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How Teachers Help Students with Mental Health Disorders

Teachers are expected to do so much with students in only six hours a day.

It would be an easy job if all they had to do was teach the subject matter and go home. But their jobs are far greater.

Teachers are expected to act as parents, counselors, disciplinarians, tutors, and more. They have to create lesson plans, grade papers, coaching duties, mentoring clubs, attend meetings, communications with parents, and teaching. Classroom sizes range from fifteen to thirty students.

If only five of those have mental health problems, that is a huge burden for the teacher. Not only does he or she have to teach subject material geared so students can pass the state testing, they also have to do this while dealing with the mental health issues kids may be exhibiting.

In addition, teachers may have their own mental health issues to overcome each day.

As a parent, you want to make sure your child’s learning environment is set up so they are successful.

Learning about the mental health disorders that are most common among kids is a good first step. You can also learn what your child’s teacher should be doing to help, what they should not be doing, and what you can do to make it better.

Common Mental Health Disorders Among Students

Mental health disorders in schools are on the rise with reports showing one in five students experiencing mental health problems.

The most common mental health disorders among students are depression, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, tourette syndrome, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, substance abuse and eating disorders.

School systems have many resources available to students and families to help with diagnosing and treating most issues.

A school can have counselors, school psychologists, social workers, teacher aids, student aids, learning development classrooms, time out classrooms, and many alternative teaching abilities.

It is important to implement these into a child’s teaching plan.

Recognizing Mental Health Disorders in Students

Depression and anxiety can be seen in students who sleep throughout class, seem tearful or exhibit crying at different times throughout the day, or just seem sad or to have the blues.

They may also skip school to stay in bed or out of fear of leaving their comfort zone. Attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is quite noticeable in students’ behaviors.  They are high energy and find it hard to sit still or stay focused on tasks.

They may find it hard to sit still and without even thinking about it, they get out of their desk and move around the room.

The one disorder that may not be as obvious in the classroom is an eating disorder.

However, a student with an eating disorder can have very difficult time learning. On top of looking for specific eating behaviors that are associated with disorders, teachers can also look out for the student being withdrawn or isolated, weight loss, or trying to cover up their weight loss with baggy clothing.

Substance abuse is another area of importance and most of the time, a student who has been using substances exhibits noticeable behaviors including slurred words, staggering walk, falling asleep or hyperactivity that is unusual for the student.

How Teachers Help Students with Mental Health Disorders

Teachers can take steps in their classroom to help recognize mental health issues in students.

They can educate themselves and others on the symptoms of mental health issues, provide a safe environment, encourage good health, and help students access mental health resources. PBS News explains that students spend six or more hours a day at school and it is inevitable that teachers will encounter the mental health issues of students.

A teacher’s perceptions of mental health disorders, their role in regards to a student’s mental health disorders and the barriers to helping a student is important to their success.

There is a clear connection between mental health and academic performance.

If a student is dealing with social anxiety, it may be harder for them to participate in a class group discussion. If a student has an eating disorder, they will not feel comfortable during the class food party. If a student has been through a trauma such as sexual abuse the night before, they are certainly not going to care how to solve word problems in math. Teachers can make a difference just by recognizing signs and symptoms students are exhibiting.

Each mental health disorder has its own set of emotional and behavioral symptoms.

In addition, teachers can take steps to be culturally sensitive, create awareness, and work with students and their families to make sure the students are receiving the best help available.

Having a flexible classroom culture can help students with mental health disorders because the kids aren’t expected to be perfect.

Instead, they are expected to work on improving their own behavior through self-regulation and taking opportunities to figure out what they need to make their behaviors better.

Responding to a student’s mental health disorder can be done with several strategies including: teaching the student’s problem solving skills, helping students set goals, creating accommodations for the student when situations arise that need interventions or redirection.

Accommodations that teachers can give to students include the following:

  • Special seating, especially near the door to allow leaving class for breaks
  • Assigned classmate as volunteer assistant
  • Beverages permitted in class
  • Tape recorder use
  • Note taker or photocopy of another student’s notes
  • Private feedback on academic performance
  • Exams in alternate format such as orally versus essay form
  • Use of assistive computer software to help them sear or understand better
  • Extended time for test taking
  • Exam in a separate, quiet, and non-distracting room
  • Substitute assignments in specific circumstances
  • Permission to submit assignments handwritten rather than typed
  • Written assignments in lieu of oral presentations or vice versa
  • Extended time to complete assignments

Teachers can send healthy messages to students.

Help students realize their self-worth is not based on grades, that mental wellbeing is just as important as academic performance, and that they are supportive of them. Mental Health America suggests there are several things a teacher can do to promote positive mental health among students.

  • Know the warning signs of mental illness
  • Seek the help of school counselors or psychologists to determine if testing or assessments are needed for the student.
  • Implement preventive techniques with students, including social skills training
  • Educate students on mental health
  • Crisis counseling for students following a traumatic event
  • Classroom management skills training for teachers.
  • Allow your students to discuss troubling events at school or in the community
  • Encourage students to verbally describe their emotions

Teachers Hindering Mental Health

Signs that your child’s teacher is hindering your child’s mental health include not welcoming parents, retaliation on students who report to their parents, dropping grades, fatigue, stress, negative statements made about teacher.

Teachers can be bullies and although rare, they are usually older teachers or those considered veterans of the school. They rarely get punished for their behavior.

At each school there is at least one teacher who can be identified as mistreating students or having favorites/ non-favorites. Bullying by teachers is complex because there can be a thin line between disciplining a student and abusing a student.  While teacher bullying is rare, it has happened in some schools.

Other ways your child’s teacher may be hindering their success is by ignoring their problems, by not referring them to in school mental health professionals, and by not informing you of any issues. Steps to take if your child is being bullied include going up the chain of command, help your child have confidence, do not let the bullying continue; talk with your child before going straight to the teacher and complaining.

You want to make sure your child knows what is going on every step of the way so they do not encounter any surprises at school and so they know what to report to you if there are ever cases of retaliation.

There seems to be a lack of school policies addressing how to handle teachers who are found to be bullying students.

There are plenty of resources for teachers who get bullied by students.  However, not much is available when the student is the one being bullied by the teacher. As a parent, you can help implement such policies by working with the school to create them.

Areas for Teacher Improvement

Most teachers do not claim to be experts in the field of mental health and they will most likely say this is one area that they need improvement.

One specific area of improvement for teachers is their level of training they receive regarding mental health disabilities among students. Fortunately, teachers have access to many avenues of training. Educating teachers needs to be a priority.

There are many things teachers can learn about mental health among students. Recognize the difference between bad behavior and mental health issue. Recognize warning signs. Connect the student to resources. Work with parents. By doing so, teachers can help the students feel welcome and encourage them to learn, help parents feel confident in where they are sending their child for a proper education, and the teacher to feel confident in how to handle children with problems. It is not okay for a teacher to call student names, to constantly punish one kid for a particular behavior that all kids may be doing, or for a teacher to neglect a child because he or she does not want to deal with their mental health issue.

Teachers have a huge impact on each child they teach.

Therefore, it is important that teachers receive the mental health treatment they too may need. Maybe it is a vacation they need; maybe it is counseling and medication. Whatever it is, the school needs to pay attention to the needs of each teacher so they are at their fullest ability when teaching.

The administrators need to be mindful enough to help teachers who may be struggling with their own mental health.

This should not be ignored. The teacher’s mental health status will directly impact the student’s mental health status.

What Can Parents Do

Documenting everything is the first and most important step of trying to get changes made in your child’s education.

If it is not documented, it did not happen.

As a parent, you can make sure your child’s mental health issue is under control by keeping your child in treatment. You can be mindful of the triggers that your child may encounter and teach your child how to handle these situations.

Keep the lines of communication completely open with your child’s teacher and do not get defensive if they have bad news. Focus on finding a solution to the problem together. Do not defend your child if your child has done something wrong.

Your child needs to know that he will not get away with bad behaviors at home or school. Make sure your child takes his or her medications on time every day. Working with your child’s teacher and school will make the learning environment best for everyone in the classroom.

Show your child’s teacher that you support him or her and that you value their input and assistance. Do not make your child’s teacher the enemy. Work as a team to meet the needs of your child.

Volunteer at your child’s school or in his or her classroom and be an assistant to the teacher.

You will learn a great deal about what a teacher faces each day and also about how your child’s teacher responds to negative situations. You can also do some impromptu training of the teacher and show them how to best to respond to your child’s mental health issues when they arise. But be willing to accept feedback from the teacher about your methods. Be open minded. Be a model parent that other parents can follow when they encounter difficult situations.

Finally, make sure your child feels loved and cared for unconditionally.