Helping Students Build Mental and Physical Resiliency

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We know students cannot possibly learn to their fullest potential when they are exhausted, stressed, not well, fueled by Hot Cheetos, or in the midst of crisis.

Though many say the classroom is not the place to address such issues, the fact is that students often do not get such guidance elsewhere, and this directly impacts their ability to focus and learn.

It is therefore important for schools to purposefully help students build mental and physical resiliency skills so they are able to fully access the curriculum and thrive in and out of the classroom.

What might this look like on a practical level?

Building Mental Health Resiliency

Students enter our classes with a lifetime of compiled traumas. All too often, my inner-city students face violence, domestic abuse, rape, loss, substance abuse, isolation, and separation. Many students are in states of perpetual fight, flight, or freeze as major- and micro-traumas emerge in their lives. Not knowing how to process their traumas may cause students to feel emotionally numb, lash out, or disconnect from their bodies or the world around them. Without releasing or processing occurrences, they may stay in a perpetual state of post-traumatic stress disorder as trauma after trauma accrues.

Efforts to build mental health resiliency can help students empower themselves with tools to navigate life, show them they’re not alone, and reduce stigmas. This resiliency can be fluidly incorporated into the classroom as something that adds personalized depth to the curriculum. Here are a few things that worked for me this year as I tried to build students' mental health resiliency in my classroom:

Curricular units, texts, projects, and guest speakers that incorporate resilient themes such as decision-making, trauma, and identity. I’ve found texts such as Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink to be particularly effective in helping students navigate life. One student said reading Daring Greatly this year “helped me realize that it’s okay to show my emotions ... helped me conquer many of my fears.” Students also directly express and transform their narratives through projects where they write and share personal stories or learn about topics impacting them, their families, and their communities. Of our Mental Health Research Project with FAME Corporations, a Los Angeles nonprofit that builds community-wide partnerships, one student said: "It was really relatable towards what I was going through ... [It] has given me knowledge and resources that I can go to in order to help these problems.”

Opportunities for artistic self-expression so students can build outlets to process their lives and emotions. This year, my sophomores partnered with the Getty Center and the arts writing center 826LA for a photography exhibition on identity through self-portraiture. A student said the experience "helped me look deeper inside myself ... to let myself, and others, in to help me figure it out.”

Teaching students tools to mitigate stressors through self-awareness. This can include mindfulness at the start and end of class, pausing during emotionally-charged moments, noticing behavior patterns, reflective journaling, and learning how to have healthy discussions on charged topics.

Creating Purpose and Connection

Structuring opportunities for students to build purpose and connection at the classroom and school levels communicates to them that they are important and their lives matters.

These protective factors help mitigate risk factors that can impede a student’s ability to thrive. While I can’t control the number of risk factors my students face outside the classroom, I can aspire to create an environment where every student feels connected and important. Some ideas about how to do this include:

Creating opportunities for students to build relationships with their peers through purposeful grouping and structured interactions. This can help build a class and school culture where everyone is important and has something special to offer. This year, each student had a specific job and role in my classroom. One said of the experience: “Having a job has made me aware of how important everyone is to the class.”

Opportunities for students to join and lead clubs, sports, programs, or volunteer options where they can make positive contributions. This can also be embedded in an empowering curriculum where students examine their own roles in improving their communities.

Defining mission statements where students create an individual or shared purpose. This can include a dialogue on what this means in the context of their future self and family legacy.

Encouraging Physical Health

I know if my students are not feeling well, they cannot learn to their deepest capacity. This is particularly urgent in light of statistics that one-third of children are projected to develop diabetes in their lifetime, in a generation that is on track to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Encouraging these five straightforward foundations of health can change their capacity to learn in the classroom and thrive in life:

1. Food. The fuel students eat is directly correlated to their sustained focus and energy levels. Students will have more fuel to perform mentally and physically when sugar and processed foods are replaced with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and quality proteins.

2. Exercise and movement. Children were not designed to sit for six hours a day. Lessons that contain active movement will not only help students be active learners, but can also counteract some of the harmful effects of extended sitting.

3. Sleep. Children need at least nine hours of sleep a night. Though my high school students rarely seem to regularly achieve it, we discuss ways to organize their days so that they can maximize on this crucial restoring developmental time.

4. Stress. Though stress is a part of life, students can learn to process and navigate it in healthy ways. They can learn tools to examine their relationship with stress and develop proactive habits towards reducing reactionary or holding patterns that perpetuate the harmful effects of stress.

5. Safe body decisions. When appropriate, discussing decision-making around sexual health and substance abuse can save a student’s life. Various organizations have highly effective programs to speak with students professionally about these topics.

What we choose to do within schools can determine a child’s foundation for lifelong well-being. Though it takes intentional effort and quality professional development, it’s an investment in students' academics and their personal capacity to thrive in the classroom and in life. I can’t think of a more worthwhile investment to make.

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