26 Empowering Mental Health Activities for Teens

Help teens build resilience.

Examples of mental health activities for teens such as adult coloring books and fidgets.
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A lot of kids are struggling right now. In fact, many are describing the current situation as a youth mental health crisis. Why is this happening? There are a lot of theories out there: too much screen time, social media, too little play, limited access to good mental healthcare, smartphones … the list goes on. One thing’s for sure, though: We need to help our kids, and many are looking at schools to play a role. That’s why we’ve put together this list of mental health activities for teens (many work for younger kids too). Take a look and see if any of these could work in your classroom.

What is happening to America’s youth?

It’s been four years since schools shut down during the pandemic, and American schools have been trying to overcome issues related to learning loss, student behavior, and enrollment ever since. One issue that has been particularly frustrating is student absenteeism. According to recent data from 40 states and Washington, D.C., “An estimated 26 percent of public school students were considered chronically absent last school year, up from 15 percent before the pandemic.”

If you think you know the kind of students or districts where this issue is most prevalent, you’d likely be wrong. This issue cuts across demographics in a way that is truly remarkable. Student absenteeism is happening everywhere. Small districts, big districts. The rates have doubled in wealthy areas, and the already elevated rates in lower-income communities have worsened. As the New York Times explains, “Even districts that reopened quickly during the pandemic, in fall 2020, have seen vast increases.”

What is going on? Duke University associate research professor and psychologist Katie Rosanbalm says, “Our relationship with school became optional,” after the pandemic. It’s such a simple statement, but it has a ring of truth.

What is being done to help kids?

Many initiatives are being rolled out to address the youth mental health crisis and school absenteeism. It’s tough, though, because we don’t know exactly what’s causing the problem. This is a complex issue with many contributing factors. Trying to solve it can start to feel like Whac-a-Mole—but some programs could help make a difference.

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The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, in partnership with Kohl’s and Blue Cross and Blue Shield, are now equipped with “resources such as sensory learning rooms, support groups, therapy animals and in some cases, dedicated mental health professionals.”

The Schultz Family Foundation, Pinterest, and AmeriCorps have partnered with 11 states to create the country’s first Youth Mental Health Corps. As part of this initiative, young adults will receive training to provide peer-to-peer support. They will “gain valuable on-the-job experience, receive a stipend, and earn a credential to advance their career. They will also be eligible for education awards to pursue higher education or pay back qualifying student loans.”

To address the shortage of mental health professionals, some have suggested using mental health apps with AI to reach youth in areas such as social support, cognitive improvement, skills training, symptom tracking, and self-management. Of course, the use of AI in this way, especially with kids, comes with a lot of questions and concerns.

The Biden-Harris administration has also rolled out their own Improving Student Achievement Agenda, urging schools to focus on outreach, communication, and improved curriculum. Under this plan, schools would follow a four-step approach to tackling student absenteeism, including sending “text messages and letters to parents about their children’s attendance,” sending “teams to visit families at home to talk about challenges and solutions,” restructuring “instruction to make it more relevant to young people,” and delivering “more services that families want their children to receive.”

While we wait to hear more about the implementation and outcomes of these initiatives, we can take action in our classrooms. The following mental health activities are a good place to start.

Mental Health Activities for Teens

1. Reflect through journaling

Journaling has known mental health benefits. It has been associated with reduced anxiety, increased awareness, emotional regulation, reduction of brooding, and even speeding up physical healing. The best part is that it’s super easy to do! Each day, designate a few minutes of class time to writing down thoughts and feelings to help kids better understand their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

Try this: 120+ Journal Prompts for Teens for Self-Love, Gratitude & More

2. Give students time to talk

Research tells us that “Classroom talk helps students to learn, to reflect on what they are learning, and to communicate their knowledge and understanding. Active listening is effective participation in a conversation. It is an activity which helps the speaker become understood.” Set some ground rules to ensure the discussions are fair and respectful, and then create a routine around making space for them to talk on a regular basis.

Learn more: Why Kids Need More Talk Time in the Classroom

3. Stretch with classroom yoga

A good stretch can do so much for our sense of well-being. Research suggests that school-based yoga cultivates competencies in mind-body awareness, self-regulation, and physical fitness. Use simple yoga poses to manage stress and improve concentration during breaks.

Try this: Fun and Easy Yoga Poses (Free Printable Posters)

4. Practice mindfulness

As Amy Saltzman, M.D., director of the Association for Mindfulness in Education, explains, “Incorporating mindfulness into education has been linked to improving academic and social and emotional learning. Also, mindfulness strengthens some underlying development processes—such as focus, resilience, and self-soothing—that will help kids in the long run.” Mindfulness is an excellent tool to help reduce tension and recharge students’ attention spans.

Learn more: Ways To Bring More Mindfulness and Self-Care Into Your Classroom

5. Get outside

The benefits of getting outside for our physical and mental health are profound. Being outdoors has been shown to lessen anxiety, improve focus, boost immunity, and help us get a good night’s sleep, among other things. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, improves symptoms associated with stress, anxiety, and depression just by being in nature. Schools in Denmark have even moved learning into the actual forest! If you don’t have direct access to the outdoors, even five minutes at an open window can help.

Try this: Easy ways to take your students outside

6. Incorporate calming mind-body exercise

Mind-body exercises worksheets, as an example of trauma-informed teaching strategies
We Are Teachers

Mind–body exercise combines movement sequences, attention regulation, and breathing control. Recent research has shown that practices such as tai chi, qigong, and yoga can improve learning, memory, and verbal fluency, as well as reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. No equipment is required, so this is one of the easier mental health activities for teens to incorporate into their day.

Try this: Calming Mind-Body Exercises To Try With Your Students

7. Take active breaks

Movement breaks are great for students because they “help create the level of alertness which enables a child to focus and concentrate.” Incorporate short bursts of exercise into your agenda. Or put on some tunes and have a five-minute dance party in class!

Try this: Best Dance Songs To Get Kids Moving

8. Mentor your peers

Peer mentoring can help build coping skills and resilience in students. One study even found that peer mentors “had a positive impact on the mental health of both the mentors and the mentees, with benefits including improved self-esteem, increased empathy, and reduced anxiety levels.”

Try this: Introduction to Peer Mentoring for Schools

9. Allow fidgets

Impresa

Fidget toys can be a great tool to help students stay engaged. Those with sensory needs, difficulties focusing, or feelings of overwhelm can use fidgets to reduce anxiety, manage energy levels, and and stay focused.

Try this: Classroom-Friendly Fidget Toys and Devices To Help Students Focus

10. Tap into art therapy exercises

The healing power of art is especially beneficial for the mental health of teens. The American Art Therapy Association describes its main functions as “improving cognitive and sensorimotor functions, fostering self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivating emotional resilience, promoting insight, enhancing social skills, reducing and resolving conflicts and distress, and promoting societal and ecological changes.” These all sound like things we can use in the classroom!

Try this: Art Therapy Activities To Help Kids Identify Their Feelings

11. Create a quiet space

Schools in Hennepin County, Minnesota, use calm spaces “for prevention to deescalate emotions or anxiety before one gets too overwhelmed. A calm room within the school setting can allow adolescents the opportunity to access a variety of tools and techniques to combat anxiety or daily stress.” You can fill the space with various mental health activities for teens, such as fidgets and poetry books.

Try this: How To Create and Use a Calm-Down Corner in Any Learning Environment

12. Facilitate community with team-building activities

Icebreakers feature
We Are Teachers

Teamwork can be instrumental to improving communication, listening skills, and relationships with peers. It can also help kids develop more self-confidence and self-awareness. Incorporate team-building activities into your curriculum throughout the year to encourage community and help strengthen relationships among your students.

Learn more: Icebreaker Activities for Middle and High School Students

13. Cultivate a class garden

Gardening is a great hands-on activity that can boost kids’ brain development, promote a sense of well-being, decrease anxiety, and enhance problem-solving while learning about the natural world. It can be very grounding to plant something in the earth and watch it grow. And though tending to a garden—from seed to harvest—is a slow process, the rewards are immeasurable.

Learn more: How One School Garden Transformed a Neighborhood

14. Read for pleasure

A study of more than 10,000 young adolescents found that those “who begin reading for pleasure early in life tend to perform better at cognitive tests and have better mental health” and are generally better adjusted as teens. So, encourage kids to pick something they’re excited to read, and give them time to dive in!

Try this: Teachers’ favorite books for teens

15. Adopt a classroom pet

Studies show interaction with animals can help decrease stress, improve physical and mental health, and help kids with their emotional and social skills. Consider adopting a classroom pet, or look into finding registered Pet Partners volunteers who can bring a therapy animal into your classroom.

Learn more: Dogs in the Classroom Improve SEL, Cognitive, and Even Reading Skills

16. Have a supply of adult coloring books on hand

Adult coloring book pages with colored pencils.
We Are Teachers

Feeling the tension in your classroom? Break out the crayons! Research shows that using adult coloring books can relax the brain, improve brain function, and boost focus while also reducing stress and anxiety. It can also help put us in a meditative state and lead to a good night’s sleep.

Try this: Best Calming Adult Coloring Books

17. Let the music flow

From stress relief and self-soothing to emotion regulation and physiological benefits, music can play a powerful role in mental health and well-being for many people. For teens, music often takes on an even greater significance—it can contribute to the process of identity formation. Whenever possible, allow your students to tune in to music.

Try this: Big List of School-Appropriate Songs

18. Try a meditation session

According to PsychCentral, “teenagers can use mindfulness practices to help reduce anxiety and stress and become more present in school, with friends, or at home.” Mindful partnered with WholeSchool Mindfulness to create a special collection of guided meditations designed to help students find more calm, joy, and compassion in their everyday lives. It’s a great resource for educators.

Try this: Best meditation sessions

19. Organize a digital detox

A digital detox for teens has several benefits, including improving social skills, enhancing the ability to read emotional cues in others, fostering better interpersonal relationships, and improving their overall sense of well-being. Additionally, reducing screen time encourages physical activity, which is crucial for mental and cardiovascular health. See how doing a digital detox challenge impacted students in British Columbia and New Hampshire.

Try this: Digital Detox | School and Groups

20. Eat mindfully

According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, mindful eating “is guided by four aspects: what to eat, why we eat what we eat, how much to eat, and how to eat.” It also expresses gratitude for the meal and may incorporate deep breathing or meditation before or after the meal.

Learn more: Mastering Mindful Eating (Grades 6-8) and Mastering Mindful Eating (Grades 9-12)

21. Allow snacks in your classroom

Collage of Healthy Snacks for Kids
We Are Teachers

As part of mindful eating, trust students to know when they need to feed their bodies. Yes, snacks can create messes in the classroom, but eating a healthy snack can help teens stay focused, give them energy, and keep hunger in check. Set expectations about keeping the classroom tidy and which types of snacks are acceptable.

Try it: Best healthy snacks for the classroom

22. Try aromatherapy

According to research, the scent of rosemary, sage, and peppermint may boost memory. In fact, one study “found that those who played memory games in a rosemary-scented room received higher scores than those who played them in an unscented room.” Another study showed that using “lavender and rosemary scented candles has been found to reduce the test pressure of nursing school students.” Before you rush out to buy candles and oils, though, be sure to check for sensitivities among your students.

Learn more: Ways To Help Students With Anxiety

23. Brain breaks are for big kids too

We all need a break sometimes, right? Brain breaks are a crucial part of the learning process for older kids as well as younger ones. These restful moments help teens relax and recharge, plus they create classroom community. So, feel free to take a breather!

Learn more: Educational Brain Breaks Your Students Will Love

24. Talk about sleep routines

Johns Hopkins Medicine emphasizes the importance of a good night’s rest for teens. Sleep allows our bodies to repair themselves and helps “prevent infections, rebuild our muscles and can even help our brains work better so that we can focus, prevent mood problems and helps our bodies function better.” Consider teaching students about the importance of good sleep hygiene through classroom workshops.

Try this: Teacher’s Guide: Sleep (Grades 6 to 8), Teacher’s Guide: Sleep (Grades 9 to 12)

25. Tell a creative story

Picture Writing prompts
We Are Teachers

Encourage teens to engage in creative storytelling where they can write and share their own stories or experiences. These sessions can unlock “the intricate emotional landscapes of teenagers” and help them with self-expression, identity exploration, communication skills, empathy and perspective-taking, as well as self-reflection.

Try this: Inspiring Picture Writing Prompts (Free Google Slides)

26. Leave space for quiet

Much of the typical school day involves busy, noisy interaction. Reserve time in your schedule for snippets of peace and quiet to give students time to settle down and focus. Run relaxing videos in the background or put on soft, soothing music during quiet work time. You could also dim the lights and light a few (battery-powered) candles to create a calm, comforting atmosphere for a few relaxing moments.

Try this: How To Use Transition Times for Mental and Emotional Health Check-Ins

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Also, check out Teaching Seniors at the End of the School Year: A 5-Step Survival Guide.

Looking for ways to support your teenage students' social-emotional well-being? Try these mental health activities for teens .