According to recent statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 kids in the United States has or has had a debilitating mental health disorder. In a classroom of 20 students (and that’s considered “small” for some public schools), four of those children could be struggling at any given time with anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or another issue.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, in 2012, 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15 had a diagnosable mental health disorder.
Each day, about 20 percent of the millions of children attending school are struggling with a mental health disorder. And yet, many of them suffer in silence.
By the time many clients get to me, they’ve been in survival mode for a good while. They’ve found ways to get through the anxiety, depression or inattention that sometimes threatens to overtake them, but their coping mechanisms tend to serve as temporary bandages. Eventually, these kids come unglued. That’s when they seek help.
For many years I worked as a school-based therapist and clinical director at a small nonpublic school. I saw firsthand how powerful the presence of staff therapists can be. Children who needed weekly sessions were able to access their therapist on campus during the school day. Those who simply needed a safe landing place on a tough day always had someone there to listen. Sometimes I entered classrooms to teach social skills lessons or to help with test anxiety by leading the kids in deep-breathing exercises.
It wasn’t simply the presence of therapists that helped those children work through their emotional struggles. It was the team approach the school used to help each child thrive. All faculty members worked together to create an atmosphere of support. Teachers formed solid connections with their students, and were trained to spot signs that a child is struggling. If something seemed amiss, teachers worked with the therapy staff to figure out the best way to help the student. In a small school with plenty of resources, this model worked. For many schools, however, this simply isn’t a reality.
Jessica Lahey, a teacher and the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, understands the importance of the student-teacher relationship when it comes to supporting the mental health of children. Lahey once taught “affluent” children, whom she describes as having “safety, security, love and, if anything, an excess of parental involvement.” But now she teaches at an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment facility where kids rotate in and out of care, and she struggles to build solid relationships with them.
“Strong, supportive student-teacher relationships are the very thing they need to succeed, both in treatment and in life,” says Lahey. “Research has shown that when students have good relationships with their teachers, they spend more time with them, learn more and have a better shot at bridging the achievement gap that separates them from durable learning, graduation and lifetime success and security.”
While many schools do have access to a psychologist in some capacity (often, multiple schools share one), most districts lack the funding to employ full-time psychologists at each school. Students might receive professional support when they are facing a crisis, but more chronic issues (such as anxiety, depression and ADHD) require day-to-day management. Kids (and their teachers) have much to gain from daily support from a mental health professional, even if they don’t need a weekly therapy appointment.
The truth is that kids don’t need a concrete diagnosis to benefit from social-emotional support in school. In fact, early intervention to help kids manage the ups and downs of life, and cope with things such as anxiety, can give kids the tools they need to work through obstacles as they grow.
Here are some things school faculty members can do to help improve students’ daily mental health, even if there is no full-time therapist on staff.
Create a culture of caring. It’s amazing how a few small changes in the way students, staff and parents interact can change the culture of a school. Just the other day, I watched a parent who was volunteering as a crossing guard at an elementary school greet each student with a giant smile and a compliment.
Morning greetings and frequent check-ins throughout the day might seem like a small thing, but many students tell me that they wish the staff at their school knew them better. Kids want to feel understood. They also want to forge connections. Sometimes a mention of a favorite sports team or a follow-up question about a weekend activity can make a big difference in a student’s emotional state.
Use morning meetings to connect. Many elementary school classrooms begin the day on the classroom carpet. Instead of using this time to go over the planned events for the day, teachers can have a classroom check-in.
A feelings thermometer is a simple tool that can be downloaded and printed and used for the daily check. Have the students choose colors to represent feelings (frustrated, sad, worried, happy, etc.) and bring their thermometers to the morning meeting. Each child can take a moment to share their current color and name one wish for the day.
This process gives teachers a baseline of how the kids are feeling when they enter the classroom. If any students appear distressed, the teacher can help them brainstorm ways to solve problems or cope with concerns.
Designate calming corners. Kids don’t need an ADHD diagnosis to be wiggly and inattentive at school. It’s no big secret that young children are sitting for longer periods these days, and many schools lack sufficient recess and physical education time. Add that to the increased academic demands placed on students, and it should come as no surprise that kids are struggling with emotional overload.
A calming corner in the classroom — complete with squeeze balls, instructions on how to visualize blowing up a balloon, relaxing coloring pages and other sensory activities that can be done quietly — is a great way to help kids reduce stress during the day. A wiggle center is another option. Here you might find a stability ball, wiggle cushions, therapy bands or instructions for activities such as wall push-ups and yoga poses.
Lack of funding might make it difficult to purchase a social-emotional curriculum or initiate formal programs to help kids work through their emotions, but schools can still do more to support students’ mental health. Children under stress have difficulty focusing on the curriculum and retaining what they learn. When schools address these kids’ emotional needs and train the staff to spot signs of trouble and intervene early, students feel safe and secure in their learning environments. This, more than anything else, can help students thrive in school.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, and the author of “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.” You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.
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