Today’s teachers are facing off with a national student mental health crisis.
One year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health, pointing to soaring hospitalization rates for mental health crises among children and teens. In October, they observed the anniversary of that declaration by sending a joint letter to the Biden administration asking members to issue a National Emergency Declaration, which would free up critical federal funding for identification and treatment of mental health disorders.
Across the state, teachers are seeking additional resources to help their students cope with increased levels of depression and anxiety, and more teachers are incorporating practices to improve student mental health into their everyday classroom routines.
“Today’s schools are asking their teachers to do much more with mental health, and they’re on the frontlines of this crisis, but most teachers are not trained to do that,” said Chris Conti, Education and Learning Trust (ELT) instructor and member of the BOCES Staff Association of Rockland County. His course, “The Happiness Classroom,” offered for the first time this year, details numerous strategies that teachers can use to improve students’ outlooks.
Rooted in positive psychology, Conti’s 10-session course does not wait until a student is in crisis; instead, the course trains educators to help students build sustaining habits that have been proven to ward off despair and insulate them against anxiety. Here, Conti shares some of those habits and why they work so well:
Most people have a “set level of happiness,” or how happy they feel on a regular day, Conti said. They may go through highs or lows, but afterwards, they tend to return to that baseline. Once people understand what their baseline is, they can learn more about tiny changes that raise their typical happiness level and make them feel more connected and energized on a regular basis.
Write about your life, specifically what is going right. It can be as easy as having students open a Google doc at the beginning of class, and writing about 3 things they are grateful for, Conti says. The practice trains students to recognize the positives in their lives. “Focusing on what makes them happy makes them more aware of how wonderful things really are,” he said.
Research has proven that physical activity lifts moods and improves mental health. Walking outside for just 10 minutes a day can relieve stress and ground us, said Conti. Educate students on the benefits of regular exercise and find ways to get students moving in and out of class.
Behavior is contagious. Don’t believe it? Try this experiment: Seat two students across from one another. Tell one to smile and the other to show no emotion. Nine times out of ten, the person who is not smiling will begin to smile because mirror neurons in their brains stimulate that action, Conti said. With this in mind, smile more. Try to use positive words and stories when you talk with your students. Studies show people perform better when they are operating in a positive environment. Model optimism and find the bright side of challenging situations.
ELT coursework is offered year-round and can be used for undergraduate, graduate and in-service credit as well as to fulfill Continuing Teacher and Leader Education requirements. For more information, go to elt.nysut.org.