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Mental health in schools: How to promote positivity

More children and young people are struggling to cope with their mental health. How can teachers help promote positive mental health in schools?

In every school, there are children and young people struggling with their mental health. Teachers are well placed to make a difference to these students by creating classrooms that promote learning, safety, inclusion and engagement for all. With one in eight pupils found to have a mental health disorder (NHS Digital, 2017), promoting positive mental health in schools has never been so important.

Schools have always had a focus on physical wellbeing, but the idea of tackling mental health is relatively new. A UK wide initiative was announced in February 2019. Around 370 schools will take part in a trial aimed at supporting mental health and wellbeing. Adapted from Physical and Health Education in Canada, this article gives you the tools needed to promote positive mental health in the classroom.

Understanding mental health and resilience

Mental health has various names. These include emotional health, emotional wellbeing, resilience and mental illness. It’s defined by the World Health Organization (2014) as “a state of well-being in which… [an] individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Thinking about mental health as not just a lack of illness but also the presence of wellness has given us insight into how to engage and include students in the classroom. To help us better understand the illness and wellness parts of mental health, we can look at the dual continuum model (figure 1) offered by Keyes (2002).

Mental Health in Schools Diagram

A student could have a mental illness yet experience positive mental wellbeing if they’re engaged in effective treatment and have a good support network. On the other hand, a student that doesn’t have a mental illness can experience low levels of mental wellbeing for various reasons. You can look around for examples and invite your students to do the same. Many successful athletes including Michael Phelps, Ricky Hatton and Clarke Carlisle have all been open about their battles with mental health.

When we combine the ideas of illness and wellness, we can create a valuable framework for including children and supporting their healthy development. Wellbeing includes both emotional components (e.g. happiness, life satisfaction) and psychological components (e.g. self-acceptance, sense of purpose). Luckily, there are a few things we can do in the classroom to help students develop self-awareness, healthy coping skills, good relationships and independence.

Noticing student mental health and behaviour

According to research from 2015, one in five children worldwide will develop a diagnosable mental illness. Additionally, many mental illnesses emerge between the ages of four and 24. With recent news stories about children’s tragic struggles with mental health, it’s hard to ignore the sudden rise in mental health problems among young people.

Teachers are well placed to notice and attend to students’ mental health in at least three ways:

  1. As you gain more experience, you’ll see the difference between typical and atypical development. Do you notice a child that’s unable to function whilst others thrive? You can also look for attendance patterns, those arriving late or leaving early. Missing part of the school day can be linked with anxiety. Try letting these children come into class five minutes early. This practice lets them get settled in before the rest of class arrives. Allowing them to start lessons with calmness, instead of heightened anxiety.
  2. You’ll often see students in situations that place high demands on their concentration, emotional regulation, ability to cope with stress and ability in both play and social situations. Do you see differences in how they cope with structured and unstructured time? Are they with peers or on their own? Think about the child that always seems to be on the outside of things, perhaps looking unmotivated or disengaged. When children aren’t coping with stress they often act out or become withdrawn.
  3. You build relationships with children in many ways. You have the opportunity to welcome them into your classroom, get to know them and make your class a safe place to be. If you know a student’s struggling with something, make space for them and ask how they’re doing. Students might not want to share, but they’ll know that you noticed. This can be a powerful experience for children feeling alone or isolated.

Different types of stress

Children are pretty observant, they learn how to interpret their own stress by watching others. They tend to do well if they’re told what they’re feeling is helpful. In these cases, they focus on learning the skills necessary to succeed in the given situation. If they’re successful, the stress disappears. They learn from this and apply the same strategies going forward.

Stress occurs whenever we’re faced with a challenge or change in our environment that demands our adaptation.

On the other hand, if children are told what they’re feeling is harmful, then they might spend a lot of their time trying to shut down the stress or avoid the situation. Both of these outcomes can lead to poor adaptation and decreased resilience. As a teacher, it’s important to remember you play a key role in helping students deal with stress constructively.

However, not all stress is the same. People forget that huge differences between these various types exist. As a result, they often confuse everyday stress with toxic stress. This confusion might explain why many educators view stress as bad. When in fact, most stress is healthy and necessary for human growth. The Harvard Center for the Developing Child summarises three types of stress. These include:

  • Positive stress response: A normal and essential part of healthy development. For children this could be things like meeting a new teacher, going to a new school or performing on stage.
  • Tolerable stress response: This activates the body’s alert systems to a higher degree than positive stress responses. For children this could be moving house, family bereavements or being diagnosed with a chronic disease (e.g. asthma or diabetes).
  • Toxic stress response: This can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent or prolonged adversity. These include unsafe housing, physical or emotional abuse and chronic neglect.

Helping students manage stress

Here are some strategies to keep in mind when helping students develop the skills to cope with stress.

  • If possible, give students choices regarding assessments. A student that experiences performance-related anxiety is likely to be negatively influenced by the anxiety.
  • Start small and focus on building their capacity. We all benefit from opportunities to learn, practice and receive constructive feedback.
  • Explore simple ways to build a sense of mastery in your classroom. For example, you could use cooperative learning.

There are also some individual factors to consider.

  • Does the student possess the necessary skills to complete the task? Some students might need coaching or extra practice.
  • Is the person naturally more open or more resistant to new experiences? Some students might need encouragement and time to explore new experiences.
  • Is the person generally more anxious or less anxious? For students who tend to be more anxious about life in general, being reminded of times when they coped effectively with anxiety can help them generalise the relevant skills to new situations. 
  • Is the task simple, clearly explained and well resourced (e.g., in terms of time, materials, and support)? It can be helpful to break a large task into smaller steps, provide tools (e.g., an outline) and reminders (e.g., posters or instruction sheets), and check in frequently. 

Normalising discussions about mental health in schools

Talking about mental health can be a challenge. It’s natural to feel apprehensive about doing so. Yet, talking about mental health more normalises it, sending messages to students that it’s OK to talk about it.

The key to teaching about mental health is to make it part of everyday experiences. One way to do so is to recognise the natural and well-established connections between mental and physical health. In this way, you can help students understand that learning how to cope with stress and distress is an essential part of healthy living. Check your language and help students develop the vocabulary to describe mental health in ways that avoid mocking, minimising, and excluding. Talk about stereotypes, stigmas and being part of a community in which people support and care for each other.

Further reading

Header photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

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Hi, I’m Hannah, marketing assistant and one of the bloggers here at Human Kinetics Europe. I wasn’t blessed with the coordination to play most sports, but that’s not stopped me becoming a great watcher of them. Particularly when it comes to football! So I’m here to bring you all you need to know about exciting new product releases and the latest in sport, fitness and PE.

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