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Strategies to Improve the Mental Health of Your Students and Teachers in K-12

For schools, families, and administrators, a spotlight has been shone on student mental health like never before.

That’s been crucial, according to Amy Grosso, for starting to get adequate attention and resources on what has been a longstanding crisis. Grosso is the Director of Behavioral Health at Round Rock ISD, a district of about 45,000 students outside of Austin, Texas.

But she says it’s equally important that we shine a light on the broader issues affecting mental health. “We focus so much on students. But realizing those students come from families, the adults in their families could [be] struggling [too].”

The mental well-being of teachers is something that should be factored in too. Helping teachers address their mental wellness can not only reduce teacher burnout, but it can help students with their mental health as well.

Below we discuss strategies to improve the mental health of your students and teachers.

How do you reduce teacher burnout? Set good boundaries

Encouraging “self-care” among teachers can be helpful—unless self-care ends up as just another item on a teacher’s already packed to-do list. A more proactive and powerful step for K-12 schools to take to reduce teacher burnout is to help staff set good boundaries between their work and home life, says Grosso.

With a background in mental health counseling, Grosso oversees a team of social workers who work directly with students and staff, including in mental health centers for students. She says you need to let your teachers know it’s okay to say no to some things, and that they don’t need to be all things to all people.

Blurred lines between home and work or school were exacerbated by months—if not years—of remote learning. Many teachers and administrators felt they needed to be available at all hours, but for teachers’ mental health and well-being, that lack of schedule is unsustainable in the long term.

District administrators should set clear guidelines for teachers and parents about work hours and when teachers are available to parents. Set expectations early in the school year and be sure to explain the reason behind these guidelines.

For instance, let parents know teachers won’t respond to emails on the weekend, which can help remove the pressure on teachers to work outside of hours.

Grosso also advises if a teacher does work during off-hours, they should schedule emails to send to parents during the agreed-upon working hours. Because if one teacher responds outside of work hours or on weekends, then parents will expect it from everyone. And that will defeat the boundaries you’re encouraging teachers to set between work and home.

Managers and school leaders can also model good boundaries by not expecting a response during off-hours.

This is important for K-12 students too because modeling good boundaries shows students firsthand how important balance is to their mental health and wellness.

Offer teachers tangible resources to improve mental health

Tough hours, stagnating pay, and the stress of needing to be everything for every student take a toll on teachers. These stressors became especially acute during the COVID-19 pandemic when many teachers were struggling to balance their safety and the safety of their families with the needs of students who may have been facing stressful home environments of their own.

“I think that’s where it really does start to impact what’s happening for their well-being,” says Grosso, “when [teachers are] having so much extra work outside of what the traditional work hours are.”

K-12 schools have faced staffing shortages that have put a strain on districts from the top down. Some teachers cover other classes during what would have been planning periods. A lack of substitute teachers has meant that office personnel sometimes jump in to cover, and teacher assistant vacancies mean that extra support is no longer available.

And schools are speaking out about it. Amid staffing shortages, educators in Montgomery County, Maryland, have seen their planning time shrink and are sounding the alarm.

Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) President Jennifer Martin says, “We don’t have the time for the self-care our employer tells us to take. We normally take on extra work for the good of the students, but there is just too much. MCPS employees are demoralized, exhausted, and desperate for relief.”

Losing that planning time increases the likelihood that teachers will feel burnt out and have to work outside of hours. Making it difficult for them to set healthy work boundaries. And while many teachers volunteer to take on additional coverage, they shouldn’t be penalized for going above and beyond for their students and schools.

An important first step in supporting teachers at this time is ensuring they are being compensated for additional work. “I hear this all the time,” says Grosso. “‘Well, teachers don’t get into it for the money.’ They don’t, but at some point, you do have to be fairly compensated.”

Employee assistance programs can also help, and districts should make sure staff are aware of available resources and how to go about accessing them.

In January 2022, Round Rock ISD took the extra step of hiring a social worker just for staff.

“I was looking at how many referrals we were getting for the social workers we have working with students,” says Grosso, “and we were getting staff referrals.” She realized that there was a need for designated support for teachers, someone off-campus and confidential who could work with teachers on a range of topics and issues.

Some districts have been able to take advantage of state programs. For instance, Caddo Parish Public Schools has been able to leverage virtual therapy for their staff offered through a state hospital by the Louisiana State Department.

“So, any teacher in the state of Louisiana now has the option to do some virtual therapy through a hospital system here,” says Nicole Allien of Caddo Parish, “and it’s completely free and they can use it as often and as much as they need to use it.” Allien is an Instructional Technologist at Caddo Parish and notes the importance of educating teachers and staff state resources like free teletherapy exist.

How to improve student mental health: Listen to what students are telling you

Student behavior is almost always a symptom of something else going on, says Grosso. Social workers can help students, schools, and families understand and contextualize the root causes of behavior.

Social workers can also normalize the process of seeking help for mental health. “It’s listening and truly understanding what people are saying, and then partnering alongside them,” says Grosso.

“When I go into a school and I’m talking to a teacher, I have to actively listen to her or him and see exactly [what’s going on]. How do they feel? What do they need?” asks Allien.

That goes for both students and teachers. “If they’re saying, I need more time, we need to figure out how to give them more time,” she adds. “If our kids are saying, I’m so stressed out because I have too much homework every day in all of my classes, then we need to listen to them.”

Schools need to monitor the mental health of younger students, too. In addition to training teachers on in-classroom technology use, Allien works with Lightspeed Systems® to monitor student safety, reaching out to schools and counselors when an incident arises. Allien says that most of her alerts come from elementary and middle school students.

Similarly, at Round Rock ISD, Grosso notes that she’s seen high anxiety rates in elementary school students.

Conversations about mental health awareness with staff and parents should begin early.

This should include helping families be aware of the risks of putting too much pressure on kids about academics or extracurriculars. Encourage parents to talk with their kids about emotions and feelings as much as they do about grades. And teachers can work with students to examine what behavior led to a certain grade and recognize hard work regardless of the outcome.

At Caddo Parish, parents took an especially proactive position to help improve student well-being and the overall environment at school. Following a fight when an administrator was hit, fathers at the school created a “Dads on Duty” initiative that gained national attention.

At Caddo Parish, parents took an especially proactive position to help improve student well-being and the overall environment at school. Following a fight when an administrator was hit, fathers at the school created a “Dads on Duty” initiative that gained national attention.

Fathers wear Dads on Duty shirts as they walk around the school between campus greeting and interacting with students, and a group of fathers rotates in and out so there are always some Dads at school each day. “And the atmosphere of the school has changed,” Allien says.

Get proactive about recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health distress

K-12 districts can proactively be on the lookout for signs of student self-harm to prevent a crisis before one exists. But with limited funding available and a lack of available child therapists, districts also need to leverage community partnerships to address the mental health needs of their community members.

For Round Rock ISD, that meant increasing the number of available social workers so that one-on-one support is available for students and families.

Caddo Parish added a Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) program with daily time set aside for teachers and students to talk through issues. After implementing this student well-being program in schools, Allien says that teachers have reported a positive change in their students’ willingness and ability to talk through what they’re feeling or going through with each other.

To ensure that the mental wellness of students and teachers stays a priority, districts should make sure SEL is a long-term commitment. Even 15 or 20 minutes a day, over time, can have a positive, tangible effect. Encourage teachers to incorporate SEL into their morning or dismissal routines, for example.

And it’s not just students who need to work on these skills. “I can tell students all day how to do these things and how to cope with stress,” says Grosso. “But if I’m a ball of stress all the time, they’re not going to listen to me.”

“I think there’s some beauty,” she continues, “when we’re really partnered together and say, ‘We’re all in this together and we’re working and I’m learning at the same time you’re learning,’ I think that’s the first thing.”

Respond in real-time

Technology also plays a critical role in helping both teachers’ and students’ mental health.

For instance, during long-term school closures that caused teachers to lose invaluable in-person time interacting with and monitoring students, Lightspeed Alert™ helped fill that gap.

Having Lightspeed Alert gave Caddo Parish insight into what their students were going through and the state of their mental health during the height of the pandemic, says Allien. It let them keep connected even when students and teachers weren’t in the same physical spaces.

Now during in-person schooling, Allien notes, Lightspeed Alert provides an extra layer of monitoring if an administrator can’t check an important notification right away.

“We need to get that information as soon as we can,” says Allien. “So, when those alerts come across to me, and I see it’s a high-risk alert, we’re right on the phone immediately, with that school, with those counselors, with whoever we need to immediately get help to these students.”

To hear more from Amy Grosso and Nicole Allien about the best strategies to address teacher and student mental wellness, watch our on-demand webinar: Strategies to Support Your Teachers’ & Students’ Well-Being.

Interested in learning more about Lightspeed Alert?

Schedule a free demo or request a pricing quote for your district.