How to Better Prepare Teachers to Address Student Mental Health

By Brian Soika

July 27, 2021

An elementary school student wearing a mask is exhausted by remote learning in class, highlighting the need for teachers to receive more training and support for student mental health services

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages, licensed under Creative Commons.

In the wake of the pandemic, educators broadly agree that schools should provide better mental health support for students. And as the people who see them most often during the school day, teachers are urged to identify those who may need help.

Of course, teachers are not counselors. Without proper training, they may lack the skills to spot signs of stress and trauma. 

Even if they have received some preparation, schools might lack the structure necessary to support them. 

“Hungry, homeless, stressed and vulnerable students have a harder time learning,” says Margo Pensavalle, Professor of Clinical Education. “Depending on the population of learners in a teacher’s classroom and the degree of social-emotional need, trying to [meet that need] can be overwhelming.”

Here’s how schools can support teachers in their efforts to provide better mental health services.

Prioritize Student Mental Health at the Leadership Level

The pandemic exacerbated a growing student mental health crisis

Moreover, advocates say that academic achievement is tied to trauma and stress, highlighting different ways addressing the problem can benefit students, and therefore districts.

However, measures such as providing a one-time training for teachers or hiring an additional counselor, while helpful, may be insufficient, depending on the scale of student need.

Rather, to succeed, schools likely need a commitment to mental health support that emanates from leadership, is woven into school climate, and includes a coordinated effort between administrators, counselors, teachers and others.

Create a System of Support

Using a system of wrap-around services, schools can provide a greater depth of support.

Teachers may integrate with counselors and nurses on site, and perhaps also coordinate with community organizations specializing in mental health or social services. 

“When these professionals have been able to work with teachers, with their varying expertise in a systems approach, success has been more probable,” notes Pensavalle. 

But funding is frequently a problem. When budgets need to be revised, these services are usually the first place where cuts are made, she adds. 

Provide Ongoing Professional Development

Standards in California broadly recommend that teacher preparation programs include some content regarding mental health. Otherwise, individual school districts decide how much, if any, training teachers should receive.

A study by the Learning Policy Institute examined the implementation of social-emotional learning (SEL), a key component of addressing mental health, in a K-12 environment in San Jose, CA. 

Findings recommend that schools provide training on how to teach social and emotional competencies and include follow up and ongoing coaching that is differentiated based on an individual’s experience and knowledge of the topic.

 

Build Relationships With Students and Families

When teachers build relationships with children, they feel more comfortable discussing their needs. 

Similarly, parents who trust that a teacher is looking out for their child’s best interest are more likely to share concerns or ask for help.

Some experts have recommended that when schools reopen they should use class time to let students openly discuss their experiences during the pandemic, rather than first racing to mitigate learning loss

Giving students an opportunity to share can help teachers assess need, and allow them to feel protected in the classroom.