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May 11, 2021

Mental Health Matters: 14 Strategies for Your School

It doesn't have to be a heavy lift. Here are 14 small things you can do to make improving everyone's mental health a priority in your school.

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Have you ever been sad and couldn’t figure out why? Have you felt so nervous about doing something that you backed out of it entirely? Has anger ever overwhelmed you to a point where you can’t contain it in your body? Guess what? You’ve dealt with a mental health challenge and you’re not alone…especially in this last year.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported last June 40% of adults admitted they struggle with their mental health and more of us experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression between April and September last year than during those same three months in 2019.

It isn’t just the grownups struggling with mental health right now.

More than 1.5 million people took Mental Health America’s (MHA) online screening tool between January and September 2020 to determine if what they were feeling was a symptom of a mental health condition.

  • Between March and September last year, 8 out of every 10 young people (ages 11-17) taking the anxiety screener had scores indicating moderate to severe anxiety.[1]
  • In September alone, 9 out of 10 young people taking the depression screener experienced moderate to severe depression – that’s more than 38,000 kids actively experiencing symptoms of depression in a single month.

With so many of us experiencing mental health challenges, it seems critical to figure out how to start addressing it.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and after the year we’ve had, it feels more important and relevant than ever. This year’s theme is a continuation on last year’s “Tools 2 Thrive” campaign with a goal of providing “practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase their resiliency regardless of their personal situation."

The theme is perfect for this moment.

GIF of young boy looking at the contents of a mixing bowl as he waves his hand and says "Perfect", turns around and walks away.

Susan Barrett and Dr. Brandi Simonsen thought so, too. Together, they’ve created a social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook called #SchoolWellnessPBIS. The idea behind the hashtag was to curate a list of tips and resources for incorporating positive mental health strategies in the classroom. As Dr. Simonsen shared with us, “We’ve learned through research and practice that mental health and wellness are skills we can teach…We wanted share some of the strategies we can explicitly teach kids to help them handle feelings that aren’t pleasant. What are the small things we can do to respond in those moments and what are the ways any of us can access help when it’s all too much?” The campaign includes proactive strategies and responsive ones, as well as ideas spanning the continuum of supports you can provide in school.

We thought we’d share some of those micro-strategies from the campaign along with some other ideas from the field. Here are 14 small things you can do to increase everyone’s resiliency on the road toward positive mental health.

Disrupt the Rut

A routine is great…until it feels like a rut. Switch things up every now and then to see a problem from a new perspective and break up the monotony of the day.

1. Drop Something from the Agenda

Have you ever been to a meeting that could have been an email? The gift of time is always appreciated, but especially now. If there’s a meeting and your presence isn’t required, ask a colleague in attendance to fill you in later. Could you give your students a break from homework? Yes? So, do it. I promise you, no one will be upset if you cancel that math assignment tonight.

2. Take It Outside

It always feels fresh to do something in a new place. I distinctly remember the times my teachers took our class to sit in the grass and listen to a lecture under a shady tree. Class feels more casual out there and the boost from the vitamin D won’t hurt.

3. Incorporate Joy

What are the things your students love? Could you bring some of those things into the classroom? Try learning a TikTok dance as a class. Surprise students with small containers of slime or kinetic sand they can play with at their desk for a few minutes. Everyone is working so hard to meet due dates, standards, and GPA requirements, making time for laughter is a welcome change.

Make Space for Rest

Your work and your students’ work require energy and focus – two things we don’t have in unlimited supply. There isn’t one way to take a break. In fact, here are a few.

4. Take a Breath…or Several

When you notice your heart is pounding, that’s a good time to give yourself a break. According to Harvard Health Publishing deep, abdominal breathing can slow your heartbeat and lower or stabilize your blood pressure. For those times when you can’t take a long pause from what you’re doing, incorporating this practice into your day is easy. The internet is full of videos to guide you through what it feels like to take slow, purposeful breaths. These are some of my favorites.

5. Get Away from the Screens

I recently sent an email to someone to schedule a meeting and received an automatic response. It said:

“I’m taking a break from screens and emails. I’ll be back to respond to your message on ___. If you need immediate assistance, please contact _____ at ____.”

BRILLIANT. They weren’t on vacation; they weren’t responding to emails or scheduling any Zooms. The automated response let me know when I would hear back from them and who to contact if my question was urgent. Everyone needs a break. A scheduled, no-screens break is an easy way to give yourself a little time to regroup without the added stress of finding a sub.

6. Create a Quiet Physical Space

Rooms with bright colors, fluorescent lights, and loud talkers rarely offer a sense of peace. (To all the kindergarten teachers out there, I see you.) That’s why schools like Stanley Switlik Elementary School in Marathon, FL partnered with Florida Keys Healthy Start Coalition and the Edward and Joan T. Knight Foundation to create a relaxation room for teachers and staff. The room offers salt lamps, massage chairs, drawing supplies, and healthy snacks. It’s a place teachers can go to get away from the noise for a minute and embrace a little zen. Your space doesn’t need to have a massage chair to provide a peaceful place of rest. What space could you transform into a relaxation room in your school?

Don’t Fix What Isn’t Broke

The PBIS systems and practices you already have in place in your school create consistency when so much of the world is chaotic. School is a reliable haven for so many students and their families. If you’re going to keep doing something, keep doing these things.

7. Use Data

Your team probably has a good feel for where more support is needed. It still doesn’t hurt to ask. Confirm your instincts with data. The School Climate Survey is one way to recruit input from everyone in your building – students, families, and staff – on what’s working well and what could be improved. If you didn’t incorporate the SCS in your action plan this year, get it in the calendar now to take it at the beginning of next year.

8. Say Hello

When students know there is an adult in the building who cares about them, they are more likely to show up to class. The simple act of saying hello to students as they enter class, acknowledging them by name, and starting the period on a positive note sets everyone up to be more successful. If you’re already in the habit of saying hey to your students, let me ask you this: When was the last time you said hello to a colleague? When you’ve mastered the practice with your students, try it out with the adults around you, too. #SchoolWellnessPBIS

9. Praise the Process

Rewards in PBIS can be a controversial topic. One thing is for sure: acknowledging someone’s effort is always appreciated. Catch yourself noticing a student’s effort, even if they weren’t 100% successful. Maybe David, who hasn’t turned his camera on all year, finally turned it on for the last five minutes of class today. That’s progress, baby and it deserves some recognition. Be on the lookout for those moments when students are trying their best. Tell them they’ve done well even if they failed. Acknowledge the effort and encourage them to keep trying.

10. Request Assistance When You Need It

You won’t be able to solve every situation with deep breathing exercises. When the challenge is more than you or a student can handle on your own, it’s important to have a process in place for everyone to access help when they need it. Make sure you have a way to submit your request to a student support team who can evaluate the need and connect you, your student, or their family with the resources they need.

Create a Community of Support

Beyond the self-care strategies and how we react when others are struggling, it is equally important to create proactive communities of care. When you care for folks as part of a community, there is trust, respect, and a mutual responsibility to show up for each other in both the good times and the bad times. A community doesn’t just happen, but you can create one. These are just a few ideas to get you started.

11. Connect with Families

Engaging families in your PBIS implementation creates a network of partners outside of school who are committed to sustaining your efforts beyond the school day.[2] One strategy to check out is the Flamboyan Foundation’s Welcome Call Planning Tool. As this year winds down and you start thinking of the first impressions you want to make in the fall, print out a copy of the tool and find a way to incorporate it into the way you welcome new students and their families to your classroom. #SchoolWellnessPBIS

12. Celebrate Community and Culture in the Classroom

There is likely more than one culture represented in your school community. When you look around the hallways and in the classrooms, is every student identity reflected on the walls? In the curriculum? In your parent-teacher organization? Celebrate the unique and vibrant identities they bring with them into your school. Show them you value their history and welcome them exactly as they are.

13. Talk to Folks Where They Like to Talk

On a recent episode of Expert Instruction, Kitty Clemens from Cedarhurst School talked about successfully using text message to communicate with students throughout this pandemic year. “We learned that kids don’t use phones and they don’t use email…That’s something I would definitely recommend to anyone. If you can get a couple of cell phones and use them to communicate with kids, you’ll have a much better response.” Personally, it’s easier for me to talk about how I’m feeling over text. I don’t have the pressure of looking someone in the eye and I can take a little more time in my responses. If you’re looking to make connections, think beyond phone calls and emails and find a way to talk with folks that works best for them

14. Give Your Feelings a Description

It can be frustrating to feel a feeling and not know how to describe it. Sometimes language is all you need to start feeling better. MHA offers a guided journaling template and a Worst-Case Scenario template. Both help you dissect the thing you’re dealing with by breaking it down to its more objective, observable parts. It’s a nice strategy to gain a little more control over a chaotic feeling.

The professional part of our lives will always find a way to make its needs known and required. It’s up to us to cultivate a climate of personal reflection with moments to build relationships and check in on each other. For more ideas on how you can incorporate a focus on mental health in your classroom, be sure to check out #SchoolWellnessPBIS on Twitter and Facebook. Use the hashtag and add the things you're doing in your school, too. Join in the conversation!

1. Mental Health America. (2021). COVID-19 and Mental Health: A Growing Crisis.
https://mhanational.org/sites/default/files/Spotlight%202021%20-%20COVID-19%20and%20Mental%20Health.pdf
2. Weist, M. D., Garbacz, S. A., Lane, K. L., & Kincaid, D. (2017). Aligning and integrating family engagement in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS): Concepts and strategies for families and schools in Key contexts. Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education). Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Press.
Megan Cave

About

Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.