How Can Teachers Support Student Mental Health During COVID-19?
As teachers everywhere gear up to go back to school in various settings this Fall, one thing is for certain: they need to be prepared to deal with a number of issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic, chief among them being impacts to student mental health. If they’re lucky, teachers have a team of support staff in the form of school counselors and psychologists to help assist students, but even so, much of the work will fall to teachers to help keep students in a headspace where they are able to learn. As the people who spend the most time with students, teachers must incorporate support for mental health into their classrooms.
Acknowledge the Change
This school year will look differently for many students than any before it. Many students will be going back to school virtually, and those that are going back in person may be required to take extra safety precautions like mask-wearing and sitting far away from others. Teachers can and should name the differences and recognize that this situation is not what most of us expected when we imagined Fall 2020 in the past. Many teachers will have inclusive policies that do not require videos to be on. They may not be able to see their students, but students will be watching and taking their cues from how teachers respond and discuss these topics. Weave emotion into early lessons and provide opportunity to name feelings, even if individually. This acknowledgment lets students know that it’s okay to discuss what they are going through and signals that they’re not alone in having feelings about what has happened and what is happening now.
Along with acknowledging that things have changed, it is important to recognize that with unfulfilled expectations comes disappointment and loss. Whether it be canceled culmination ceremonies, graduations, summer experiences, or starting a new school year in person, students have missed out on a lot of important transition markers in the past few months. While it is the teacher’s role to get students excited about upcoming learning and the wonderful work to be done this year, negative feelings and what has been lost should be addressed to allow students to process the experiences and orient towards the future.
As teachers address loss, grief should be specifically called out and addressed. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have died as a result of COVID-19, and few children have been left unaffected by the death of a loved one, continued news and social media coverage of what is happening, or even by messaging from schools about risk and safety concerns. Teachers should understand that grief may show up differently in kids and adolescents, and recognize the differences between students processing grief in a healthy way and those who might require further intervention from a mental health professional. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) (2015), children may display grief through:
- Regressive behaviors
- Social withdrawal
- Anger at the deceased
- Decreased verbalization, attention and concentration, academic performance, or attendance
- Increased anxiety, irritability, aggression, or high-risk behaviors
- Somatic complaints, including stomachs and headaches
- Sleep or eating disturbances
- Repeated re-telling of the event
For the most part, these symptoms are representative of healthy processing and should be given space and support to be expressed, especially in the first few weeks and months of school as students adjust. However, teachers should especially look out for those who express suicidal ideation, excessively imitate lost loved ones, are unable to focus due to thoughts of the deceased, or exhibit the symptoms listed above for an extended period of time.
Provide Means for Students to Express Themselves in Multiple Ways
Given that students are comfortable expressing themselves in different ways, it is important that teachers provide different activities to help students process their thoughts and feelings during this time. For some, discussing in small groups will be best, while others might feel more comfortable writing in a chatbox for a group or in a personal journal, drawing, or creating some other form of art to process what is happening.
The most important part of supporting student mental health during this time is providing space and time to do so. While incorporating additional mental health supports into classroom routines may feel like an imposition to already bulging lesson plans, working to address and process feelings now will lead to students who are more ready and available for learning down the road.
For more resources on supporting student and staff mental health, check out this free toolkit for schools put together by the author and colleagues for the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center: Back to School After COVID-19: Supporting Student and Staff Mental Health Toolkit.
Asby, D., Farrise, K., Mason, C., Sumski, A., Crocker, J., Santa, R. and Staeheli, M. (July, 2020). Back to school after COVID-19: Supporting student and staff mental health. New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center.
Farrise, K. (July, 2020) Back to school after COVID-19 part II: Schools must address grief as students return to school.
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2015). Addressing grief: Brief facts and tips.
About Kaela Farrise - Guest Author
Kaela Farrise is a child and adolescent therapist, researcher, and consultant on issues related to mental health in schools, impacts of trauma on development, and support for families of color. Kaela holds a B.A. from Stanford University in urban studies with a focus on urban education, and African and African American studies, and has an M.A. in clinical psychology. She currently practices therapy in Oakland, California and is the lab manager for a lab at Stanford University studying the impacts of trauma and adversity on children and families. Learn more at kaelafarrise.com and connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.