School is and always has been a social environment. Student life and learning are dependent on relationships, and it’s essential for teachers to help guide students as they navigate relationships with their peers. Students should be encouraged to look out for each other, especially as it relates to their mental health and well-being. Everyone experiences mental health challenges and empathy and understanding are important skills for students to cultivate as they explore their adolescence. Here are some ways that you can help encourage students to look out for each other’s mental well-being:
According to the National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, emotional safety is a situation where a student “feels safe to express emotions, security, and confidence to take risks and feel challenged and excited to try something new.” Creating an emotionally safe classroom will build feelings of community and empathy among your students, motivating them to help each other during difficult times.
You can start fostering an emotionally safe classroom environment by building your students’ emotional literacy on a daily basis. Teach your students the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and the basics of emotional granularity. Emotional granularity is the specificity with which we can describe the emotions we are feeling. Instead of saying they just feel “bad”, students can learn to pinpoint that they’re feeling “frustrated” or “anxious”. This can help you better address student needs. Individuals with high emotional granularity have been shown to be less likely to retaliate against someone who has hurt them and to be more flexible when trying to regulate their emotions.
Tip: Brain Health Basics is a free 1-hr program that you can easily adopt in your classroom to help students understand their mental health, build the vocabulary to talk about it, and self-advocate.
You can also invite your students to participate in planning parts of your schedule and provide choices whenever possible. This helps show your students that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and that they are contributing to the class as a whole. This feeling of purpose and kinship can both build community and build individual competence and self-worth.
Additionally, it might be helpful to stick to a routine or a set schedule, so that your students feel in control and know what to expect out of their day. You can also give your students advance notice of any changes in schedule, like if a substitute teacher will be in class or if there are changes to lesson plans.
Lastly, you can create a contract or have a discussion with your students regarding everyone’s responsibility to uphold a nonjudgemental environment. You could discuss simple ways to show respect for one another like not speaking when someone else is speaking, not name-calling or putting other people down, helping motivate peers when they need a boost, etc. Laying down some ground rules about how we should treat one another can set the tone for the class and remind students that we have a responsibility to look out for each other’s mental health and well-being.
Make sure to incorporate wellness regularly into your classroom. You can do this in small ways, like asking your students to describe how they are feeling at the beginning of the school day and encouraging them to do deep breathing exercises when they are feeling overwhelmed or stressed. This can help train your students to be better aware of their emotions. You can also highlight the importance of breaks– for both the brain and the body. This can be anything from a dance party or stretching breaks. Taking regular breaks can help students avoid burnout and fatigue, while also reminding them that they are not simply machines expected that are expected to work non-stop. When students are regularly practicing wellness, they can share techniques and coping strategies that work for them with their peers.
You can also set a good example for your students by showing an active interest and genuine care for their well-being. You can ask students if they’ve eaten breakfast that morning or if they’ve been getting enough sleep. Making these regular topics of discussion can create a culture of care and curiosity about each other’s well-being and encourage students to take interest in the mental health of their peers.
Educate your students on common warning signs that their friend may be experiencing a mental health crisis or that they should seek diagnoses and treatment for a mental illness. Common warning signs include extreme mood changes, significant tiredness/low energy, withdrawal from activities that they used to enjoy like sports or hanging out with friends, major changes in sleeping or eating habits, excessive hostility or violence, etc.
Remind your students that help is always available and that they are never alone when helping a friend in need. Students can be referred to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline– when people call, text, or chat 988, they will be connected to trained counselors who will listen, understand how their problems are affecting them, provide support, and connect them to resources if necessary. You can also remind students that they can always come to you for support and that you will do your best to provide advice or take action when needed.
Mental health challenges are hard to deal with alone. When students feel as though they are supported by their classmates, they will feel empowered and motivated to support their classmates in return.