages of a class policy for flexible due dates, with one major due date. While some students struggle with the freedom and flexibility that comes with the one due date, many students find this policy manageable and have expressed their appreciation for this flexibility. Since implementing the policy, Rogers said many students have told her how this policy has allowed them to not feel so overwhelmed throughout the week and has given them more time to balance their workload from multiple classes. Students can also turn in completed assignments early.
In order to help her students plan for the week and alleviate unnecessary stress, Rogers posts the weekly agenda on Mondays, so students have an idea of what they’ll be working on in class each day. This helps if they are absent or anticipate having a busy week. Students have access to the assignments at the beginning of the week and can schedule time that works for them to complete the assignments.
In addition to these two approaches, Rogers provides scaffolding when necessary to individualize steps to the final product of an assignment.
“This isn’t always easy, but I try to recognize where students are struggling the most and provide the scaffolding necessary to help get them to that final product,” she said. “I am very persistent about not lowering my expectations and running a rigorous classroom, but I know some of us need more help than others.”
Rogers tries to schedule one-on-one time with students as frequently as possible to help facilitate those steps and get them to where they need to be in her class.
Within her classroom, Rogers has desks arranged in groups of four to encourage academic group talk, group reflection, peer teaching and more. She also takes time to listen to her students’ grievances.
“It is very easy to write off complaints or just ignore students entirely, but when kids voice concerns, frustrations or complaints, it’s often the only way they know how to express those anxieties, fears, etc.,” she said. “While it is necessary to sometimes ignore the complaints, I have also learned that ignoring them too much creates too great of an emotional divide between you and that student.”
Rogers said just like adults, students need to be seen and heard. Allowing her students a forum to start a conversation teaches them how to express their concerns properly and professionally.
“Some of these kids really lack in those conversational pieces that are so necessary for success in advocating for oneself,” she said. “Therefore, by creating an open floor for dialogue, my hope is to not only have my students feel heard, but to also teach them those skills that I hope will make them more productive and successful once they leave high school.”
Planning a healthier, happier future
Prioritizing kids’ mental health and emotional wellbeing is crucial in achieving a happy, healthy and successful future.
American athlete Simone Biles, one of the most accomplished gymnasts in the world, earned much respect and elevated her status as a role model when she took a stand on an important matter. While competing at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, she did something no one expected: she withdrew from multiple competitions to “work on mindfulness.” Although she declined to compete in several events, she returned to win a bronze medal in the women’s balance beam final.
“I say put mental health first,” Biles said in July 2021.
When she took a stand and made her mental wellness a priority, she showed kids and adults why self-care is not only important but necessary.
Pam Clifton teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts and reading at West County Middle School in West St. Francois Co. R-4. She can be contacted by email at email@example.com.