Teaching may be one of the most difficult jobs in the world, with expectations and demands coming from all sides. Teachers juggle content standards, the social and emotional needs of students, behavior, and often trauma, but they also are the first line of defense when students have mental health problems. Paying attention to all these elements helps create a well-run, high functioning classroom, but dealing with all of them well — often in overcrowded classrooms — can feel completely overwhelming.
To make it worse, most teachers are given very little training on how to detect mental health disorders in students. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in five children has or will have a severe mental health disorder, so the lack of training is a huge disservice to teachers who are likely to encounter these issues in their students.
In an article published by The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey combines her personal experience dealing of mental health issues in the classroom with research on how teachers might be better prepared. She points out that often teachers aren’t even aware of mental health practices used by other staff in the building where they work. She writes:
As an increasing number of schools roll out evidence-based mental-health programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), teaching that promotes appropriate student behavior by proactively defining, teaching, and supporting positive student conduct, and Trauma-Sensitive Schools, programs aimed at reducing the effects of trauma on children’s emotional and academic well-being, educators need to be at least minimally conversant in the terminology, methods, and thinking behind these strategies. These programs provide strategies that can be highly effective, but only if the teachers tasked with implementing them are sufficiently trained in the basics of mental-health interventions and treatment.
Some teachers may feel this type of preparation is not their job, but it is easy to confuse the symptoms of a mental health disorder with run-of-the-mill misbehavior, and how a teacher handles those situations affects the learning of every child in the classroom. If the teacher’s job is to teach the whole child, mental well-being and support is part of the description.