Mental Health in the Classroom: What Schools Can Do to Help

Mental Health in the Classroom: What Schools Can Do to Help

Principal, C.W. Perry School – Why is mental health such a focus in our schools? I thought “the school” was just for academics and socialization? Yeah right!

You don’t need to look very far in the news, social media or merely talking to community families to know the need for mental health awareness and services is required for today’s learners.1 Over the last five years, I have read many articles, watched many documentaries and watched school communities wrestle with the role of mental health in our schools. If you are someone who feels mental illness is just “in your head”… you would be right. Take a look at the article from National Institute of Mental Health. Today, as educators we learn about neuroplasticity, brain basics, and training our brains to respond appropriately in situations. We do this because it allows students to understand how their mind works, how their brain learns, and how to conquer regular life issues. We also call this resiliency. This is not a new concept, resiliency. Since 2000, we have invested professional development and supports in classrooms to assist teachers and students. Today, we are seeing more and more students suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, social phobia, non-suicidal harm and more.2

Young Canadians are suffering from rising levels of anxiety, stress, depression and even suicide. Close to 20 percent – or one in five – have a mental health issue. “Many of us are worried that the number of young people today experiencing mental health problems is on the increase,” Dr. Jean Clinton, a child psychiatrist at McMaster University, told Global News. “As a society, we need to be saying this is a crisis,” she said. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that the total number of 12 to 19 year olds at risk of depression is a staggering 3.2 million.”3

So how can principals go about assisting their students in these issues? Let me throw out a couple of ideas (in no specific order), but realize the best thing for schools to do at any level (yes, even universities and colleges) is to connect with their students:

  1. Survey your community and find out how they are feeling about their day-to-day experience at school.
  2. Develop a team who is committed to continually staying in front of topics of discussions, to connect with services and find the needed resources.
  3. Start to connect with non-profit organizations and become partners with them.
  4. Meet with like-minded people and administrators who are committed to the same cause.
  5. Create awareness for your school population.
  6. Give training to staff on mental illness, awareness and wellness.
  7. Focus on positives (hope, recovery, tools, normalcy), “mental illness conference” versus “mental wellness conferences” (MindUp for example).
  8. Develop your school education plan to address the topic of mental wellness for students.
  9. Look at the professionals you already employ; you don’t necessarily need new people. You will need the people you have trained in current messaging and learnings from psychologists, etc.
  10. Develop a mental health statement your school can “bite into.” Such as, “Everyone matters, everyone needs to be heard; we are here to help – Mental Health at Example School.”
  11. Realize not all your community members will agree with you, that is ok. We are in educational health flux right now. Until the provincial or state governments choose to fund positions in educational institutions (as to lessen the burden on health institutions), we will feel overwhelmed by the need.
  12. Start with the “why”. Talk and write about what is really happening in schools and what the need is.
  13. Read books, articles and watch “Ted Talks”. Be informed, don’t make statements and judgments without knowing. Our school culture can change rapidly; however; your goal is to lead your school culture, not be lead by it.

Education has always been about preparing students for their future. Part of the preparation is the soft skills, building a resiliency in life, and maturing emotionally.

For all those administrators out there – don’t give up, keep forging forward and live what you believe.


Anxiety and Learning

Anxiety and Learning

Principal, Langdon School – Steven Feifer, D.Ed, and Douglas Toffalo Ph.D are leading experts on cognitive neuropsychology in their latest book, A Scientific Approach to Reading, which offers teachers and parents a firm understanding of how the brain learns to read and how teachers can prevent learning barriers.

Since I can remember I have heard students at all grade levels talk about their natural ability to be a logical or a mathematical thinker. They would say comments such as, “I’m good at math or my parents aren’t good at math and neither am I, or this is too hard for me.”  Somehow along they way they have decided that their brain either has the ability or does not have the ability for math. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a strong believer in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. However, I also have read compelling arguments in research (Feifer). How can an elementary student already know they are not proficient in mathematics and never will be? The answer is, they can’t know. Here is where the teacher, the parent, and the school culture must come into play. What does prevent the long-term storage of math skills in the brain? Feifer talks about various reasons to why students struggle, have trauma, anxiety, executive functioning issues, learning disabilities and more. You can find the list in their latest books, “Integrating RTI With Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading”.  One that resonates with myself, is anxiety.  

Anxiety and Learning

“As Hopko, Ashcraft, and Gute (1998) noted, the central executive system lies particularly vulnerable in the anxious brain of a math student.  The central executive system serves primarily to suppress or inhibit any negative distractors that may have an adverse effect on problem solving.  If this mechanism is not functioning efficiently or perhaps is preoccupied by worrisome thoughts, the central executive system becomes consumed with directing cognitive resources toward more rudimentary flight or flight response” (Feifer & Toffal, p. 59).

Master teachers are aware of student anxiety because they are keenly aware of their student needs. However, today we still make the error of putting students in positions where a) we have not helped them deal with their anxiety (whether, social, emotional or academic), or b) we put them into situations where they need to perform under undue stress.

I remember taking a psychology class in university (1996) where our professor openly talked about how the exams will be tough to finish in the time he is going to give us. I found this intriguing as to why a professor would design such an experience; he continued to inform us that only the brightest will do well on the exam, and the majority will hit the bell curve. Do you think the anxiety level of my class went up at that moment? You bet. Though my experience is personal and may not represent the masses, let me tell you what happened. For each exam I put in countless hours of studying, I can remember being anxious and worried that I would not remember the hundreds of pages of information and lecture notes. In the first three exams, I achieve the bell curve. For myself, this was disappointing given the hours of preparation. On the fourth exam I decided to try something different, (partly due to frustration and partly due to curiosity), I chose only to review my notes and reading but did not take the time to memorize. I decreased my studying time by 80 percent. My “gut” was telling me my memory recall was being interrupted during the exam. Can you guess what happened? You guessed it; I achieved the same result, the curve. At this moment, I began to understand that my anxiety level was preventing my short-term memory recall from occurring. One might argue I did not spend enough time memorizing, or that I had a faulty study system, however, my other courses did not have this issue.

Students are at the whim of their thinking, social constructs, teacher comments, and the environment they learn in. Whether we are an adult in a university setting or a grade 4 student, effective learning requires us to be in an anxiety free classroom (Feifer & Toffal0, p. 66).

Helping Teachers 

Sometimes, adults will use forms of motivation that fall on the competition or manipulation side of learning. For instance, we use skill and drill with a timed response in many of our classrooms. I am not saying you can’t have a time limit, but the time is what we ask students to focus on, not skill of strengthening the neural pathways. Neuroscientists will tell you we must still have repetition for skill development to strengthen neural pathways, but this is not what I am referring to. Throughout Canada we see systems in Mathematics that promote speed recall where students are both leveled and pressured to perform under time constraints. We also see teachers using comments such as, “You should have learned that last year? I don’t have time to teach this again!”, “You need this for the next grade, you better get it right.”, “If you don’t learn this you will not be successful next year.”, and  “This is necessary knowledge; how can you not know this?”  Comments like these and more, do not motivate students; they create anxiety.  Students today are keenly aware of what is being said to them, and over time, they will begin to believe certain untruths about themselves, especially when they are confronted with failure due to the inability to recall learning while under stress or because it was learned under pressure.

6 ways schools can practically remove barriers:

  1. School-wide programs for classroom culture including practical techniques for dealing with stress and anxiety.
  2. Educating students on mental health, from the standpoint of how to have sound mental health and how to help others who are lacking it.
  3. CDA (Child Development Advisor) must have effective processes for guiding especially anxious students.
  4. Teacher training on both positive classroom culture and brain-based learning. (Given our learnings of the brain in the 21st Century, this goes without saying).
  5. Have an RTI system in the school to help students with areas of struggle, resulting in greater confidence.
  6. Jurisdictional support for students with high needs (top of the pyramid) for appropriate school resources.

Integrating RTI With Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading
Steven G. Feifer, DEd, and Douglas A. Della Toffalo, PhD