Student Well-Being What the Research Says

How Teacher Stress Management Is Crucial for Handling Student Mental Health

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 14, 2024 4 min read
Notes from students expressing support and sharing coping strategies paper a wall, as members of the Miami Arts Studio mental health club raise awareness on World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, 2023, at Miami Arts Studio, a public 6th-12th grade magnet school, in Miami.
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In classrooms with multiple students with anxiety, depression, and trauma, the ones most in need of mental health support may be the teachers themselves.

Teachers facing their own unresolved stress and compassion fatigue have less capacity to manage a high-need classroom, experts say, and are at higher risk of either using exclusionary discipline on students or burning out.

One promising model expanding in Chicago aims to train educators to navigate their own stress while supporting students with mental health problems in their classes. A three-year evaluation of the program, Connect 2 Kids, suggests helping teachers understand their interactions with students can improve student behavior and ease teacher stress.

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Veronica Lyon, a math teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Clarkston, Wash., comforts one of her 7th graders after a lesson in fractions. Lyon interweaves social-emotional lessons and mathematics to support distressed students.
Veronica Lyon, a math teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Clarkston, Wash., comforts one of her 7th graders after a lesson in fractions. Lyon interweaves social-emotional lessons and mathematics to support distressed students.
Pete Caster for Education Week
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The Juvenile Protective Association of Chicago, a nonprofit community mental health group that developed C2K, has provided school-based therapy for students in 18 schools in south and west Chicago neighborhoods for more than a decade. But Karen Foley, president and chief executive officer of JPA, said their focus extended to teachers when student mental health needs exploded in the wake of pandemic school disruptions.

“Instead of talking about individual kids, we’re now talking about classroom dynamics,” Foley said. “One classroom that we’re working with has five kids that have really strong externalized behaviors.”

Imagine, she said, one disruptive person passenger on a plane. “If you have five, it’s very chaotic,” she said. “So we’re seeing just enormous stress on teachers.”

In the C2K program, a counselor meets with each teacher weekly to discuss classroom challenges and develop support plans to help teachers work with individual students. The C2K trainer also observes the teachers’ classroom (though not for formal evaluation) and provides ongoing group training for teachers on social-emotional learning.

From 2016 to 2019, Chicago piloted the program with 64 kindergarten teachers and more than 340 children in 10 schools who had been identified for mental health consultation. An evaluation of the program found more than 8 in 10 of the participating teachers said their relationships with students improved after consultation.

Sixty percent of kindergartners identified for consultation whose teachers participated in the program showed significant improvements in social skills and class involvement, and fewer behavior problems or mood-related symptoms—roughly similar to improvements seen from weekly individual therapy for the students.

Moreover, 70 percent of the teachers said the program had reduced their job stress, and nearly 9 in 10 said the training “helps them think more positively about their students, even when they have challenging behavior.”

Although many districts used federal recovery aid to hire additional mental health staff, teachers still often bear much of the burden in coping with students with mental health needs. An Education Week analysis of national data found only 8 percent of school districts in 2022 met the recommended ratio for psychologists to students of 1:500, and only 14 percent met the recommended counselor-student ratio of 1:250.

“Kids do well when they’re working with adults who get them, who understand them, and who can know how to work with them effectively,” Foley said. “A lot of teachers don’t know how to do that. They were buying into the concept of social-emotional learning, but they did not know how to do it at all.”

“Post-pandemic, we still have seen students who are dealing with trauma—who just have difficulty being redirected, difficulty managing emotions, even explosive responses,” said Afua Agyeman-Badu, principal of Ira F. Aldridge Elementary School in Chicago. Aldridge was one of the original schools to pilot the program for its kindergarten teachers, and now provides the training across all grades.

Without training and support, studies find teachers working with multiple students with trauma or mental health problems are at higher risk of “compassion fatigue,” a secondary trauma developed from caring for a person who has experienced trauma. This can lead to exhaustion, sleep disorders, increased anxiety, and self-isolation—and frequently, it also means teachers have less emotional bandwidth for everyday annoyances, like a fidgeting or argumentative child, and much less intense reactions from students.

Helping teachers develop perspective on student behavior

Teachers in the program learn how to depersonalize students’ behavior from their own feelings, Foley said.

“Mental health is not just cognitive, it’s emotional—and that’s what, that’s the perspective that teachers don’t get trained in,” Foley said. “How do teachers recognize that a kid is triggering them? How do they recognize that they’re really not upset about that particular child, they’re upset about something else or they might have had a past experience that colors their perspective?”

In addition Agyeman-Badu also said her school now incorporates time in its schedule for teachers to develop their own social-emotional learning. “To get to better academics of a school,” she said, it’s important to “first make sure that you’re creating the space for the emotional needs of your staff to be addressed, so that they can really engage in the work” with students.

The program has nearly doubled, to 22 schools in the district this year, and Foley said others schools beyond Chicago have taken an interest in the model.

“The C2K program has really helped with supporting the way teachers are able to manage their own experiences—whether it be trauma, things that they’re experiencing outside the classroom—as well as how they navigate the second-hand trauma that they receive from what students are experiencing and showing in the classroom,” Agyeman-Badu said.

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