How Does Mental Health Affect Children?
Updated: May 7
A common misconception is that young children are exempt from mental health issues since they are "too young." As an educator, it's important to know that mental health issues are just as relevant for young students. In addition, what mental health issues look like for their students and what causes them. This blog post is going to talk about childhood mental health and how you can make your classroom a place where mental health is addressed!
Toxic Stress: What is it?
Early childhood experiences are what organize the human brain. When a young child experiences a constant 'fight or flight' mentality within the home, otherwise toxic stress, it damages social skills, emotional response, response to stress, and can lead to behavioral issues. For these reasons, it is crucial that teachers know how to structure their classrooms in a way that helps these students while they are at school.
How to help
There are so many things educators can do to help student's mental health. All of these have to do with social-emotional learning for students. Social-emotional learning is essential to child development and students forming a healthy identity of themselves. All students, especially those who deal with toxic stress in the home, need a classroom that fosters strategies that teach social skills and emotional regulation skills.
Provide a stable environment
Students need stability, especially in the classroom as they spend the majority of their day there. One way to do this is structuring your classroom to follow the same schedule every day. Establish procedures in the classroom that become routine. For example, how you start and end the school day, a protocol for when students need to use the restroom or get water, and even how they should walk in the hallway. These may sound trivial, but students need consistency and organization. Stability in the classroom teaches self-control, and allows the students to feel familiar, safe, and comfortable in the environment.
You would be surprised how much students watch their teacher. Students not only learn from instruction but also from watching how their teacher responds in stressful situations. Especially as many of these students don't know how to manage emotions in a way that makes them feel in control. This can be achieved by talking through what you're doing and why you do it to teach healthy coping skills. Typically, students will do more intensive practices with the school counselor, but it's always a good idea to do this with the whole class and revisit it throughout the year. Practice these coping skills with students, and positively reinforce as much as you can!
Listen to students
Elementary students want to feel heard and understood. They want to know that their teacher knows about their life and care about them. A lot of students who experience toxic stress in the home simply want someone to talk to without exposing secrets to the whole class. An easy solution to this is a, "What I want you to know" jar. This jar is specifically meant for students to put notes, anonymous or not, of things they want the teacher to know. It could be big or little, but most importantly, they are things that are important to and on the student's mind.
Democracy in the classroom is essential in communicating to students that they're purposeful and important, and without them, the classroom wouldn't run the same. One effective way to have democracy is by assigning jobs to all the students! Class jobs build a better sense of community and interdependence in the classroom, building relationships among the students. Class jobs teach students responsibility and leadership, and, most of all, students feel important.
We hope these strategies are helpful and give you some ideas for your future classroom! Never forget that kids also deal with large problems, not just adults, so they need a teacher who is there for them and a classroom that makes them feel safe and comfortable.