Learn how to help and accommodate students going through difficult times or suffering from mental health issues.
Mental Health and Learning
2020 marked an important moment in education: the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act. This act obliged UK Local Education Authorities to educate all children regardless of physical or mental disabilities. This act was the first step towards recognising “Special Educational Needs and Disabilities”. Students are considered to have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) when they find it more challenging to make progress than other students the same age. Examples of SEND include (but are not limited to): specific learning difficulties, recognised disabilities, speech and language difficulties, and emotional, mental health, or social difficulties.
Despite this important educational milestone, the year 2020 is likely to be remembered for the pandemic and its impact on students and their education. Its impact on students’ mental health is only beginning to emerge. In February 2022, a BBC analysis found a 77% rise in the number of children needing specialist treatment for a severe mental health crisis (BBC 2022). Research by the NHS in the UK suggests that, now, as many as 1 in 6 UK young people may face a mental health problem (Government Office for Science 2008), when in only 2017, that number was 1 in 9 young people. The situation in The US is similar, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating in 2021 that more than a third (37%) of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021. Of course, The UK and The US are only two countries. In March 2022, UNICEF reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had prevented 405 million school children worldwide from a complete return to classes, and 23 countries have yet to reopen schools fully.
Impact of Mental Health on Learning
So, what has this impact on our students’ education meant for teachers? First, it shows us that after our students have gone through any major crisis, we will have to help them reach the standards they would have achieved without disrupting their education. We also need to help our students face the stress and anxiety that NOT meeting those standards can provoke. Difficult or traumatic situations affecting our students’ mental health can happen at any moment in their lives. During the pandemic, during which quarantine and social isolation became the norm, children and young people reported various associated mental health challenges. According to the CDC (2022), the most commonly reported mental health challenges in the US are:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Anxiety problems
- Behaviour problems
Mental health challenges can affect learning in various ways: They can affect behaviour in class, such as students having difficulty sleeping and therefore being too tired for class or students being distracted by their challenges and finding it difficult to concentrate. They can also affect overall academic performance, such as students having negative opinions about their abilities and being unable to motivate themselves.
Helpful Actions with Mental Health
As varied as the impact on learning can be, the signs of mental health problems can also be highly varied. Signs such as frequent reports of headaches, stomach aches, or reports of tiredness could signify a student’s response to mental health challenges, a physical symptom, or both. This variety means teachers lack the confidence to approach their students and discuss a potential mental health challenge. This lack of trust among teachers is probably the most significant barrier to us offering our support.
Mental Health First Aid International (2021) recommends the five-step ALGEE action plan when supporting anyone facing a mental health challenge:
- Approach and assess for risk of harm. Find a suitable time and place to talk to the person and consider their privacy and confidentiality. Remember that the conversation convinces you that the person is a risk to themselves or others; you should explain your obligation to share the information with others.
- Listen non-judgmentally. Let the person share without interruption and try to empathise with their situation. Even if you disagree with what they are saying, try to be accepting.
- Give your reassurance and factual information. Give them hope and useful facts after they share their feelings and experiences with you.
- Encourage the person to look for professional help. Explain the options available to them.
- Encourage the person to use self-help strategies and to seek the support of people they trust, such as friends or family.
It is important to note that the key step in the ALGEE action plan is approaching the person and initiating a conversation. It is also essential to recognise that the steps in the ALGEE action plan do not need to be followed in order. It might be necessary to approach the person multiple times and show genuine interest in their situation before they feel comfortable enough to talk. It may be more appropriate to discuss seeking the support of people they trust before providing information.
As for recognising who might need support, as mentioned above, the signs of mental health problems are incredibly varied. However, according to the mental health charity Shawmind, the most common symptoms of mental health challenges in students are:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of confidence
- Reduced socialising
- Big changes in weight
- Losing interest in things they used to enjoy
- Frequent absences
- Complaints of physical pain like headaches and stomach-aches
Students may exhibit a combination of these signs or only one of them. The student may not be aware that these are signs of a mental health challenge or may not even perceive the situation they are living through as being particularly challenging because it is so familiar to them. This can mean that the student is exploring and discovering the problem simultaneously as you. Again, this is why listening non-judgmentally, empathically, and without interruption is essential.
Creating a Classroom that Supports Positive Mental Health
Beyond supporting students facing mental health challenges, we, as teachers, play an important role in creating a classroom that fosters positive mental health. Luckily, teachers are uniquely positioned to build this environment because we regularly promote education and encourage curiosity in our students. Being curious and continuing to learn are two of the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ recommended in the Foresight Challenge Reports (Government Office for Science 2008), which looked at the best available evidence on the effectiveness of different approaches to mental development and wellbeing. Those five ways to well-being can be summarised with the mnemonic CHEER:
- Connect with the people around you.
- Help others with your time and experience because this is rewarding
- Exercise often as this will improve your mood
- Educate yourself because learning new things will enhance your confidence
- Recognise and reflect on your experiences and be curious about them
Teachers can support students with all five of those ways to well-being: we help our students to form connections; we encourage students to help each other as they learn; we create active and dynamic lessons; we introduce our students to new information and experiences and encourage students to reflect on those same experiences, be curious and learn from them.
It has been over 50 years since the 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act. We now have a much better understanding of the needs of our students, including their mental health needs. We are indeed addressing the impact of one of the most significant educational disruptions in recent memory, but we are in a better place than ever before to do so. We know that we need to help our students reach their potential and tackle the challenges that they face. There are straightforward ways to recognise who we need to support, actions that we can take when helping them, and ways to continue promoting positive mental health.
References and Further Reading
BBC (2022) Children’s mental health: Huge rise in severe cases, BBC analysis reveals https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-60197150 Accessed: 15 June 2022
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (2022a) Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html Accessed: 15 June 2022
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (2022b) New CDC data illuminate youth mental health threats during the COVID-19 pandemic https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0331-youth-mental-health-covid-19.html Accessed: 15 June 2022
Department of Health and Social Care (2021) £79 million to boost mental health support for children and young people https://www.gov.uk/government/news/79-million-to-boost-mental-health-support-for-children-and-young-people Accessed: 15 June 2022
Government Office for Science (2008) Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st Century https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/292453/mental-capitalwellbeing-summary.pdf Accessed: 15 June 2022
Mcclory, Jess (2021) How mental health affects education https://shawmind.org/how-mental-health-affects-education/ Accessed: 15 June 2022
Mental Health Foundation (2021) Children and young people https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/c/children-and-youngpeople Accessed: 15 June 2022
MHFA International (2022) What is Mental Health First Aid? https://mhfainternational.org/ Accessed: 15 June 2022
Unicef (2022) Are Children Really Learning? Exploring foundational skills amid a learning crisis https:// data.unicef.org/resources/are-children-really-learning-foundational-skills-report/ Accessed: 15 June 2022