Return to School: Strategies for Supporting Students
By Hugh Davis, Executive Director, Wisconsin Family Ties
With the rapidly-changing COVID situation, school districts are making decisions about mask requirements, as parents are weighing the possible risks of in-person learning against the social, emotional, and educational benefits it can offer.
Despite the precautions and protocols being put in place to protect students’ physical health, we must also be mindful of the pandemic’s impact on our children and the need to protect their mental health. One of the best ways to support youth is to engage with and support their parents. With that in mind, here are a few ways schools can support students’ mental health, regardless of their mode of learning, this fall.
1. Build connections. Learning is enhanced when students have trusting relationships with their teachers and other school staff. Although there are many ways to build relationships with students, one of the most effective is respecting and validating their feelings, no matter how they are expressed. For example, the student who raises their hand in math class and the one who throws the math book across the room are really saying the same thing: “I need help.” Responding to and meeting that need helps build trust between the student and school staff.
It’s also vital for students’ well-being to build connections with their parents. Research has repeatedly shown that involving parents in their students’ education results in better attendance, better grades, better social skills, and higher graduation rates. Providing a welcoming and inviting atmosphere, virtually or in person, can be a great way to begin to engage parents in partnering with you to support their students and their students’ educational experiences.
2. Affirm students and parents. It has always amazed me that we place expectations on kids that we often don’t have for adults, even ourselves. If we’re honest, there are times that we cannot manage our emotions as effectively as we’d like. These moments provide us with great opportunities to model strategies, such as taking a break, that can help reduce the intensity of our feelings. When students have similar challenges, you may want to check in with them after they’re calm, collaboratively discuss ideas that might help them manage their feelings, and encourage them to use those strategies when needed.
In addition to checking in with students, don’t forget that parents are the experts on their kids. When you’re supporting a student with mental health needs, their parents likely have some tips and tricks that can help you develop and maintain a connection with their child. Let them know that you recognize and value their expertise and want to partner with them.
3. Stay engaged. Build time into your schedule for extra interaction with those students who have more intense needs. Building personal relationships with your students will help you to recognize which students may need that additional support. It’s not always the student who acts out who requires more attention. Remember there is a fine line between being reassuring (“I see that you’re unsure about this. Why don’t you give it a try yourself first, and I’ll help you if you need it?”) and being dismissive (“You’ll be fine, don’t worry about it.”).
Include parents as collaborators as you help students work through challenging issues. Ask for their help, reiterating how helpful their experience and expertise will be to you as their child’s teacher. Be sure to check in to see if parents need any additional support as well.
4. Encourage self-advocacy. All of us should encourage students to speak up about what’s important to them, about things bothering them, or share their opinions. The days of “children should be seen and not heard” are (thankfully!) long gone. It can be difficult for students to be assertive with peers and adults, so validate their feelings and commend their efforts, even if they’re awkward. Self-advocacy is a skill, and like other skills, it only improves with repeated practice.
Working together, parents and schools can help students to navigate the upcoming school year successfully – both physically and mentally.
Wisconsin Family Ties is a statewide, parent-run organization that supports families that include children or adolescents with social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges. To learn more about Wisconsin Family Ties and the services they provide, visit www.wifamilyties.org.