Supporting changing mental health needs for students in the 2020-2021 school year

We recently  welcomed Megan Hoffman, LCSW and Emily Crane, MEd from the Compass Health Center to present to ATT teachers about how to support day school families as their children’s needs change dramatically this year, sometimes on a daily basis. 

Our job as teachers and as the ATT is to help students thrive. As part of that, we are working hard to implement tools and strategies to promote positive mental health. 

When the pandemic first started, this sentiment resonated with a lot people: “We are in the same storm, not the same boat.” When we consider the disparities among how equipped families are to deal with the ramifications of this time, it’s clear that each family and individual continues to experience it differently. 

Mental health anguish can often feel like a flood of very complex emotions. When the biblical flood threatened the world, Noach built an ark to keep life moving forward. Now it’s our job to teach our children how to build an ark. Only this time instead of gopher wood, we have tools from organizations like Compass to help students thrive in the most challenging circumstances. 

Impact of COVID-19 on mental health in uncertain times

Trauma, grief and loss all have respective psychological, behavioral, social and physical reactions. Everyone has lost something due to the pandemic, and the grief is personal and specific to each individual. This loss could look like a loss of a loved one, loss of connection with school, peers and participation in cherished activities.

Some may experience the loss of routine, safety and certainty of what will happen in the future. The combination of these losses can lead to a loss of personal identity and new or intensified mental health struggles. 

Educators are also experiencing these losses and are learning how to support their students and colleagues through grief. It’s even more crucial now to normalize and allow a safe space for others to talk about emotions. It’s not always possible, but humor or a silver lining can be healing. 

Once the losses of the pandemic are validated, the Kubler-Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief can be a helpful guide for understanding what students are feeling. Some students may feel shock, denial, frustration and depression at times. Students will benefit greatly from having a teacher that is able to help them navigate these emotional waves. 

Emphasis on emotions

Developing and expanding emotional vocabulary is a helpful way to cope with difficult situations. Knowing our emotions helps us get our needs met, in other words, “If you name it, you can tame it.”  

A great starting point is recognizing that feelings are not facts. There are resources such as  Lindsay Braman’s emotion-sensation wheel to expand emotion vocabulary. This method works by giving students the vocabulary to be able to share their feelings more comfortably.  Once an emotion is identified, the teacher can ask the student if they can think of anything that would help in this situation. 

Teachers should have a chart or graphic with faces of various emotions easily accessible in the classroom to help a student feel more comfortable when asked, “How are you feeling today?” This allows students to separate themselves from the emotion. Oftentimes, emotions pass and this method helps students move through the emotions more smoothly. 

Stress and distress reactions

Pain is unavoidable at times, and teaching acceptance around what cannot be controlled may help students avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms. Teachers can work with students on a personal “stress survival guide” to help them nourish their body, mind and soul. 

For the body, encourage students to get enough sleep, exercise, eat well, practice deep breathing, listen to calming music, etc. To help put their minds at ease, encourage talking about their stressors, have them keep a journal, learn to prioritize time, and set healthy habits and rituals. Engaging in positive self-talk, taking a break from social media, accepting stress as normal, trying mindfulness and finding ways to relax are all ways to help nourish the soul and keep from getting burnt out.

Though a certain level of anxiety during stressful times is normal, there are indications when additional help might be needed. 

Here are some stress and distress reactions to watch out for:

  • Significant changes in sleep patterns
  • Increase in physical/somatic symptoms
  • Increased irritability, increased distractibility
  • Increase in isolation and avoidance
  • Decreased sense of safety
  • Increase in frequency and intensity of worries
  • Avoidance of fears
  • Engaging in excessive reassurance-seeking behaviors
  • Major shifts in mood or activity levels
  • Talk of suicide or self-harm
  • Substance use
  • Intrusive thoughts about Covid that are impairing

Mental health in the classroom

To promote healthy mental health in the classroom, it’s important to manage expectations versus reality around school. This can be achieved by normalizing the range of reactions and creating a space for students to talk about how their year is going. 

One way to begin this dialogue is to ask students if they have questions or concerns about the future and uncertainty. In this conversation, it’s appropriate to say, “I don’t know” when there aren’t clear answers which can actually help validate fears around uncertainty, feelings of isolation and loneliness.

It’s important to master and then teach students how to hold the dialectic, or find the balance between acceptance and change. This inspires students to identify what is in their control and what is beyond. Mindfulness strategies and emotional regulation can help with this.

By taking some time to enhance classroom management strategies, educators can work towards helping students thrive despite the present challenges. Teachers can implement morning meetings, have break-out groups on Zoom, have one-on-one check-ins with students to see what is going well and what needs some work.

Having the students participate in these ways can help create accountability in students. It may also be helpful to use games in the classroom as a way to creatively combine learning with some much-needed entertainment and unwinding.

Ways to help students cope

Encourage boundaries – Maintaining proper boundaries is even more important with social distance and virtual learning. Kids and adults are both feeling overwhelmed with connecting with others via technology, and it’s necessary to have proper boundaries in place to be able to “turn-off.” Identify consistency and availability within the context of boundaries. 

Teachers should encourage self-care. One creative way to help students with this is by playing “Self-care BINGO” and have categories like reading, being kind, creative activity, dancing, playing outside, etc. Teachers can start by creating their own self-care board and show clear boundaries on food or technology to model a sense of balance. 

Validating vs. fixing- It’s imperative to distinguish between validating problems and fixing them. Validation doesn’t mean there aren’t expectations or consequences and the behavior should be redirected if inappropriate. Although it feels natural to want to help someone by finding a solution to their problems, sometimes all they need is to be told, “I hear you, but we need to move forward” and discuss it another time if it remains a problem.

Consistency, predictability and uncertainty – Schedules and routines when possible help students stay grounded when so much around them is uncertain. There should be a clear understanding of expectations, rewards and consequences and students should be guided toward finding the delicate balance between consistency and flexibility. 

Even if they don’t know where the river is headed, they should know what the boundaries of the river beds are. When a teacher practices acceptance around not knowing, students can learn that uncertainty is a part of daily life. Teachers cannot predict the future, but they can help students learn how to cope and FACE COVID. 

Focus on what is in your control
Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
Come back into your body
Engage in what you are doing

Committed action (engage in our values)
Open up
Identify resources
Disinfect and distance

4 mental health boosts for students

  1. Radical acceptance

Identifying what is within our control and what is not means having students ask themselves, “What am I the boss of?”  By teaching students that they don’t have to like what is happening but accepting reality can help them cope with life’s uncertainties.

Remember – Pain + non-acceptance = suffering. 

  1. Grounding techniques

Use this while radically accepting to get students through difficult moments. Grounding exercises include: taking a break, petting your pet, 4×4 breathing exercises, using the 5 senses to get the mind off of it, using fidgets. Teachers can have students identify their own coping tools. Youtube has many videos on breathing exercises that can help students in stressful moments. The book Alphabreaths:The ABCs of Mindful Breathing and other similar books help kids get through stress. 

  1. Gratitude 

Teach students through exercises to bring their awareness and attention to what they are grateful for. Ask students to name just one thing we are grateful for this week, as a class, as a community? Even on Zoom the chat feature can be used for this type of exercise.

  1. Goals and motivation

Setting and striving towards a goal is a great tool to boost mental health. Teachers can use goal-setting in the classroom or during remote learning. Once the goal is set, work with the students on how to gradually achieve it by breaking it into smaller steps, establish clear expectations and encourage motivation. 

Keep in mind, it’s impossible to implement every single new technique and expand emotional awareness overnight. Gradually adding in some of these elements to already planned lessons and being more mindful going forward will help teachers help their students grow and thrive. 

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