20 Tips for Supporting Students’ Mental Health This Fall
As we head back to school this fall, school buildings, rules and protocols, and the way educators and students interact will look very different. All of these changes combined with outside stressors can cause anxiety and trauma for students. Along with practicing your own self care, use the tips below to help you support students’ mental health in school or virtually, and share the parent tips with caregivers for at-home support.
10 Tips to Help Teachers Support Students’ Mental Health
1. Talk About the Knowns and Unknowns
The expectations that our students have of school and what they view as “normal” from the pre-COVID era are simply not possible in the current world that we live in. As students get back into classrooms this fall, whether virtually or physically, it will be important to address the changes that have taken place.
Just like adults, children take comfort in the “knowns,” the familiar. Try to frontload for them the things that will remain the same and the things that have changed or will change about how their school day will function. This will help to reduce some of the anxiety that students are sure to be feeling.
2. Track Student Trauma
For a few years now, many schools have focused their attention on the topic of trauma. If you currently work in a school setting, trauma is a word that is most likely discussed on a regular basis.
We know that every single student has experienced different levels of trauma. It is difficult to know how many of our students will have experienced trauma of some sort due to COVID-19. There are many elements that could come into play here. It will be important to check in with each student individually in some way to be able to assess if they need additional support. One simple way to accomplish this is to give a survey to your class in the first few days of school using an anonymous format such as a Google Form. You can include some of the following questions:
- Have you felt safe from the time that we were last in our school building until now?
- Do you feel safe coming back to school? Please tell me why or why not.
- What would help you feel safer here at school?
- Have you felt afraid or worried over the past few months? Please tell me more about that.
- What have you worried about the most over the past few months?
- What kinds of activities have you found fun, relaxing, or enjoyable over the past few months?
3. Create Peer Connections
It is our human nature to interact physically with one another, and a lack of connection with peers can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression in some children. Whether our students return virtually or in person, it will be important to find creative ways to connect with each other. Connections can include things like regular zoom check-ins, writing letters to each other, and playing games virtually.
4. Stay Connected to Families
The transition back to school this fall will be difficult for not only students but parents and caregivers as well. If using a virtual platform, some parents may be worried about academics, lack of connection to peers and teachers, and their child’s interest level and stamina for virtual learning. If going back in person, parent concerns may be more related to safety, finding different ways for their child to connect with peers, and their child’s emotional well-being. Creating a consistent way to connect with families will help ease these transitions.
Start by sharing the 10 tips for parents below before the start of the school year to help ease their anxiety.
5. Focus on Safety, Safety, Safety
Entering back into school during a global pandemic definitely brings with it anxiety regarding safety. Students and staff alike will have varying degrees of emotions. Everyone wants to feel safe in their environment, whether it is virtual or in person. Take these steps to ensure everyone feels safe:
- Focus on your safety as a staff member first so that you can feel more at ease while helping your students feel safe. This might mean having a HEPA filter, masks that make you feel safe and comfortable, stocking up on cleaning supplies, or repositioning furniture in your library or classroom.
- If students are attending in person, it will be essential to check in with them to see how they are feeling and what the school district can do to help each student feel safe in the school environment.
- If teaching in a virtual environment, it will also be important to note the environment that your student is living in and report any concerns that you may have regarding their safety in their home.
6. Practice Honesty as the Best Policy
With all of the changes that have occurred within the last few months, children will be looking to the adults around them for reassurance. Using honesty about your own experiences can ease some of the stress that they might be feeling and create a common ground. Some dialogue examples include the following:
- “The past few months have been difficult for me too.”
- “I have also been feeling that way lately.”
- “All of these changes have been hard for all of us, but we will work together to get through this.”
7. Look for Signs and Behaviors
When thinking about supporting your student’s mental health, it is important to know the signs to look for and when to have a member of your pupil services team intervene and give additional support. Some of these signs include the following:
- Being socially withdrawn
- Intense irritability and anger
- Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
- Comments indicating thoughts or plans of suicide such as, “No one would care if I wasn’t here.”
8. Put Social-Emotional Learning Before Academics
With children missing much of their academics during the last quarter of the 2019–2020 school year, many school districts are racing to close the academic gap. While this is certainly important, we must remember that it is difficult for our students to attend to learning when their social and emotional needs have not been met. Taking the time to support your students in this area will have a positive impact on their learning.
9. Build Community
Creating a safe, nurturing environment that allows your students to feel comfortable sharing their feelings with one another is an essential part of supporting their mental health needs in the school setting. Many districts are building this community time into their daily schedules. Some terms for this time are morning meetings or community circles. Use this time to check in and support one another to build a strong community in your classroom.
10. Prioritize Self-Care
Last, but certainly not least, it is important to teach and practice self-care. With all that is going on in the world today, both children and adults need to prioritize taking care of themselves. There are so many wonderful resources for teachers to use in their classrooms to foster self-care. Resources include the following:
10 Tips for Parents
1. Prepare Your Child In Advance
More than any other year in your child’s educational career it will be important for you to prepare your child mentally prior to school starting. There will be so many changes in their daily schedules, and it will be extremely helpful for you to talk with them ahead of time about these changes. Some of these topics may include the following:
- Make wearing: Talk about the proper way to wear a mask and when they will be required to wear one, and reinforce why it is important.
- Social distancing: Talk about maintaining a safe distance from other students and teachers.
- Hugging: This is a big one, especially in elementary schools. It is important to discuss with your child alternatives to hugging such as waving with a smile.
- Schedule changes: Student schedules will look different for both in-person and virtual learning. Walk your child through their schedule to help them get used to the timing and format.
2. Listen to Their Concerns and Validate Them
COVID-19 is scary for both children and adults alike. It is important to have an open conversation with your child about how they feel about going back in person (if applicable). For children who have intense anxiety about going back, you may need to consider online options if the stress of going back will affect their mental health in a negative way.
3. Help Them Feel Prepared
In past years, the end of summer brings the need for stocking up on school supplies, a few new clothes, and a shiny new backpack. While they may still be needing those items, there are other ways that you can set your child up for success in this time of COVID-19. Feeling like we are prepared helps our state of mind and mental health. It will be important for you to look at the list from your child’s school for specific supplies, but here are a few items that can help ease anxiety and set your child up for success this year.
- Fun, colorful masks that represent who they are
- Hand sanitizer in all their favorite scents
- A small stockpile of gloves, just in case
- Fidgets that might help ease anxiety
4. Keep Them Connected
Whether your child will be attending school in person or virtually, being connected to their peers will be both very different and vastly important. Helping them to find safe and fun ways to be social is a must! Here are some fun ideas to accomplish this:
- Start a virtual book club.
- Send letters or care packages through the mail.
- Check in over FaceTime or another video tool.
- Play video games together virtually.
5. Stay Flexible
As the state of things in our current world changes minute to minute, it will be important for you to be flexible with your children as well as the school your child attends. Have a plan in place for your family in case things change quickly. This will help ensure the well-being of your child and decrease your anxiety.
6. Look for Signs and Behaviors
It’s extremely important to pay close attention to your child’s behavior and what that behavior is telling you. Most importantly, if you have any concerns about your child’s mental health, do not hesitate to reach out for help from a therapist or a pupil services member at your child’s school.
7. Keep the Lines of Communication Open
With all the social distancing we’re doing, it’s easy to start feeling lonely, depressed, and disconnected. It is so important to keep the lines of communication open with your child and provide daily moments where you can check in one-on-one to see how they are doing and feeling.
8. Give Yourself a Little Grace with Electronics Usage
Prior to COVID-19, most of us had rules and limitations regarding our child’s screen time. It was easier for us to limit these activities at that time because our children had other things to keep them occupied. Now, with unlimited hours at home and the combination of social distancing and almost all events being canceled, it is much harder to pull our children away from the screens. Give yourself and your children a little grace and a little more time on screens if you must. Once everything is open again, the screens won’t be as appealing and balance can be restored once more.
9. Soften Your Words
When we think about the many hours that we have logged recently with our family members, it’s easy to understand that many of us have gotten to the point where we have become a bit “short” with one another. It is important that we consciously work to soften our words and our tones if we have fallen into these patterns. The way that we talk to our children has an impact on how they feel about themselves and their mental health overall.
10. Create Hygge
“Hygge” may be a word that you have either never heard of or that you have come across regularly as of late. The term hygge is a Danish and Norwegian word for “a mood of coziness and comfort with feelings of wellness and contentment.” Creating an environment of hygge in your home can start with simple things such as lighting candles, diffusing essential oils, reading books together, snuggling with fluffy blankets, or baking your favorite pie. Having these moments of hygge can foster positive mental health in your children as well as the rest of the family.