“Kids want to share”: Schools work to help students overcome mental health issues in the classroom

The U.S. Department of Education urges districts to utilize federal funding to support emotional well-being in schools.
Published: Sep. 14, 2022 at 12:05 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - With a few simple strings, a cup, and a ping pong ball, teacher David Fox has crafted a lesson for his students on teamwork inside Francis C. Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia.

“What’s the goal of a team? Like, what’s the objective?” he asks before launching into the interactive game that challenges his students to strategize. The goal is to lift the ball into the cup using only the strings, but the lesson goes further than that.

“I don’t know how often they do share their deepest personal issues with you, but occasionally they do. They do open up sometimes,” says Mr. Fox about his advisory period that focuses on mental health.

Social-emotional academic learning periods like his are designed to be a daily opportunity for teachers to check in on their students while educating kids on skills to understand and manage emotions, set positive goals, and establish positive relationships.

“A lot of what we’ve sort of set up is this whole system where, like, we’re trying to build success and build comfort that way. Then, when we can check in and like see like we know our kids really well and we can say, hey, like it seems like you’re sort of off today,” said Fox, who also teaches history.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is encouraged by what he’s seeing happen inside many school districts nationwide. He is urging school leaders to use American Rescue Plan dollars to fund more mental health support.

“I’m really excited about what I’m seeing in many districts where they’re looking at mental health supports and emotional well-being as a core function. You know if kids are... not feeling well, if they’re anxious or if they have some other mental health needs, it’s going to be more difficult to learn. So, what I’m seeing and I’m excited about is additional social workers, additional liaison between the school and the families, so that we can get parent voice a little bit more in the education system,” Cardona said.

Last year the CDC found 37% percent of high school students had poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and 44% said they felt persistent sadness or hopelessness during that time. The survey also found that students who felt connected to their school, adults, and peers were less likely to feel that way.

“Kids want to share when stuff’s going on. People need to get it out,” said Mr. Fox. “So, asking questions, talking to kids, bringing up subjects, it’s more likely they’re going to share and say things. So, just not being too scared to ask questions of kids is usually a good way to get them to talk.”

Cardona supports the message of addressing mental health issues with a proactive approach.

“Schools are looking at this differently. In the past, it was when kids had an outburst or when they had an episode of need, of crisis, then we would kick in the supports. Now, we’re seeing better proactive strategies. And, we’re seeing districts invest in additional staff to make sure that student’s needs are being met,” he said.

Elisa Villanueva-Beard of Teach for America discussed the types of issues she believes teachers and students are facing.

“At Teach for America, we predominately work with children growing up in low income communities and children of color. There were already cracks on the in the system pre-COVID that our children were faced with and there was trauma and that our kids were bringing into classrooms already. Those cracks though have really become these gaping holes. Our kids have experienced loss, loss of life, loss of jobs, a lot of stress in their homes. You know, families have had to navigate the pandemic,” she said.

She emphasized the need to foster conditions for students to learn and for districts to also invest in counselors. She discussed the need to support the mental health of teachers as well.

“We can’t expect our educators to hold and create those conditions we’re talking about unless they themselves are feeling like their needs are met. Our teachers are overwhelmed. They’ve been through a lot. They’re overstretched and they are trying to, you know, meet the moment. They keep showing up. So, let’s make sure that our teachers get those basic needs,” she said.

She added Teach for America provides counseling for their teachers.

“Everyone should be doing that for our teachers and then investing in our teachers to ensure that they have trauma informed practices. Things like being able to build relationships with kids, knowing how to manage an emotional trigger and productively,” she said.

Villanueva-Beard said anyone who is influencing kids needs to understand tools of managing stress because they can influence of children respond.

Meanwhile, teachers like Mr. Fox plan to continue working to support his students in the classroom.

“I mean, personally, I want them to come to school and have fun. I want them to, like, be comfortable with their classmates. I want them to feel free to, like, be a kid and have a reason to look forward to school, especially if school is hard or challenging, or like some classes are boring. Because, we are all boring at some point. Like, that’s how we are. But - there’s a reason to get up and go to school, to see your friends, to play games, to like share something fun about yourself... To be willing to open up and share is sort of the end goal.”

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