Students are facing a mental health crisis. The COVID pandemic has led to soaring rates of depression and anxiety in children, and even more worryingly, increased suicidal thoughts and surging demand on emergency mental health services. Despite this, there are many opportunities where we can proactively engage students, detect issues, and help them overcome their emotional challenges. 

Experience and research have shown that children rely on supportive relationships with adults and peers to help them handle stressful situations. In particular, stable relationships with caring adults are key to helping children cope with “toxic stress” in their environment. While a small amount of stress can be manageable, and may in fact help us to prepare for a situation, or perform better, when it becomes overwhelming and persistent, we begin to think of it as being “toxic”. Toxic stress has been linked to many poor outcomes throughout the lifespan.

Are you feeling overwhelmed with your current responsibilities, or are you seeing behaviors manifesting from stress in your students? Our Stress Management: For Teachers and Their Students course gives practical strategies that you can use in your classroom, and for yourself, to help manage your stress.

Unfortunately the pandemic has resulted in children being socially and emotionally isolated from their support networks. These networks include family, friends, educators, and even fellow members of recreational clubs. Many children are also living in households who face financial, housing, and food insecurity. These households struggle to meet children’s emotional needs, and in some situations, may result in children being exposed to violence or neglect. 

Childhood and adolescence are filled with major life events, and usually children will look forward to events such as their birthday, summer vacation, or graduation. The pandemic has disrupted the ability of children to experience these events, and many children feel that not only is their life on hold, but that they will completely miss out on these, often age-specific, events. The disruption of the pandemic has also impacted behavioral and health services, such as speech & language therapy, mental health visits, or medical care. This has placed the burden back on families and children, who are already struggling.

With the crisis well under way, what practical steps can we take to improve student mental health?

Step One: Help Them Rebuild Connections

Help students map out how their social life looked before the pandemic. Which friends are they no longer seeing? Which clubs or organizations are they missing? Then, reframe these questions: how can they arrange video chats or use digital means to re-engage with their networks? 

Sometimes students need a motivational verbal nudge to help them to begin such a task. Providing students with a routine can also help them plan when they can catch up with friends and family. It can be useful to check in with students to see if they are running into any technical issues, such as limited home broadband, a lack of a webcam, or problems with their smartphone. Some people have advocated for writing traditional letters or postcards as a way of encouraging children to have deeper conversations with older members of their family.

Deep-dive into strategies for building social-emotional connections in the classroom in our course, SEL and Distance Learning: Empowering Your Students.

Always encourage students to understand that, just like in person, they should be wary of how they digitally interact with, and disclose information to, people that they do not know.

Step Two: Create Routine and Build Structure

Without a clear purpose, and without a clear daily routine, children can feel purposeless or lost. Providing some predictable and reliable structure to their day allows them to build regular activities around that structure. Some students respond particularly well to the use of visual schedules. Depending on whether the class is remote, hybrid, or in-person, full advantage should be taken of safe outdoor activities that involve exercise, or allow students to learn skills such as gardening or crafts. This structure can also help children develop a set sleep/wake rhythm

Step Three: Ask Questions, Actively Listen, and Address Concerns

Helping to create a comfortable environment to discuss emotions and mental health isn’t always easy. There are a few strategies that you can use to help students feel comfortable to discuss their emotions and concerns, and improve upon their social-emotional learning. One step is to let the student know that many other people may be sad or worried. You can also ask them about how their friends are feeling and coping – this can provide a way for the student to discuss the mental health challenges without solely focusing on their own experience.

Do you need to discuss a difficult topic with your student(s), and aren’t sure how to do so effectively? Take our 1-hour Brain Bite, How to Talk to Your Students About Scary News and Difficult Topics, to get practical tips and strategies today!

Educators, and even parents, can use certain types of questions to help students open up about their emotional wellbeing. One important step is to normalize the question; you can do this by stating that you are already aware the situation is difficult and that many people are struggling. This way, it almost provides permission for the student to be more open without feeling shamed or stigmatized about their mental health.

For example, you could ask:

“I know that many people are really stressed out. Do you know people around you who are stressed? Do you feel stressed out too?”

“When people feel sad, sometimes it is hard to tell other people, or to open up. Do you think you could tell someone if you start to feel sad? Have you felt sad recently?”

“Sometimes wearing masks and staying away from friends is hard. Has it been hard for you or any of your friends? How do people deal with it?”

“There are always so many news reports about COVID that it can be confusing to know what is going on. Is there anything you want to know about it? Is there anything that really worries you about it?”

Step Four: Always Look Out for Changes in Behavior

One way to identify when students are struggling is to look at a change in behavior. In some children, mental health problems may initially present as changes in sleep pattern, appetite, or taking care of their daily hygiene (showering, brushing of teeth). Some children may appear to be more angry or irritable, while others may seem to spend more time isolating themselves. Some older children or adolescents may try to control their emotions by turning to drugs, alcohol, or harmful online content.

It is important to keep each of these strategies in mind when helping your students adjust to our ‘new normal’, and supporting their social and emotional development. Do you have any other strategies that have worked for you? Share them with fellow educators below!