When I first began teaching, I learned culture-builders and behavior management techniques ranging from morning meetings to brain breaks. I had a behavior management plan and “ambitious but achievable” goals of high academic achievement and low discipline referrals. Every year I received mandatory CPR and first aid training. We also did routine drills to prepare for physical emergencies. My students and I knew what to do if there was a fire, earthquake, or live shooter.
I never got trained in youth mental health or crisis response. It was not a part of my teacher preparation program, graduate training, or professional development offerings. I knew students got emotionally injured at school and struggled with their mental health, but I lacked the knowledge and skills to help them.
As a teacher and school leader, I needed basic mental health training and an emergency mental health plan for my students. I should have learned the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges, and what to do if and when I saw them. I would have been a better teacher if I had known how to administer emotional wound care with as much confidence and competence as basic first aid and discipline.
Mental health first aid and emotional wound care can and should be integrated into professional development offerings in positive behavior support, tiered interventions, social emotional learning, trauma-informed care, and more. They can also be taught separately, as specific, targeted, and universal strategies for supporting students.
Addressing student mental health is an essential and urgent part of our jobs.
We cannot leave this work to chance, choice, or clinicians. We all need training and access to appropriate supports and services, because anyone can be the adult who encounters a student in crisis and in need of assistance.
While writing my new book, Whole Child, Whole Life, I spoke with thousands of educators, counselors, and administrators across the United States and asked them how their students were doing. They overwhelmingly confirmed what our nation’s pediatricians, Surgeon General, and clinicians declared in 2021: kids are in crisis, and we are in the middle of a deadly child and youth mental health disaster.
More kids than ever struggle with depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. School psychologists and counselors conduct more emergency assessments each week than they used to in a year and administrators and teachers encounter more disturbing behaviors from students—and often younger students—than they have seen in years past.
As educators, we are responsible for the kids in our care, and those kids are in crisis. We would never allow students to walk around while bleeding and banged up. The same rule applies when students experience emotional illness or injury.
Here are three ways educators and education leaders can begin addressing students’ mental health and emotional care needs:
Learn the Signs of Emotional Illness and Injury
When a child gets physically hurt, we often see or hear it. Sometimes, they tell us. The same can be true for emotional pain. We need to know what we’re looking and listening for. In Whole Child, Whole Life, I offer a comprehensive list of “red flags” that signal a student may be in trouble. Here is a short list of common signs:
- A student tells you they need help or something is wrong
- A student says they feel “off,” not themselves, or you notice uncharacteristic behavior(s)
- Sudden withdrawal from friends and activities or big changes in behavior
- Noticeable changes in personal hygiene or attire
- Emotional volatility
- Excessive worry and expressed feelings of panic and anxiety
These signs mean a student needs emotional support and/or professional mental health and medical services. These can also signal something situational, which needs attention and intervention, like bullying or physical illness. Get to know your students; there are always those who suffer silently without visible signs of distress.
Take a Mental Health First Aid Course
You can take a “Mental Health First Aid” (MHFA) course, which is often free and taught by certified instructors. MHFA was developed in 2000 by Betty Kitchener and her husband, Professor Tony Form. Betty used her background in education, counseling, and nursing to develop a course and curriculum that trains teens and adults to be mental health first responders by using a five-part action plan, called ALGEE.
Here is a simplified breakdown of the ALGEE five steps:
- A – Approach and assess for risk of suicide and harm.
- L – Listen nonjudgmentally.
- G – Give reassurance and information.
- E – Encourage appropriate professional help.
- E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies.
There is usually a difference between providing emergency mental health care and addressing everyday emotional bumps and bruises at school (e.g., hurt feelings, sadness, loneliness). Sometimes one leads to the other, but other times they are distinct. As educators, we must be educated and equipped to handle both.
Create an Emotional Wound Care Kit
An emotional wound care kit is the cognitive equivalent of a first aid kit. Instead of bandages and medicines, these are everyday and often multi-purpose tips, tricks, and tools that help kids when they’re in emotional pain. These can be self-taught and practiced, but they’re generally best when taught by experts and practiced with others.
An educator’s emotional wound care kit should include strategies to address the most common symptoms of emotional illness and injuries we see at school, including:
- Feelings of overwhelm and overload
- Feelings of anxiety and excessive worry
- Feelings of panic and panic attacks
- Feelings of doom and dread
- Becoming overstimulated
- Becoming harmful to self and others
In Whole Child, Whole Life, I offer a full range of easy and effective practices to address these common emotional injuries. All can be safely administered by any adult who cares for kids. You can use my suggestions or work with your school counselor or social worker to find and try your own.
More students than ever are experiencing serious mental health challenges at school and every student will occasionally experience emotional pain. When students struggle with their mental health, we can be there to help them. Prioritizing mental health first aid and emotional wound care is a life-saving part of our jobs.