3 Critical Things You Must Do to Help Students Now!by Janet Zadina on 09/14/20
A CDC study in June showed that 25% of young adults considered suicide in June. If you are teaching college, your students are at risk. If you are teaching younger students, I think we can safely say that they are also seriously stressed. Their parents may be having some serious mental health issues as well.
Although it’s not appropriate for you to try to be a mental health professional, you may be a “first responder” for many of these students, as you are the one that may be having more contact with them. Fortunately, some research indicates that perceived support is actually more effective for long-term mental health outcomes than received support. In other words, while you may not be able to do much to personally help them with their issues, their knowing that you are “there for them” can make a significant difference.
Therefore, as I see it, it is important to do three important things:
1. Explain what is happening to their brain and emotions – the effects of anxiety, stress, and trauma.
2. Provide them with some simple strategies.
3. Provide them (and/or their parents depending upon the age you teach) with information about mental health resources.
1. Explain what is happening.
The first thing to do, based on my understanding and experience with trauma survivors, is explaining that their symptoms are a normal response to an abnormal situation. This does not mean that they do not necessarily need intervention by a professional. It reassures them that they are not “losing their mind” or having a breakdown.
Some theorists are suggesting that anxiety, depression, and PTSD are not mental illnesses. They are adaptive responses to a difficult situation. Anxiety may be an over-activation of the fight or flight system. PTSD and depression may actually result from when the freeze reaction is stuck. These mental states are meant to alert us to danger or to protect us in danger, but they are not helpful when functioning in ordinary life. However, the fear that one is having a mental illness, or losing one’s mind, or that there’s something wrong with them only makes the stress worse.
Talk to your students about fight, flight, or freeze and how stress is naturally affecting their frontal lobes and higher order thinking. This reassurance can take an enormous weight off their shoulders, especially for older students who may have more metacognition and awareness that their cognition and behavior has changed. If you’re careful you can speak to quite young children about this in very simple terms. You might ask a child if they feel like they’re getting angry or upset more easily? Then you might say “this may be because you’re very worried about what is going on in the world and worried about the pandemic and missing your friends at school. So we can use our brain to calm down our body and our body to calm down our brain do a few simple exercises. These are normal reactions.” You might say “I can see you’re having trouble concentrating today. That is typical of this pandemic (fires, hurricane, etc). So let’s get that under control before we begin our lesson.”
Providing this information also allows them to feel they are not alone. If you are comfortable enough, share your experiences. You might mention that you have had trouble concentrating or your emotions feel stronger than usual or you have less motivation….but be sure to emphasize that you are using tools to fight back and you can teach them some of those tools.
- Here is a 5-minute video for teachers that explains the difference between the learning brain and the survival brain and gives some ideas for how to explain this to students.
- This 2-minute video helps educators understand how trauma contributes to poor behavior.
- This 5-minute video for elementary educators explains how to get started with trauma-informed practices.
- This 5 minute video is appropriate for older students or educators and shows how stress affects memory.
I couldn’t find a video that simply explains the effects in terms of both science and classroom behaviors and learning in detail. As a former teacher and current neuroscientist, I have prepared a presentation that merges the science of what happens with the effects on classroom behavior and learning. (Want to get this remote presentation for your faculty? Submit a request.)
2. Give strategies.
The next step is to provide some quick and easy research-based strategies that will help them learn and may be very helpful for their mental state as well.
One strategy for older students is to suggest that they take a walk. One advantage of this strategy is that it can accomplish many things. New research shows that it not only reduces stress, but that it contributes to better thinking by getting more oxygen (fuel) to the brain. Another study of college students showed that it increases creativity. Students can practice mindfulness when walking which can reduce stress, improve attention and focus, and improve emotional regulation.
It is important to begin class with stress reduction to improve learning during that time and to encourage students to do a breathing strategy or mindfulness strategy for a few minutes before studying as well. I discussed this in an earlier post about how to set the stage for learning right when students walk into class, The First Five Minutes. Looking for more on this topic? Check the posts linked to the right or click "Older Entries" at the bottom of this page.
3. Offer resources.
For seriously stressed, depressed, and suicidal students the first two steps may not be enough. Be sure that you are providing mental health information in your syllabus, on your webpage, anywhere that students can see it frequently and find it quickly.
For those of you teaching younger children, providing mental health materials and resources to the parents is something that should be discussed with school leadership. I know of some school systems that are providing meditation and even tai chi classes online on the school website. Phone numbers for suicide hotlines and other resources should be readily available. For you personally or to get resources be sure to check out my new Coping with Covid page, my Butterfly Project page, and many, many resources on the resources tab.
Of course, since stress from faculty is contagious to students and since faculty also have trouble focusing and regulating emotions due to stress, you may want to consider a presentation on that topic. If your school can’t bring me in, you can attend one of the presentations open to the public. For more information, contact me anytime.
I hope you stay well in all ways!