Student Well-Being

Partnership Explores Role of Student Mental Health in Classroom Management

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 10, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


A teacher often can be the first adult to notice something is off when a student experiences depression, mania or other mental health issues. Yet just a little more than half of states require teachers to learn about student mental health and classroom management, and many teachers feel unprepared to support students facing mental health struggles in class, find researchers presenting here at the American Educational Research Association meeting Friday.

James LaBillois, the executive director for instruction at Norwell Public Schools in suburban Boston, said he and his teachers started to get concerned a few years ago, when the rate of students being hospitalized for psychiatric problems jumped from two to three students out of 2,700 each year to more than 40. “We were in crisis mode; as soon as one [student] was coming in, two more were going out,” LaBillois said at a symposium at AERA.

In a survey of 194 of the districts K-12 teachers, percent reported that dealing with student mental health issues was critical to their ability to teach effectively, but only 46 percent said they felt prepared to do that. Because of confusion and stigma associated with mental health problems, “to the extent we were able to start a conversation in our community about the needs of our kids, the better we felt we would be able to support them,” he said.

The district partnered with researchers at Boston University to study how teachers could respond more effectively to students’ mental and emotional needs and to pilot a new response-to-intervention system for mental health in the schools.

“When kids are experiencing mental health issues it affects all areas of their lives, including academics,” said Amie E. Grills, an assistant professor of counseling and human development at Boston University, but she added that many teachers are not aware of average rates of different types of mental health problems among children and adolescents, and may not recognize the difference between normal and abnormal behaviors. “We are trying to resolve some of the tension around trying to diagnose and provide the intervention while also being the child’s teacher.”

Mental Health Training Limited in Teacher Preparation

The Norwell teachers are hardly alone in feeling unprepared for students’ mental health issues, according to other researchers at the symposium.

In an analysis of state teacher licensing requirements, Boston doctoral researcher Suzanne Vinnes found that 28 states require teachers to take at least one class on student behavior management, including mental health needs, a large majority of college and university teacher preparation programs offer such courses. However, there was no available data on how many of those courses included substantive information on how teachers should respond to students’ mental health needs.

Vinnes identified four key professional development areas for teachers dealing with student mental health needs:

  • Understanding the role of student mental health in classroom management;
  • Building positive relationships with students;
  • Understanding the differences between typical and unusual internalizing and externalizing behaviors; and
  • Identifying symptoms of students considering suicide.

Boston University researchers Jennifer Greif Green, Noah Segal, and Kathryne Adams asked 115 secondary teachers from a national sample to analyze a series of vignettes about fictitious students, dubbed “Anna” and “David,” who showed signs of mild to severe mental health issues. They included both internalizing, such as depression, and externalizing, such as impulsivity and aggression. Teachers reported how worried they were about each student and whether they would refer him or her for psychiatric help. “We want teachers to be referring students based on their need for services, not any demographic factor,” said Green, an assistant professor in special education and a child clinical psychologist.

Segal said the teachers were more likely to voice concern and refer students for help when they had severe rather than mild or moderate mental health issues, and they were no more likely to refer boys than girls. However, they were significantly more worried about students’ internalizing problems like depression than externalizing problems, and they were more likely to ask for a referral for those students.

In a follow-up study on the same teachers, researchers Javier Guzman and Shannon Gribben, also of Boston University, found virtually all of them were “highly motivated” to support socio-emotional needs in the classroom, but less than half said their school had a written plan to address students’ mental health needs, and of those, only half were familiar with their school’s plan.

For students who showed signs of a mental health problem, they found, elementary teachers were more likely than middle or high school teachers to offer classroom-based supports—such as giving more positive reinforcement and organizational strategies, offering more time for tests or assignments, or asking the student to take a break or a walk. Specialized supports, such as asking for a colleague to observe the student, documenting the behavior, or teaching relaxation exercises, was less common but followed a similar pattern; teachers’ willingness to offer supports decreased from elementary to middle to high school. More middle school teachers, however, also reported lowering their expectations for students, such as reducing a student’s required work or “let[ing] the student just sit and not participate.”

Massachusetts District Pilots Student Mental Health Screening

This October, the Norwell district began screening all students for mental health issues. Each student was interviewed by at least three adults at the school who knew him or her well, and school counselors and teachers met with the parents of those who showed higher risk of problems. In January, it launched small-group interventions for high-risk students in eight-week cycles; teachers meet to review behavior and test scores after each cycle.

The district is also piloting “Mental Health First Aid,” a teacher training program to support student mental health needs as part of classroom management. “This is an area many of our teachers felt uncomfortable with, even though they understood it was something they needed to do,” LaBillois said, but they are becoming more comfortable with identifying students in class who need help and referring them.

The district is continuing to study the effects of the pilot and screening programs.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.