You hear a lot of teachers (including me!) talk about work-life balance. It’s a big deal. It’s important. Our job is exhausting and difficult, and we need time with our families and occasional time for ourselves as well. Teachers who don’t put self-care somewhere on the to-do list end up burned out and no use to anybody.
For some reason, though, that attitude doesn’t always extend to student mental health. We load kids up with hours of homework every night, after demanding their unremitting focus for seven hours of the day. Yet they have little or no break time built in to the work day. We get a planning period to stay on top of our responsibilities …our kids don’t.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. We know what our students need to know by the end of the year, we know how hard they need to work to learn it, and we know how important it is to their future success. We’re pushing them for their own good. But with stress a major complaint for today’s students, and with suicide as the second leading cause of death in teens, we’ve got to consider ways to help encourage good student mental health. Here are a few techniques I’ve used:
1. Talk about it.
Acknowledge their stress and anxiety…it’s real, and it’s a major part of their lives. Talking about stress and normalizing it helps kids know that they’re not alone. It’s easy to think that things are hard because of something you’re doing wrong, but being an adolescent is just hard, for everybody. Knowing that takes a little of the pressure off.
2. Teach time management.
When I assigned a project last week, my fifth period class lost their damn minds. You would have thought I asked them to build a full-scale Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks instead of make a poster about an aspect of their culture. So we scrapped the lesson plan and talked about what was on their to-do list that week. A math test, a science project, a social studies essay…it was a lot of work. We spent about an hour figuring out ways to prioritize their time and get it all done, and it was not at all a wasted class period.
3. Discuss strategies to work smart, not hard.
My students have to study a lot. We send kids to some of the top private high schools in the country, and it’s important that they be academically prepared. The problem is, they don’t know how to study. They sit there and hold their notes and maybe read them for a predetermined period of time and hope for the best. In my class, we talk about the importance of strategic breaks and figuring out how to study in a way that works for you.
4. Build in exercise periods.
My students are basically the only middle schoolers in the country that still get recess, thank God. But I also build in a five minute exercise period in every single class. The improvement I’ve seen in their focus can’t be overstated. And when they realize it helps them, they’re more likely to incorporate that into their home study habits, which is a win for everybody.
5. Have class outside.
It’s such an easy thing to do, but there’s a world of research out there that says this can have huge benefits for both you and your students.
6. Do some yoga.
I had the counselor come in and teach us how to do sun salutations a couple of years ago, and after that we did those one day a week as our in-class exercise. I can’t speak for the kids, but I know it definitely helped me be more relaxed and focused during our class period. (Be careful, though. I’ve had to abandon this recently, since I’ve reached a critical mass of two or more Jehovah’s Witnesses in each class period. Make sure you know your population before you try this one out.)
7. Encourage (and allow) your kids to have work-life balance.
Burnout is a real thing for kids, as well as teachers. It seems counterintuitive, but not assigning as much homework is likely to improve kids’ learning in your class. In secondary education, this is tricky, but I try to skip homework at least one night a week. Or maybe I give an assignment asking kids to read a story to a younger sibling or help a parent around the house, or discuss their day with a family member. Something that encourages them to connect with their families and relax a little.
There’s a great deal of pressure on both students and teachers in today’s system. We’ve learned ways to cope with the stress, but we have to find time to pass those strategies on to the kids we teach.
How do you promote positive student mental health? We’d love to hear in the comments.