A classroom brings with it a slew of different backgrounds, cultures, personalities, and abilities, and it's one of a teacher's many jobs to make sure all of these individuals find their own ways to succeed. This responsibility becomes a lot more difficult when you add mental health disorders (i.e. anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD) into the mix. The reality is that 1 in 5 students show symptoms of these disorders, but 80% of them do not get the help they need, leaving teachers at the front lines without much support. The best thing we can do as teachers is to be open-minded, understanding, and adaptable. Here are some strategies for working with students with mental health disorders:
The first thing teachers can do to help students with mental health disorders is to educate themselves. Many people are simply illiterate when it comes to mental health, and by learning the correct terminology and understanding the symptoms, teachers can better equip themselves for dealing with any problems that may arise. That doesn't mean you need a degree in psychology, but a bit of research may go a long way.
You're also not the only one who should be informed – the students need to know about it as well. Kids often poke fun at mentally challenged classmates simply because they don't understand. Showing the students informational videos and teaching them about the many different mental disorders can help them understand and empathize, and may also help those suffering recognize their own symptoms and seek help. Building mental health awareness throughout the school will show these students that they are in a safe place.
As teachers, we don't want to be too forgiving when students disobey deadlines or come to class unprepared – students need to learn responsibility. But when it comes to students with mental health disorders, we have to ease up. Students with anxiety (a disorder which has an average onset of 11 years old) can become extremely stressed out when trying to complete assignments. They tend to be perfectionists, or have a great fear of failure, and sometimes won't even know how to start because the whole thing seems so incredibly daunting. On the other hand, some can't seem to finish because they think they will fail anyway or won't be as good as the others. We need to make these students understand that finishing on time is not the point – learning is. Being flexible with deadlines may make these students feel less pressure and help them perform better. You can also divide assignments up into manageable segments and check up on students as they go.
The tough part of being flexible is that you're not treating all students equally. This is where the school's mental health culture is key. When other students start to complain that it's unfair, you need to remind them of what it's like to have a mental health disorder and hopefully make them understand that certain students need a bit more help. You can even encourage them to help their classmates in fun and uplifting ways, which may, in turn, help students with mental health disorders feel less like an outsider with their own special rules.
Many people find talking about mental health uncomfortable, but that sentiment only feeds the flame. Oftentimes, when people with mental illness look back on their schooling, the main issue was that nobody asked them what was wrong. As teachers, we have to ask questions; we have to pry a bit in order to help all students succeed. It's important to communicate with parents, but don't leave the child out of the discussion.
Talk to the students about what they think they need. If a student has bipolar disorder, you might talk to him/her about how to respond to an episode, or give him/her a designated private place to go calm down, no questions asked. For a student with anxiety disorder, you could provide them with a few choices for assignments so that they feel like they have more control over the situation. You should also be very clear with them so they know what to expect, whether it's posting the daily class schedule, or making sure they write down and understand assignment instructions. Grounding techniques are also very helpful for anxiety. When it comes to students with depression, just listening and asking questions helps a lot. Responses like “It will be ok” or “You'll get over it” should be avoided – just try to empathize and be compassionate.
Keeping parents informed will also make for smoother sailing. If you notice a child struggling, it's a good idea to keep a record of any incidents that may occur in order to be completely transparent with parents and counselors. Asking parents for tips is always helpful too!
All students have moments when they feel like they can't achieve something. In students with mental health disorders, that's a much more frequent feeling; so encouragement is a big deal. A great way to help shine some light on a difficult day is to show students some examples of famous or successful people who have dealt with mental illness, overcome it, and achieved success. You can also encourage them to set some positive realistic goals with a vision board so they feel like they are working towards something good.
Encouraging students to get involved with sports and extracurricular activities can help them become more balanced, alleviate stress, and feel a sense of belonging. Daily physical activity can greatly help students with depression or anxiety. You can also create a more inclusive environment by encouraging more social students to bring these types of students into classroom discussion, group work, and social activities. The social butterflies will feel important, the less social kids will feel included, and the rest will hopefully follow the butterflies' lead for a friendly, safe, and inclusive classroom.
Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. When she's not watching the New York Yankees play, Sarah enjoys practicing yoga and reading a good book on the beach.