We know what mental wellness looks like: students ready to learn, on-task, and engaged. With mental health challenges on the rise, and many school districts struggling to meet the mental health needs of their students, the need for mental health education has never been greater. “We expect kids to be mentally well,” says Kimberly Palocsay, eighth grade math teacher at Ohio Virtual Academy, “but we don’t train them for it.”
Mental wellness matters, now more than ever
There is a growing need for mental health support for youth. From anxiety to depression, which can be compounded by issues like bullying, trauma, and issues with access to basic needs, 20% of children and adolescents will experience a mental health concern during their school years.
Add to that the current coronavirus pandemic. Currently, more than 55 million students have had their school years cut short and are learning from home. Nine states have closed for the rest of the school year, and it is likely that more will soon follow. School closures, and the uncertainty that comes alongside it, can produce anxiety, stress, and fear . Parents and students are at a loss for the best ways to cope.
So, how can we strengthen students’ mental health when we aren’t with them every day? We talked with two teachers who emphasize mental health in their classrooms about how they’re incorporating these important skill sets into distance learning plans, and here’s what they had to say.
The first step for mental health is establishing a shared vocabulary
Many of the students enrolled in Ohio Virtual Academy choose online school because of mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, and bullying. Eighth grade math teacher Kimberly Palocsay uses EVERFI’s free online curriculum Mental Wellness Basics to check in with her students and give them the language they need to talk about mental health. The curriculum consists of four self-paced activities that take about fifteen minutes each. Palocsay uses the program’s framework as a tool for talking about mental health for an entire semester. And she predicts her students will use it for long after, too.
After completing Mental Wellness Basics, Palocsay says her students are able to think and speak more critically about their feelings and actions. “Once kids can name something, it becomes easier to understand and relate to. And for mental health, this can be a really important way to reduce stigma,” says Palocsay.
Teens’ lives are online, and their mental health education needs to be too
“Assessing and monitoring kids’ mental wellness in an online classroom is different than in a traditional school,” says Palocsay. You can’t just look at a child to see if they’re ready to learn. The online format of Mental Wellness Basics paved the way for her students to open up about their mental health. But the program works well for students in more traditional settings too. Tracy Bonebrake-Miller, a tenth grade teacher at Waynesboro High School in Pennsylvania has used Mental Wellness Basics with her health class while school was in session. Now that students have moved to virtual learning, she continues to use the lessons remotely and finds the content to be more relevant than ever. She appreciates the online format because students connect and engage with the topic in their own space and at their own pace.
We need to work on building self-awareness
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), self-awareness is one of the core social-emotional competencies that students need in order to succeed. Self-awareness is a cornerstone to mental health in that it allows someone to recognize when they may be struggling, and identify the tools necessary to get through it. When her students worked through Mental Wellness Basics, Palocsay noticed that they were quicker to name their own feelings and experiences. From there, she was able to help them enhance their self-awareness by talking through the impact of their actions and decisions on their overall well-being. For example, if they didn’t get enough sleep the night before, they might feel grumpy and snap at a friend.
Perspective-taking is another critical skill
Mental Wellness Basics has also helped Palocsay talk about perspective taking, an important social awareness competency. Teenagers can find it difficult to understand that others have the same feelings and responses they do. Just the awareness that others are going through the same thing—for instance, that parents may also be stressed about having to stay home—is helpful. “That was the biggest thing (my students) came back to me with,” says Palocsay. “They started having awareness of why their parents or others did what they did.”
Teens can—and will—develop self-care strategies that work for them
Even though her students have completed the program, Palocsay continues to embed the lessons learned from Mental Wellness Basics. She regularly encourages her students to talk about how their schedules and technology impact them and how they plan their days to get enough food and sleep. When students figure out how to use even simple strategies, like setting a reminder to go to bed on time, it has a ripple effect. Palocsay uses lessons from Mental Wellness Basics to help students practice mindfulness and stay present. For example, when a student logged in to Palocsay’s class and said he was too worried about the coronavirus to think about math, she encouraged him to try and let math take up the space he was using for worrying for a few minutes.
Starting a conversation about mental health can empower students now and in the future
Giving students a way to talk about mental wellness can help bring it into regular discussion. In Bonebrake-Miller’s class, students process what they learned online through open class discussions. That discussion can then extend to families. The hope, according to Palocsay, is that talking about mental wellness at school will spill into the home. Kids likely may not talk about traditional academics over the dinner table, says Palocsay, but they may share what they learned and thought about in Mental Wellness Basics and how it relates to them. The goal of starting with this online program is to ultimately give students a way to think and talk about mental wellness, so that they can foster a mental health mindset and advocate for themselves and others.
Thanks to our friends at EVERFI for sponsoring this post. Learn more about their free digital learning resources for social-emotional learning like the Mental Wellness Basics curriculum.