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How to recognize, handle students’ emotional wellness woes

Practical ways to help emotionally struggling students

6 min read


How to recognize, handle students’ emotional wellness woes

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Teachers aren’t therapists, but they’re being asked to help repair students’ social and emotional wellness after more than a year of pandemic upheaval that has left so many students depressed and stressed about their family’s health, housing security, job security, domestic violence, social interactions and more, according to licensed clinical social workers Rosemary Anderson and Jamaica Murphy

In a recent SmartBrief webinar about student mental wellness, they acknowledged that addressing those issues — during a day packed with closing learning gaps, managing virtual and in-person classrooms, connecting with tutors and filling in for missing colleagues — can be difficult. Neverthless, it’s vital, said Anderson, who also is an education consultant, and Murphy, who specializes in children and families. They offered several signs and symptoms of student mental wellness issues as well as practical tips for dealing with them.

Red flags for worrisome mental wellness

Anxiety, depression and new or exacerbated attention-deficit/hyperactivity issues are the problems Murphy is seeing the most. “Many students are finding it difficult to transition back to in-person school. A lot of students have lost their sense of security, opportunity, hopes and dreams. The pandemic has left some students unsure about going to college now or created separation anxiety for some students who are fearful of leaving their parents. Many have lost someone during the pandemic,” she said.  

Murphy and Anderson said educators should keep an eye out for any change — especially a consistent pattern — in a student’s baseline behavior, including: 

  • Ability to focus
  • Motivation level
  • Excitement about learning
  • Personality changes; for instance, subdued instead of chatty
  • Frequent tardiness
  • Appearance; for instance, going from tidy or fashionable to sloppy
  • Ability to connect when urged to speak up

Watch not only for interactions with you but with other students. “Peer interactions are hugely important to them,” Anderson said, and many students are worried about reestablishing connections lost during the pandemic. 

Teachers can ask each student to rate themselves on a social-emotional check-in scale every day on a 1-to-10 scale or via illustrated via emojis or animals. Kahoot, QR codes and color systems also can work.

But, Murphy warns, “you can’t do it and not follow through. Students need it to become a daily habit and routine that they know you’ll follow up with.”

Repairing what’s broken

A classroom culture that embraces the normalcy of varied social and emotional states helps students feel more comfortable sharing what’s wrong. “Don’t make it a thing,” Murphy said. Anderson suggested embedding these skills into academic content delivery “so it’s seamless and doesn’t feel like a one-off.” 

Here’s how: 

  • Listen actively. Remember: It’s not unusual for high-school students to think teachers don’t like them. Active listening can help dispel those thoughts. 
  • Ensure your school has a tiered SEL plan with distinct in-school and community resources available for students, including the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Get to know the plan. Make sure it’s posted on the school website and your class website, and post it boldly — don’t hide it — in your classroom.
  • Weave SEL language into the day. “If you don’t make it common, it’s harder for students to talk about. If you talk about your aunt who has depression or a neighbor who’s suffering from this thing and show them it’s present in your life, it’s easier for them,” Murphy said.
  • Add book and video characters’ emotions to discussions about motivations, actions, plots and other subject matter.
  • Ask students what went well or didn’t go well with assignments or tests, what particular stressors they ran across. That helps them more deeply explore their emotions.
  • Use hypotheticals. Some students don’t want to admit a situation is happening in their home. So say, “If these sorts of things WERE happening in your home, here are resources. Let them know you can support them without having to know everything,” Anderson said. 

Get parents on board

  • Don’t assume parents haven’t tried to reach out to the school before situations have devolved into disciplinary needs. They may have felt let down by earlier responses. Or they may not know about things we think they do.
  • Establish relationships. “Earn their trust. They have to know that you have the best interests of their child,” said Murphy, who recommended having coffee so they can drop in less formally or offering game night that can open a social-emotional window. Dispel myths about mental health in general and knee-jerk responses about attention-seeking behavior. “If they’re doing that, there’s an underlying problem,” Murphy said. 
  • Use praise as an entry point to build relationships: Showcase students’ work to provide a time to talk about SEL resources or potential family concerns such as housing or food insecurity. Parents can be vulnerable and prefer not to share private problems, but building connections can help. Anderson knows of one teacher who praised students on social media, which parents loved and responded to.
  • Be available when parents need you. They often work during school hours and can’t talk until evening.  
  • Be an information source for parents who scoff at or are wary of SEL. “I think sometimes we just roll out things without a clear explanation. The more you can speak with parents, the more you can hear and understand why they have those concerns, the smoother a transition you’ll have,” Murphy said. Ultimately, you need to incorporate SEL into class and accept that parents have the right to their own feelings about it.

What to do if you can’t help

Teachers are educators; they aren’t equipped with the same training as social workers or therapists, and they shouldn’t be expected to substitute for one. 

“But if a kid needed a Band-Aid, I wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m not a nurse.’ Teachers will deal with social-emotional issues whether they’re prepared for it or not,” Murphy said. That circles back to knowing what resources are available to give to students.

Ultimately, all you can do is embrace your humanity and empathy and be available.

“I think back to the teachers who cared for me and the role they played in my life, even though from an academic standpoint, they demanded everything from me. However, they showed up with empathy and understanding [and an] ability to provide a predictable, orderly environment for me to learn,” Anderson said.


Diane Benson Harrington is an education/leadership writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her at [email protected].


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