Student Well-Being From Our Research Center

What It’s Like Teaching Through a Youth Mental Health Crisis

By Arianna Prothero — May 15, 2023 8 min read
Image of a teacher consoling a student with her face in her hands at her desk.
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Kids’ mental health is suffering—and it’s having profound impacts on beleaguered teachers struggling to figure out how to respond.

More than half of teachers say that the current state of students’ mental health is hurting their ability to learn and socialize, as well as stressing educators’ capacity to manage their classrooms. Potentially, it is also contributing to teachers’ own feelings about their work: More than a third of educators say they are dissatisfied with their jobs.

Those findings come from the second annual Merrimack College Teacher Survey, commissioned by the college’s Winston School of Education and Social Policy and conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.

While sobering, the survey results also show signs of improvement.

Thirty-one percent of teachers said in the survey that their students’ mental health and wellness has improved since the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, while 43 percent said it has remained about the same. And a little more than a quarter of teachers rated their students’ current mental health and wellness status as helping their academic and social-emotional learning.

However, a quarter of teachers still say that their students’ mental health has deteriorated over the course of this most recent school year.

And that tracks with the steady drumbeat of data and warnings about the state of schoolchildren’s mental health. Most recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control biannual survey Youth Risk Behavior Survey of high school students found that 42 percent said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year—a 50 percent increase from 2011. And the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called kids’ declining mental health the “defining public health crisis of our time.”

“It absolutely affects the academics,” said Angela Burley, a 6th grade teacher at Dr. Frederick Douglass Todd Senior Middle School in Dallas. “I am a 23-year veteran. I am familiar with the kids and I love them, too. I understand a lot of the acting out and the behavior problems are products of the experiences of their life.”

Students exhibit a range of needs

Burley, who said she prioritizes making her classroom a place where students feel safe, said that many of her students are being raised by relatives or are in foster care. Some are grappling with the trauma of losing loved ones to violence. On top of that, Burley said, their community lacks a lot of basic necessities—like access to pharmacies, mental health services, and markets that sell fresh fruit and vegetables—crucial to keeping students healthy and ready to do their best in school.

The experiences teachers described in open-ended survey responses and in interviews with Education Week run the gamut from students struggling to readjust to school routines after the pandemic to those dealing with more traumatic experiences.

“We are told to be aware of students’ trauma, but do not have the training or skills to assist the students in dealing with trauma,” said one survey respondent.

Said another: “We have school psychologists and school social workers that are spread thin between seven elementary schools.”

Second grade teacher Morgan Mercer told EdWeek that on a 10-point scale, her students’ mental well-being has improved from a four to a six or seven over the course of the school year.

But, she said, it depends on the day.

“There are some days where you walk in and you are like, wow, these kids have grown so much, you’ve seen such an increase in maturity,” Mercer said of her students at R. Clem Churchwell Elementary in Lakeland, Fla. “And there are other days where you walk in and you are like, ‘Oh my goodness, what has happened? They have forgotten everything I have ever taught them and they have no idea how to even get a pencil.’”

Alex Parker, a teacher at Cossitt Avenue Elementary School in La Grange, Ill., said his students are doing mostly fine, but they have low stamina. His 4th graders are running out of steam much earlier in the school year than his students in previous years.

“This is their first full, non-masked, no COVID restrictions year since kindergarten,” he said. “So, this is their first full-out elementary school year where they’re doing all the testing, all the assemblies, all the field trips. […] I haven’t had as many of them getting COVID so a lot of them have been here for 150-something school days.”

Teachers say they need more support—and less pressure

In the survey, many respondents said they see the need to support students’ mental health in order to pave the way for their academic and social-emotional learning. But they warned that they’re not equipped with the resources, support, or know-how to meet students’ needs.

“Students’ needs are outpacing the services that we provide,” said Eugene Pinkard, the director of K-12 Leadership of the Aspen Institute Education and Society Program, a division of the Washington-based think tank. All students need social-emotional learning, and some will need more intensive supports, he said.

That doesn’t mean that schools are—or should be—asking teachers to act as counselors or mental health professionals, he added. But teachers can foster an environment in their classrooms that underpins students’ overall well-being and social-emotional learning.

“You’re asking the teacher to create a classroom where students feel a sense of belonging, you’re asking a teacher to create a space where students feel safe, feel celebrated,” he said.

So, what steps can school and district leaders take to help improve students’ mental state? The survey put that question to teachers, and they had a few ideas:

Bolstering parents’ work. Fifty-seven percent said that helping parents support their children’s mental well-being at home was a good start. That was the most selected answer.

Talking to parents about how they can better support their children’s mental health at home has the potential to be a fraught topic. But if handled with care, it can be done, said Pinkard, a former school administrator.

“There is sometimes a deficit-oriented approach that suggests that parents aren’t doing it or don’t know how to do it, and we have to be careful about that because that’s how you’re going to wind up disengaging parents,” he said.

Teachers should discuss the expectations for students’ social emotional learning like they do in academic subjects, Pinkard said. “Parents are our most important partners. And they should understand, ‘here’s what your student should be reading when they come home, and here’s what we’re going to be doing in class with reading, and here’s what we’re doing in class to teach them how to be good members of our school community.’”

Hire more mental health support staff. Fifty percent of teachers said schools need more mental health support staff such as counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

While many schools and districts have used federal COVID-19 relief aid to help boost their ranks of mental health support staff, their numbers remain far below what the major associations representing school psychologists, counselors, and social workers recommend as appropriate. Part of the problem: there just aren’t enough mental health support professionals to go around.

Reduce social media exposure. Teachers also pegged social media and exhaustive testing as other causes disrupting students’ well-being. Forty-nine percent of teachers said they think banning or reducing students’ access to social media during the school day would improve their mental health, and 47 percent said less testing would also be beneficial.

Mercer, the elementary school teacher in Florida, said she has seen a major shift in the amount and types of media that her students watch since the pandemic, and it’s affecting their behavior.

“These kids have a lot more unsupervised internet access,” she said, and that spills over into the classroom and recess.

“There’s a game that’s like ‘5 Nights at Freddy’s’ and they draw these elaborate pictures of creatures with really sharp teeth murdering people or with weapons. So, we have had conversations in the class like, ‘that is not school appropriate,’” she said. “And they will say, ‘but I get to play or watch it at home. Why can I do it at home and not at school?’”

Mercer said she thinks that families haven’t reset the screen habits developed during the pandemic even as school, work, and other activities have returned to normal.

Minimize testing. Standardized tests can be a source of anxiety for both students and teachers, said Burley, the teacher in Dallas.

“Because we are teaching in a high-need, low-performing school, there are so many mandates and pressures,” she said. “The pressure that is being put on teachers is then being put on the students.”

Teachers also indicated that daily physical activity, mentoring for students, social-emotional learning, and improvements to the SEL already offered are other steps schools and districts can take to improve students’ mental well-being.

“The range of responses is really educators indicating how complex a human is, and therefore, how holistic and multifaceted our response needs to be,” said Pinkard.

There’s one other important facet to students’ well-being, said Parker, and that’s teachers’ own mental health. Stressed-out students lead to stressed-out teachers, who can in turn further stress students, creating a downward spiral. Any comprehensive solution also has to look at what schools can do to better support teachers’ mental well-being, he said.

In the Merrimack College survey, more than half of teachers surveyed—56 percent— said that the mental health and wellness of teachers in their school had gotten worse over the course of the 2022-23 school year.

“If we have students who are struggling with the emotional challenges that come with learning through a pandemic, I think the piece that comes with that is that teachers need support,” Parker said. “Because if teachers are stressed out or burnt out it’s really hard for them to provide students with what they need.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2023 edition of Education Week as What It’s Like Teaching Through a Youth Mental Health Crisis

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