Let’s take a quiz. These situations have one main commonality. What would you say it is?
FYI – names are purely fictional. The situation? Not so much.
- Timmy is a ninth grader who appears generally happy, but then he missed a few days of school and, when he returned, kept his head on his desk, didn’t interact with his friends, and was often tardy to class.
- Eve is a straight A, 11th grade junior who challenges herself with Honors and AP classes, but during the past week has missed three important assignments.
- Rachel is in third grade, daydreams in class and gets teary-eyed whenever you point it out.
- Max is a friendly fifth grader who just threw a tantrum in class without any provocation. His cuticles are picked, scabbed, and bloody.
- Stacey is a quiet and shy 12th grade senior who currently only has eyes for her boyfriend and is noticeably avoiding eye contact with everyone else.
- Bella, an eighth grader, is frequently tardy to school, is a little smelly, and refuses to participate in class, shrugging her shoulders and glaring whenever asked a question.
- Joey is in the fifth grade, always has a packed lunch but is never seen eating it. He’s been acting more physical at recess lately, running to the point of exhaustion.
These children have all crossed my path – either as my student, as children of friends, or as students of colleagues.
As for what they have in common? It’s not me, and it’s not being in school.
The answer: Every one of them has been suffering from emotional distress. Their weakened emotional wellbeing prevents them from using healthy coping skills to survive the stressors of their day. And without these coping mechanisms, their ability to focus and succeed in class is compromised.
What stressors could our children possibly be facing? What could be so bad that they can’t or won’t learn?
Here’s some additional background:
- Timmy’s father is out of the picture, his mom is an addict, and he was on a bus to a basketball game when he got word that he younger siblings were taken into foster care. He doesn’t know their whereabouts.
- Eve’s father has just been deployed overseas, she’s currently participating in the school play, and the drama director has kept all students longer than allowed for four nights in a row. She has averaged three to four hours of sleep for the past week and is exhausted and overwhelmed.
- Rachel’s mother passed away when she was two, and she just realized her memories are fading. She is panicked and scared.
- Max’s parents had a nasty divorce years ago, but they have yet to forgive one another and pull him into the middle of every argument. They fight in front of him, talk negatively about each other to him and force him to make choices between them.
- Stacey was excited her crush finally chose her and gave her the attention she always wanted, but part of that attention is having sex, against her will, on a regular basis. She feels ashamed of her actions, thinks her parents and teachers will no longer respect her, and fears that he will leave her with no one after what she has allowed.
- Bella’s grandfather has recently been diagnosed with cancer, plus she has been having multiple panic attacks at home regarding her own hormonal changes and her sexuality.
- Joey’s friend called him fat at recess. He’s never been the best athlete, but now feels more pressure to be both competitive and thin.
As teachers, what are we to do? Send Max to the office for his outburst so that he can have an in-school suspension or detention? Give Eve zeros because that’s what the policy states? Continue to tap on Timmy’s desk so that he raises his head? Badger Bella until she answers one question?
These strategies may have worked once upon a time, and still may in some situations; however, as a teacher, it is now becoming an essential part of our job to recognize the root causes for such behavior.
If we cannot get to the WHY of their actions, then our discipline plan will only solve the problem in the moment, a band-aid if you will, and won’t help the child in the long-run.
Emotional Wellbeing: 10 Important Ways Teachers Can Help
We may not be trained in psychology or counseling but we are often the one constant adult in our children’s lives. It is important that we are watchful and vigilant. We need to know more than our students’ names, hobbies or interests; we need to know them because we need to know when a behavior or action is outside of their normal range.
1. Talk to them. It may seem basic, but if you make eye contact, ask questions, and then follow up with them later, your student will see that it’s more than small talk and that you actually listen.
2. Use I statements. Use “I” statements such as “I notice you’ve been tardy” or “I worry that you’ve missed three homework assignments this week.” This strategy deflects blame and guilt from your student and emphasizes your concerns, making room for deeper conversation.
3. Allow them time. Sometimes a student just needs to walk. Ask them to run something to another teacher – even if it’s a note that only says “hi” to a colleague. Even better, send them with a note to the counselor or person responsible for pastoral care, possibly even informing them that you think something is wrong and that your student needs them.
4. Compliment the positive. Students often feel invisible and they misinterpret situations. For instance, last week, I told my daughter that I was proud of her maturity, independence and understanding as she navigated feeling too young to “hang” with her cousin and friend, yet too old to play her younger sister’s games. She was astonished. She felt that she was in the way. No one, from her cousin, her cousin’s friend or her sister believed that to be true. In fact, they loved every moment they spent with her. My daughter seemed happy and acted with grace. I had no idea she felt isolated. Whenever you can, be sure to acknowledge the positive, both the small actions and the larger ones, because even the most well-balanced kids do not always understand how well they are doing.
5. Parent involvement. Whenever possible, involve the child’s parents or guardians. Have them sign homework assignments throughout the year, give bonus points for parents helping with essays, and so forth – you can learn a lot about a student’s home life by what is, and isn’t, signed and the responses you get.
6. Communicate classroom happenings. If you reach out to parents regularly through a class newsletter, e-mail updates or notifications about your website, parents will feel more comfortable talking to you about more concerning matters at home.
7. Look beyond the behavior. Max had an outburst. Who cares? Okay, you definitely did in the moment, but be sure that Max knows you care more about him than what he did while frustrated. Make sure kids know that every day (or every bell) marks a brand-new day in your classroom.
8. Be patient and compassionate. There are days when kids will test you to your very core and you will want to lash out in equal measure. Walk away. Breathe deeply. Close your eyes. Find your inner peace. Count to ten. Then and only then, address the behavior and not the student. This is not the time to enter battle. Find out the true enemy and become a united team.
9. Use your school resources. Talk to past teachers, current teachers, counselors, administrators, secretaries, nurses, paraprofessionals, psychologists, coaches, and anyone else who interacts with your student. Like parents, they may see a different side to your student and have approaches that work when your approaches fail. I had the math teacher bribe one of mine to do his English work. He’d do it when she asked, not when I did!
10. Be flexible. Is it more important that a student learn a concept, or that they learn it by Tuesday? Classroom policies and guidelines are a good way to set standards and expectations. However, in our own households, sometimes even we need permission to make mistakes without suffering the consequences. Our students need that permission too. Yes, there are moments when that detention or zero is exactly what is needed; however, there are also moments when it is more important to value the emotional wellbeing of the student, when that extra day with no lecture or consequence results in gratitude that you would never have expected – with even more positive consequences to come.
Addressing the emotional wellbeing of students is hard – especially as you’re already balancing the educational demands of helping your students in both learning and life. You will feel pulled in multiple directions as you try to do your best to help the kids in your care, and you may never actually see the benefits of your actions.
Know you are doing good.
Know you are helping students more than you realize.
Know you are impacting kids in ways that may never be noticed.
Know that you are that one person who can do it, and in knowing that, you will already be doing an amazing job.
RELATED: Wellbeing Tools for Students
Don’t miss our brand new resource for supporting students – 36 Coping Skills for Kids cards and poster.