How Teachers Can Identify Students Who are Having Mental Health Issues

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Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, children have unfortunately been experiencing an increase in mental health problems. Many children are suffering negative consequences of decreased social interaction and lack of structure that an in-person school day provides. Traditionally, teachers and school staff were the greatest resource in identifying a child who was struggling with mental health problems. At-home learning, hybrid learning, masks, plexiglass barriers, and social distancing have decreased the likelihood of troubled children being identified and assisted. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released statistics showing the psychological impact of the pandemic. Between April and October 2020, hospital emergency departments saw a 24% rise in children ages 5-11 and a 31% increase of adolescents addressing mental health concerns. Annual State of Health in America has recently reported pre-teens and teens had the highest rate of suicide ideations as compared to other age groups.

How children are handling the new remote learning style of education

Some of the typical “red flags” teachers have used in the past to identify students experiencing mental health difficulties are not available this year. For example, a student eating lunch by himself used to clue staff in on potential issues. Now, most schools have students seated at individual desks for lunch. Reading facial expressions is nearly impossible with masks on. Change in school performance is fairly common almost across the board this year, and cannot be used as a sign of an emotional issue. Another sign that often tipped off school staff was a change in mood in students. Aren’t we all a little on edge and uneasy these days?

As a therapist at Da Vinci Collaborative, I have had the opportunity to get input from  some of the kids I work with. I spent the past few weeks asking them how they thought their teachers would know if they were sad or anxious. 

A junior in high school told me that the teachers would never know. He is a hybrid student, who only attends class in person twice a week. When he is in a virtual class, there is no chance for personal discussions, and when he is in school, he is no longer allowed to “drop in” on a teacher or counselor just to talk. He would have to make an appointment first, and admittedly stated that this was very unlikely to happen. 

An eighth grader reported her experience that the school was very focused on how she would make up the work she was late on, and did not seem to notice that her struggle with anxiety was preventing her from attending virtual classes. The most thought provoking answer came from the third grade girl who answered, “My teacher wouldn’t know if I was sad or worried. Unless she asked me!”  Could it be that simple? Maybe the solution to finding the students with mental health issues is just to ask them! 

5 Ways teachers can pinpoint mental health issues in children in a remote environment

There are several ways for a teacher to check in on the mental wellness of their students. The key is to make it easy for children to reach out and get help. One approach schools can take is to provide students with emotionally available adults that focus on connecting with their students and strengthening their listening and empathy skills. 

Here are 5 ways teachers can implement a mental wellness check for children:

  1. “Wish my teacher knew” activity. Have the children fill in the blank. This encourages children of all ages to share what is on their mind. 
  2. Include yoga and mindfulness in the curriculum. Teaching children calming skills can help reduce anxiety and open them up for communicating.
  3. A “choose a face” emotion poster when starting the school day can give elementary kids the opportunity to identify their feelings, and lets them know someone is concerned about them. 
  4. Explore free engaging videos available at Psych Hub aimed at improving mental health literacy. We can teach kids early on about the signs of mental health distress and reduce the stigma surrounding getting care.
  5. Pay attention to the new red flags. Students who are failing to complete assignments, are not signing into virtual classes, are turning cameras off during virtual sessions, or are not responding to communication from the teacher need to be checked on with an agenda of emotional understanding.  

There are free and low-cost screening tools that can be used to help determine if a student is experiencing emotional difficulties. Some are general and some are geared to specific issues, such as anxiety or depression. School social workers and counselors can help with screening and with referrals. Until a universal mental health screening in schools becomes standard practice, our students are depending on teachers to notice when they need help. Giving students daily opportunities to share their feelings can lead to the treatment they need. 

If you are concerned about the mental health of your child, contact the mental health team at Da Vinci for a consultation. 

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