Student Well-Being

How Schools Can Help Students With Learning Differences Overcome Mental Health Challenges

By Marina Whiteleather — May 16, 2022 4 min read
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The past two years have had a profound effect on the mental health of students and staff alike as they tried to navigate a school system that had profoundly changed.

How can educators and schools best support students and staff to work through mental health and social challenges? And what additional supports should be given to students with learning and thinking differences? That’s the central question we invited our Twitter followers to answer during a Twitter chat earlier in May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. Andy Kahn, an expert in psychology and learning for Understood, a nonprofit that is dedicated to helping those learn and think differently, co-hosted the online discussion. For nearly 20 years, Kahn has worked within the public school system to provide training, evaluations, direct consultation, and therapeutic support to students, their families, and staff. He pulled from his experience to share insights and resources during the chat.

Here are some key questions that were raised and discussed.

What are the biggest challenges facing student mental health?

Many chat participants expressed that there seemed to be a shift recently to return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity, and worried how this could leave little space for students still coping with the trauma of the pandemic. Said one respondent:

Kids, like many adults in the education system, are struggling with trying to figure out how to manage life and all its expectations that went from zero to pre-COVID levels of busyness all with no or limited response for the trauma many are carrying.

- N. Yorke-Phillip

Others noted that the vast majority of K-12 schools lack the school psychologists and counselors needed to respond to students’ rising mental health concerns and said that even recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers is becoming a challenge.

One of the most trying issues is a lack of staffing in key teaching and support positions. Students do not have access to the most important change agents, a passionate teacher!

- Dr. Gregory M.

What should educators know about the mental health challenges that affect kids who learn and think differently?

Neurodivergent kids are more likely to face mental health challenges due to differences in their academic and social development and the stigmas and misconceptions often associated with their differences. As an educator, recognizing the difference between one-off stressors or reactions to difficulty with a specific assignment and what may be a sign of anxiety or depression is crucial – it will determine how to support the student and work with their family.

- Andy Kahn

Student #mentalhealth needs show up differently for every student, but all require care and responsiveness from educators. It’s important to understand that accommodations can vary, even within diagnoses. Meet them where they are without shame or judgment.

- Jennifer I.

How can educators provide emotional support for kids with learning and thinking differences?

Connection and building relationships! That is essentially the key. Feeling understood, seen, heard…that’s the first and most essential step all educators require in their approach to all humans they hope to teach!

- N. York-Phillip

Self-calming strategies can be a powerful tool. For younger kids, starting the day with deep breathing, stretching, or yoga can help them calm their bodies and become more aware of how they feel. For older students, breaking down big assignments into smaller steps can help the student prioritize and reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.

- Andy Kahn

What steps can schools take to better support their teachers’ mental well-being, so they in turn can better support their students?

According to the chat participants, respect, empathy, and appreciation can go a long way.

APPRECIATION APPRECIATION APPRECIATION (personal notes, little gifts, etc) teachers aren’t in it for the $$, the reward is the meaningfulness of the job. When the atmosphere gets rough they can lose sight of that & need to be truly appreciated & celebrated!

- @Yfeld

Show empathy. We’re all in the same crappy boat, we need to work together to keep from sinking. I adjust for students’ mental health every day. Shorten assignments, let them put their head down, engage in conversation, slip them a note. Teachers need that in return.

- @awesomelyteach

While “mindfulness” might work for some, others need more action from their school leaders to avoid burnout, some participants said.

Teachers need to feel like they can practice self-care both in + outside of the classroom. That requires things like adequate staffing, compensation, peer support. School leaders should recognize when an educator is at risk of burnout and step in w/solutions.

- Jennifer I.

Another option offered: Consider altering policies or pay to allow teachers’ to take time for themselves if needed.

Pay substitute teachers more. Teachers need to be able to take days off guilt free & if they know the school won’t be able to find a sub, they often push thru so as not to burden their colleagues. I also realize this means states need to better fund the schools.

- Samuel O.

What can educators and schools do to help reduce the stigma surrounding both mental health and neurodiversity?

Learn about real people’s experiences with learning differences and mental health. Listening to others’ perspectives builds empathy, reduces stigma, and helps inform the support you provide.

- Andy Kahn

Celebrating neurodiversity and normalizing that we ALL have #mentalhealth needs is the first step to #EndStiigma. Creating learning environments that are accepting of the variety of ways students show up in the classroom is key. Allyship goes a long way.

- Jennifer I.

To read more about the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of teachers, principals, and students, and the creative ways of responding to the current social and emotional challenges, check out our special report, “Student and Staff Mental Health: Emerging From COVID’s Crisis.”

Coverage of students with diverse learning needs is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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