The last two years in education have been pretty heavy; thankfully, the 2022-23 school year offers something new. It offers an opportunity to move in a different direction — one that brings joy back to our classrooms, school communities, and educators.
Allow me to be your tour guide on a trip down memory lane. Do you remember how you felt on your first day of school during your elementary and middle school years? What was exciting? What were you looking forward to?
For some of us, this trip might be a little longer back than others! Still, I remember how I couldn’t wait to see my friends and find out who was in my class. I also remember that I couldn’t wait to wear a dope pair of sneakers that I had convinced my parents would start my year off on the right foot — literally!
For whatever reason, I never once thought that other students might not be experiencing the same feelings. I thought everyone was ready to head back to school for the same reasons — fashion, friends, and fun! Well, turns out I was wrong. Did educators always know some students weren’t excited about coming back to school? And what was their reason for not wanting to return? Some simply didn’t want summer to be over, while others saw school as the place they feel least comfortable, least safe, and least supported.
Many years have passed since my days in school as a student, and now it’s my job to understand students and help them feel supported. While there are many factors contributing to student mental health today, there are some useful strategies to help all students feel supported as they return to school this year:
Develop and foster relationships with your students
A genuine relationship with your students goes a long way. You don’t have to be into the same things your students are into, but having a geniuine interest in their life and what they are doing is essential. Try to take some time to listen to their stories. You’ll be rewarded with powerful insights and opportunities to connect.
For example: At the start of the year, and regardless of grade level, you can have students share “Little Known Facts” about themselves. Educators, it’s essential that you participate too! You may want to provide parameters based on grade level. This can be either written down or discussed as a class. Either way, it gives students a powerful opportunity to share a little about themselves and learn about others, too.
Relationships are an undisputed gateway to bolstering mental support. When students feel like they have good relationships with teachers, they are often willing to be vulnerable by sharing thoughts and information that troubles them. It’s in those moments that educators are given the chance to support their students through both validation and encouragement.
Create opportunities for students to have meaningful dialogue
Students of all ages are talking, and every conversation isn’t about the latest TikTok trend. Giving students the time to engage in meaningful conversation typically leads to an honest expression of emotion (for better or for worse). Students often find support in community — but community only happens through a familiarity that comes with genuine conversation.
Although there’s a natural inclination to stay away from opportunities to have authentic conversation, students need these types of interactions. When you challenge students to see another perspective, great things happen. It also gives them opportunities to further express their own perspective and even advocate for marginalized people. In fact, this is the next level of interaction many students desire. Creating those moments takes careful planning and an awareness of current events — however, it’s always worth it. Establishing a safe space for these conversations is an essential part of helping students feel supported.
Consult with your school counselor
Counselors are typically the resident experts for dealing with mental health of our students. Don’t hesitate to share your student concerns with your counselor, or collaborate on ways to foster mental health wellness in your classroom.
Reflect on strategies that may undermine students’ mental health
Most educators have the best intentions and simply want to help. However, if we’re being completely honest, we don’t always get it right. There are many times students don’t feel emotionally supported because educators don’t listen, have biases, misread situations, or make statements that have unintended effects. Of course, we’ll never be perfect. But taking time to identify our mistakes and dedicate ourselves to self-improvement is a huge step in the right direction.
A new year brings new opportunities to connect
The 2022-23 school year offers an incredible opportunity to support your students academically, socially, and perhaps most importantly, emotionally. I hope these tips have provided some guidance to you and your students — and I hope you have a fantastic school year!