Professional Development

Teachers Lack Mental Health Training

By Liana Loewus — April 26, 2012 1 min read
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In a recent Huffington Post piece, Jessica Minahan, co-author of The Behavior Code, writes that teachers are not properly prepared to work with students who have mental health problems. Even so, she claims, “In a typical classroom of twenty, chances are good that one or two students are dealing with serious psychosocial stressors related to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect or a psychiatric disorder.” And according to at least one study she sites, these students are not making any significant academic or behavioral progress in school.

The problem starts with teacher training, says Minahan. Education degree programs include just one or two courses on dealing with behavioral challenges and mental health issues, she writes. “This leaves teachers to learn on the job in a busy classroom. It can be like learning to drive on the expressway at rush hour.”

Further, school psychologists and counselors are too busy doing paperwork and putting out fires to work with these students properly. Special education teachers are trained mainly in assessment and instructional accommodations, and are often buried under their caseloads as well. So the classroom teacher “has the most responsibility as the ever-present adult force in the student’s life.” Minahan asks, “Should a teacher be the person who fosters a crucial positive relationship, understands the student’s behavior and be the source of therapeutic interventions?”

The question is a rhetorical one, since teachers are already in that position, according to Minahan. But given the proper training, teachers can gain an understanding of these students’ challenges and begin to teach them effectively. “If teachers use psychological principles, seen through a behavioral lens, in an accessible, easy to implement way, they can competently understand and teach these hard-to-reach students,” she writes.

As much as I know teachers would like to make this sort of training a priority, there may be a few things standing in their way. Like dwindling PD budgets ... or those thorny new standards they’ll need to start implementing ...

What are your thoughts? Are teachers behavioral health responsibilities than their training prepares them for? Are there other ways schools can help students with mental health challenges—perhaps ones that are not strictly dependent on the general education teacher?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.