As an educator, the health and safety of your students are your priority. A key component of these aspects is mental health, which affects both students and teachers alike. In order to optimize learning, schools need to create a culture where students and teachers feel safe, valued, and capable and where stress is reduced. If you are looking to improve mental health in your school, district, or classroom, we have a few tips from one of our resident learning designers, Courtney Lofgren, to help you get started.
Mental Health for Students
Student Stress and the Learning Gap
Student stress is the result of many factors. It can be classified into one of three categories, positive stress, tolerable stress, or toxic stress, according to The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University¹.
Positive stress refers to brief increases in heart rate or the emission of the body’s natural stress hormones. Examples of this type of stress include meeting new people or being placed in a new environment, and it can be addressed with the support of attentive, caring adults that provide a safe and positive relationship. This type of stress can be seen as a normal part of the developmental process.
Tolerable stress refers to the type of stress that can negatively impact the brain, but it fails to do so due to the brevity of the exposure. Examples of this type of stress include the grief of losing a loved one, the separation of a parental union, or the stress of a car accident. In these scenarios, the student still has a plethora of support from adults around them and a safe environment to aid in the coping process. Should this network of support cease to exist, this type of stress can become toxic to the student's development.
Toxic stress is the result of the prolonged necessity to activate the body’s stress management system, and it can stem from events that are chronic, unforeseen, or uncontrollable. Studies indicate that this type of stress in extreme amounts can cause the parts of the brain involved in fear, anxiety, and impulsive responses to overproduce neural connections. It can also leave the regions attributed to reasoning, planning, and behavioral control to produce a decreased amount of neural connections. This has the potential to increase the risk of physical and mental illnesses in life and increase the difficulty of learning in an academic setting.
No matter the type, stress results in the production of cortisol, which can cause students to become fixated on the stimuli. Though not traditionally thought of as a stressful event, earning an academic grade that is lower than desired or expected has the power to produce cortisol, making it difficult for students to move forward on their academic journey. To remedy this, we’d like to show you how providing students with equitable access to high-quality resources and grade-level work can alleviate stress and promote improved mental health and academic progression.
Reducing Stress and Promoting Mental Health
Providing equitable access to high-quality resources has the power to equip students with the tools they need to build confidence, reduce stress, and avoid a fixation on negative results. This fixation has the tendency to contribute to what’s known as the “learning gap” and nurtures poor mental health. It can also help students who are not currently reading at their respective grade level. Whether you are in search of pre-made resources or are looking to create them yourself, we’ve put together a list of tips that can help!
Once you’ve found quality resources to supplement instruction, you should begin to include regular read-aloud and shared reading experiences in your classroom. These activities provide opportunities for you to model key skills, such as fluency, while allowing your students to explore more complex texts with guided support. As you and your students engage in these activities, you will continue to build the foundation for proficient readers.
How Can Teachers Support Students’ Mental Health?
Working with students through the pandemic and its aftermath has highlighted the importance of focusing on students’ mental health. For many of us, this has required a shift in our thinking, instructional practice, and the resources we use with our students. As a teacher, you can support your students’ mental well-being by providing meaningful opportunities for them to learn about and discuss a variety of mental health topics. Facilitating conversations about age-appropriate topics can be quite beneficial, as they allow students to express their perspectives, learn from their peers, and collaborate to make one another feel seen, heard, and understood. To do so, contact your school administrators to determine which topics are appropriate. As you and your school or district’s leadership collaborate to determine what is best for your students, you can utilize social-emotional learning resources to guide your conversations. With the right tools, resources, and procedures in place, you will be able to foster a welcoming environment for every child while reducing stress and promoting positive mental health.
Mental Health for Teachers
Why Is Mental Health Important for Teachers?
Our teachers’ mental well-being is also paramount for learning success. In addition to teachers often prioritizing others’ needs ahead of their own, their careers come with a wide range and depth of responsibilities. This can result in teachers becoming overwhelmed with stress, which negatively impacts their mental health and classroom learning and contributes to the risk of teacher burnout. In fact, according to the 2017 American Federation of Teachers Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, 58% of the teachers that were surveyed indicated that they had poor mental health due to stress². From struggling to accomplish everything in the workday to a lack of time for self-care or close relationships, teachers across the globe often struggle with their mental health, making it harder to feel motivated, address learning gaps, and more.
Improving Teachers’ Mental Health
According to a nationally representative 2021 survey by the EdWeek Research Center, “41 percent of teachers said they feel like they’re less effective at their job when they’re stressed³,” indicating that this issue has the power to impact the learning gap in classrooms around the country. The stress teachers experience is due to a myriad of issues, including growing lists of responsibilities, an increased focus on student data and how teachers are delivering instruction, and the subjects they are covering. As a result, teachers can feel micromanaged and under-equipped.
Luckily, this same study indicated that only 2% of the teachers that were surveyed felt that there is nothing their school or district could do to alleviate stress. To aid with remedying this issue, here are a few ways to promote positive mental health for teachers.
- Give them more time: According to the EdWeek study, teachers expressed that being provided more time to plan for prospective lessons or catch up on tasks would be helpful in alleviating stress. Moreover, teachers indicated that it would be helpful to waive some of the expectations or requested tasks, and, instead, use that time to catch up as much as possible.
- Self-care programming: 11% of the teachers that were surveyed indicated that self-care could be helpful. This can include yoga, meditation, or other programming that will encourage relaxation and the reduction of stress.
- Empower educators: In addition to self-care, having a “seat at the table” can help. This involves giving teachers the opportunity to provide input on new or existing initiatives and implementing their feedback.
Setting Teachers and Students Up For Success
It is no secret that stress can take away from the mental well-being of both students and teachers. Though the stimulus for this can vary widely, stress has the ability to exacerbate the learning gap educators may have witnessed in their classrooms and increase teacher burnout. As you work to improve mental health for yourself and your students, we recommend that you begin by prioritizing self-care and letting your administration know. Though it can seem a little daunting, letting your administration know will allow them to find ways such as empowering teachers and granting them more time to catch up on tasks, prepare for lessons, and more to foster positive mental health. After all, happier teachers equals happier students!
Relieve Stress and Promote Mental Health
Check out our social-emotional learning resources for more information on how you can relieve stress in your school, district, or classroom today!Social-Emotional Learning
- Scientific Council on The Developing Child, National. “Excessive Stress Disrupts the Development of Brain Architecture.” Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain, 2014, pp. 1–12, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2005/05/Stress_Disrupts_Architecture_Developing_Brain-1.pdf.
- American Federation of Teachers, and Badass Teachers Association. “2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey - Aft.” Aft.Org, 2017, www.aft.org/sites/default/files/media/2017/2017_eqwl_survey_web.pdf.
- Will, Madeline. “Teachers Are Not Ok, Even Though We Need Them to Be.” Education Week, 9 June 2022, www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09#:~:text=Sixty%20percent%20of%20teachers%20say,Research%20Center%20conducted%20in%20July.