Student and School Mental Health:
Teacher Professional Development
Hello from Youth Change Director and Workshop Presenter Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. One of the toughest things about my job is figuring out how to help teachers and other educators to acquire a gut-level understanding of student and school mental health problems. I'm a veteran mental health counselor so I'm always working hard to be sure that I leave teachers and other educators with the same close-up, inside look at student mental health problems that I have. I hope this brief guide will help.
Sometimes there can be a lot of misinformation in the way. Other times, there can be negativity about mental health issues and the related struggles that today's students can frequently present. Here is one way to bridge that gap and effectively give educators an inside view of students' mental health challenges and related issues and problems.
A Close-up Look Inside
Student Mental Health Problems
The class assignment for a group of high school students was to write a letter to one of your teachers telling them what you wanted or needed to say.
Here are excerpts from one student's letter:
Dear Mr. ___ ,
If the world were just, good teachers would overshadow the less perfect teachers. It's too bad that you should be one of those overshadowed. During Math, I was repeatedly insulted with the nasty names you called me. This was not a big issue in my life; you and your class could be easily overlooked. But it was not as easy for a lot of people I know.
Sam was a kind person, a typical teenager with a less than typical home life. He went through things no kid should even know about, never mind live through. Sam was not able to put your insults behind him. He took the easy way out. He started just skipping your class. After a while missing your class, he started to miss the whole day. Less than a year later, Sam was deeply into drugs and other things that a person would never wish upon any kid.
In the 12 years, I shared classes with Sam, I watched many teachers unsuccessfully try to make it better for him, but I will always remember the one teacher who successfully made it worse.
Fast forward about 4 years from the date this letter was written, and here is the latest news about Sam: He was spotted walking near the home of Chris, his old friend, and the author of the letter excerpted above. Sam was yelling and screaming as he came down the street. His clothes were in tatters, and he looked as though he was homeless and under the influence of alcohol or other substance. "Chris!" he screamed as he pounded on the door of his former classmate's home. "Chris, do you still live here?" Chris had moved to college years earlier so he wasn't there to open the door. Sam continued yelling and mumbling as he shuffled down the street.
Fast forward again about 1 more year. Sam was spotted on the big highway that goes through the center of his town. He was attempting to throw himself into traffic.
What is the point of Sam's sad story? The point is that kids never walk into Math class and announce that they were beat up last night and can't endure any more abuse. No student will ever say "My Dad already called me bad names before I left to school, so please, would you stop doing it?" As a teacher or counselor, your site is supposed to be a haven, an oasis for students who should heavy loads. Is it?
You may be surprised to know that this topic is one of the top areas that many participants in our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshops ask us to cover. They are tired of the "the lousy attitudes of my co-workers," "how hard some teachers are on kids," "adults who are burned out," "adult rigidity and insensitivity," and "what to do when the adults make the situation much worse."
In our workshop, counselors, principals and special ed teachers often will describe how teachers and other adults will sometimes steamroll over a fragile child, indifferent to the burdens they are adding to a child's already heavy load. One story stands out. A girl asked to go to see the nurse rather than run laps in P.E. The teacher denied the request despite repeated pleas from the child to go to the nurse, the office, or to call her mom due to what she said was severe stomach pain. Ultimately, the girl had no choice but to run the laps. She soon collapsed and almost died of a burst appendix.
No matter where we are in North America, workshop participants become the most distressed, discouraged and animated when seeking solutions for when the adults contribute to the problems that the students present. In our workshop, we actually give the participants highly unusual, but extremely effective "adult attitude adjustment devices." These decidedly unique, experiential methods can't be sufficiently captured in a quick professional development educational article like this, but here is a device that you can use with your team that could perhaps help. It will lack the drama and power of our best adult attitude adjustment devices, but it's a good starting place to get your staff thinking about how they impact students.
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As we discuss in our live and online Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshops, changing the adults' mind about how they view and interact with students is a bit like changing peoples' opinions about religion or politics: change seldom occurs as a result of mere verbiage. Indirect, more compelling methods that shock will work best. Since we can't "shock" from an educational article on a web page vs in person, here is our next best intervention if you can't come to an upcoming live conference, on-site seminar, or online workshop presentation. In a departure from our usual pattern, be sure to note that this intervention is a quiz that is intended for use with adults, not kids. This is just an excerpt from the full quiz; to get the entire document, read the "Follow-Up" section below:
Student and School Mental Health Issues
Rate Your Attitude Quiz
Think you're unbiased, cordial, objective and not too burned-out? Then check this out.
1. Problem Students
How do you view hard-to-manage students? Have you ever said "Nothing's going to work with that one?" Ever tried to convince your boss to place this child in someone else's class?
2. Special Needs Students
Have you ever said "ADD kids are just lazy kids," or "These types of kids take too much of my time"?
3. Diverse Students
Youngsters with unfamiliar accents and different skin colors may be a growing part of your group. Have you ever thought "Oh, not another one," or "He'll be slow too," about a child of a diverse background?
4. Troubled Students
Ever pushed on a poorly performing child only to discover later that the child had been hampered by beatings, illness, homelessness or tragedy?
If you answered "yes" to any of these queries, you run the risk of harming students– especially those carrying heavy loads. You run the risk of ignoring clear cues, like the P.E. teacher in the story above. You also run the risk of missing cues that are not even said out loud, like those offered by Sam.
You don't ever want to end up thinking that you would have behaved very differently– if you'd only known.
If you answered "yes," or if some of your team members should answer "yes" to the quiz questions, it's important to change beliefs and actions now before harm is done that may be irreparable. If you don't get help now from a workshop like ours,' or other resource that shows you how to manage your students differently, you run the risk of one day fearing that you bear some responsibility for Sam flinging himself into traffic. There are Sams in every setting where there are children. If you hone your skills to respond properly, you will not add to Sam's burdens, and you may even prevent him from ever running out onto the road at all.
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