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7 Ways to Build a Positive Mental Health Culture in Your Classroom

Kali Thorpe  |  July 21, 2021
When we talk about mental health, we often think about depression, anxiety, and Schizophrenia, and there may be some negative stigma around it.

Mental health encompasses our social, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. It’s similar to how we would take care of our bodies – like taking vitamins or getting a checkup. Mental health is what’s going on inside our brains.

I’m a middle school teacher and being in a room with 30 other kids and talking about your feelings is not something students want to do willingly. But if you normalize it, it just becomes something in your classroom that they’re OK with.

But how do you start that process? How do you get them to want to open up?
  1. Find your why.
You have the opportunity to be their support system. Struggling in silence can impact how students learn, which impacts their test scores. If you do just want to look at academic success, mental health does affect that. It has an effect on how you think, feel, and react to situations. How are students going to concentrate when there’s something crazy going on at home? That’s where educating the whole child comes in.

Mental health affects discipline and behavior concerns, too. Many fights stem from miscommunications and misunderstandings, so if we put a focus on conflict resolution and healthy coping skills for anger and frustration, the hope is that they will default to one of those skills instead physical altercations. I think if we put a focus on mental health, we’d see a decrease in negative behaviors.
  1. Set the tone.
Making mental health part of your classroom culture doesn’t happen overnight, and it starts with putting serious and deliberate thought into what you want the climate of your classroom to feel like. Your classroom climate is so important. The first two to three weeks are when you set up rules, procedures, and expectations, but it’s also the time to set the vibe. I make it a point to show that we don’t make fun of people, it’s OK to cry, and we may be dysfunctional, but we’re a family.

From there, you can start building relationships with your students authentically – show you care about them and want to get to know them. I notice around October to November that we have established our climate and culture and the students feel more comfortable opening up.
  1. Be vulnerable and authentic.
I tell my students honestly how I’m feeling. Sometimes I share that I’m having a rough day so they know why I may have less patience. I want them to know where I’m coming from and bring it out in the open. I also tell them about my own mental health struggles, like stress and frustration. I believe they need to see that as adults we don’t have it all together all the time and that’s OK. And if they see that we’re human and we understand, they’ll be comfortable coming to us with concerns.
  1. Look through their eyes.
I don’t think students always understand the complex feelings they have, and they feel them really strongly. They may be feeling them for the first time. You may have to guide them through anger and sadness. I think a lot of childhood trauma can come from outside of school, but I think there is a significant number of stressors happening in school, too. Judgement, bullying, cyber-bullying, and perfectionism all hit students hard. Being an urban educator, I believe the things my students deal with outside of school is intense sometimes.
  1. Watch them grow.
I get really stoked about seeing the progress. You’ll start to hear them using the language you use. I’m big on conflict resolution, and sometimes I hear them say there’s something they want to resolve with a peer. One of my classes had family meetings where students would speak calmly and resolve issues on their own. It’s one of the most fulfilling and coolest things to me.
  1. Check the pulse.
There are a ton of ways for you to check the temperature of the room, and you can read about a few ways I do this in my classroom here. Checking the pulse or the mood in the room and giving your students a way to open up to you without having to start a conversation verbally can make them feel more comfortable coming to you when they need support. Keep the dialogue open and make sure they know you’re always there to listen. You may learn really difficult and heavy things, but being a support system for them will make it all worth it.
  1. Be ready for the journey.
You have to know that when you open up your classroom and yourself to this journey, it’s hard and it will affect you. You have to prepare yourself to be in heavy situations and be ready for what you’re going to do and how you plan to support your students.

If you do the safety deposit box exercise or the I Want my Teacher to Know activity, prepare yourself for when you read them. It won’t be easy, and there may be tears. But when you see what these beautiful little humans are going through every day, it will solidify the importance of mental health in the classroom. That’s what motivates me. 

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