Why teachers matter when it comes to mental health

What does positive psychology reveal about how teachers can boost their students’ resistance to mental illness?

"Teachers can make a huge difference,” says positive psychology expert Associate Professor Peggy Kern.

“Research shows that if a young person can develop a sense of connection with a teacher, it can help, not only academically, but also psychologically.”

One in seven young people experience a mental illness,
One in seven young people experience a mental illness

She is discussing what many consider a mental health crisis among Australian children, with one in seven young people experience a mental illness, according to Beyond Blue.

“A decade ago, the onset of mental illness tended to occur between age 16 and 25, but we’re seeing first onset at younger and younger ages now,” says Dr Kern, who is based in the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.

“Now, even five and six year olds are showing significant signs of psychological distress.”

Why are our so children sad?

The reasons for the apparent increase in rates of child mental illness, Dr Kern explains, are complicated. For some children, psychological distress traces back to their very early years.

“Sadly for some of our young people, their bond with their caregivers was disrupted from a very young age, which can place them on a poor trajectory. Part of this has to do with what is most likely undiagnosed parental mental illness that leads to behaviours like drug and alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, and other risky behaviours.

“Other parents are physically or emotionally absent during the early years because work can be so demanding.”

For the developing child, this creates a world that is psychologically unsafe. They become primed towards signs of threat.

“Their physiological systems are in a constant state of arousal,” says Dr Kern. “So you might see these students go from zero to one hundred instantly.”

This can manifest as children being labelled ‘disruptive’, which can become an ongoing issue across their school years, and beyond.

But mental illness is non-discriminating. “We are also seeing many young people who come from loving, supportive homes struggling,” says Dr Kern.

So, faced with what can seem like an insurmountable problem, primary school in fact becomes a critical time for both prevention and early intervention of mental illness.

Teachers are uniquely placed to make a difference to their students

While Dr Kern acknowledges teachers are being asked to do more and more, she says they are uniquely placed to make a big difference for these young people.

“Teachers can explicitly and implicitly teach important habits, skills and ways of thinking that can help set kids up for a more positive trajectory,” says Dr Kern. “Academic skills are important, but so are social and emotional skills. Teachers are hugely important in this regard and can make a lasting impact on young people.”

So what are some practical steps that can teachers take to help support students’ mental health?

The importance of self-care for teachers

The first step is to look after themselves, says Dr Kern.

“Though it can seem counter-intuitive, self-care is not selfish,” she says. “I like the analogy of oxygen on an aeroplane; if the mask falls, you put your own on first. Why? If you can’t breathe, you can’t help others. By putting our own masks on, we are better able to help others.”

The importance of self-care for teachers
Learning self-care is important for teachers to be able to support students

Relatively small actions can add positive emotions to counter negative experiences that often arise throughout the school day.

“Have a piece of chocolate or go for a walk,” Dr Kern suggests. “Connect with other teachers and staff members – not to whinge, but to encourage one another.”

She also says it can be helpful for teachers to return to the reason they chose the profession in the first place.

“Teachers go into the job to make a difference and they make an amazing difference – but it’s easy to forget that within the everyday grind. Remind yourself and your colleagues that teachers matter,” she says.

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What about support the classroom?

Primary school is a great time to be building social skills, emotional awareness, and self-regulation. Teachers have the ability to implement wellbeing tools and support structures in the classroom to help their students manage distress and m

“Structure is important, particularly for students coming from more chaotic backgrounds,” says Dr Kern. “It helps when they come to school that they know what to expect within the boundaries of the classroom.”

Positive relationships matter too – mutual respect between teachers and students, and a sense that students are able to understand their own emotions and relate well to their peers.

Positive psychology is also revealing the importance of strengths-based language, which focuses on what students are good at and encourages positive behaviours, rather than focusing on negative behaviours.

Dr Kern gives the example of praising a student for sharing in a group environment. Or a disruptive student might have the strength of ‘humour’. Finding positive ways to channel strengths into behaviours that support rather than disrupt learning can help the student, teacher, and classmates.

Mindfulness is quickly becoming another popular strategy that many teachers find useful for helping students manage their emotions and behaviours, and to calm down and become more present.

“The modern-day child is often very distracted - technology is a big part of that. Mindfulness and meditation exercises can help students learn how to manage their attention, becoming more present and ready to learn.”

For instance, some teachers find a short meditation exercise after recess can help bring order back to the room.

None of these are quick fixes nor silver bullets, says Dr Kern. But each is a tool that can be useful at different times.

Ultimately, she and her colleagues hope that by providing teachers and students with positive psychology skills, it will equip young people with a “toolbox” of strategies for embracing life – both the highs and the lows.

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