As teachers, we are used to noticing the student who just doesn’t seem engaged, or who is absent too often, or who always feels sick at lunch, or who is irritable with her peers. In the physical classroom, teachers can see the signs that a student may be struggling with a mental health condition. But how can we identify students who are struggling in our online classrooms?
Some of the warning signs are similar to things you would observe in a physical classroom setting, including:
- Late or missing assignments
- Frequent absences
- Difficulty participating in class activities and discussions
- The phone number for a trusted friend or relative
- The non-emergency number for the local police department
- The Crisis Text Line: 741741
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
5 Ways You Can Help Your Students?
Almost 20% of adolescents will experience a mental health disorder between the ages of 6–17, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This fall, it’s likely that teachers at all levels will encounter more students than usual who are facing mental health challenges. Karen Shein is a licensed mental health counselor (LPC) who is also the board vice president of her local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter. When I asked her about how COVID-19 was affecting her younger clients, she told me, “I’m seeing children, teens, and young adults in my practice who are struggling with panic attacks, depression, and other forms of anxiety as they head back to school.”
Shein is not alone. I’ve noticed the same things in my own college classroom and in my children’s high school environments. Here are five ways to create a safe and inclusive online classroom environment to help you identify students who may be struggling with mental health challenges and connect them with resources.
1. Build an Atmosphere of Trust
It’s important that students know they can reach out to you if they need to, so building trust is important. You were probably already an expert at this in a physical classroom. In a virtual classroom, building trust might mean taking a few minutes to compile and share a list of community resources or preparing a brief video message about the importance of mental health and what this means to you. Validating students’ concerns will also help to build this trust.
2. Check in One on One
Find a way to check in with your students one on one. This can be extremely tough given all the demands on your time right now, but some students really need this individualized attention to be successful. Shein suggests that teachers provide their students with a way to reach out individually. In my college classroom, for example, I require brief revision conferences for my English students where we go over their assignments and any questions they have. This also gives them the opportunity to share the challenges they are facing. I keep a list of resources available for students so that I can share these immediately following our conversation, and I also post this list on an “I Need Help” discussion board.
3. Provide Emergency Numbers
Encourage students to keep emergency numbers in their phones. The National Institute of Mental Health recommends that children and teens store the following information in a readily accessible place:
4. Help Students Understand New Technology
Make sure that students understand how to use the technology and know how to get support. A major source of anxiety for students can be the new technology tools they now have to navigate. We tend to think that digital natives are born with computer skills, but what I have seen in my own first-year college students is a lack of familiarity with the computer applications and programs they need to be successful in the online environment.
Online classes can feel overwhelming to anyone, but this strange new world can affect students who are living with mental health conditions especially hard. If you notice that a student is consistently struggling with submitting assignments in the right way or with participating in the virtual classroom, this may be a sign they need help and are too afraid or anxious to ask for it.
5. Use Free Online Resources
Reach out to mental health advocacy organizations, such as NAMI, and take advantage of its free online resources and presentations. Sometimes just offering a link or starting a conversation can help a student who is struggling to self-identify and ask for help. NAMI chapters are providing remote presentations that are appropriate for middle school and high school students.
A Final Observation
For some students who have mental health conditions, the virtual classroom may actually be a more enjoyable environment than the physical one. Some students who live with anxiety or depression may prefer to meet online because it is less stressful and easier for them to participate in learning activities. With this in mind, I do not require my own students to turn on their video cameras because I know this can cause some of them to experience anxiety. Instead, I engage students in other ways, including through polls and surveys throughout the class or through the chat, which has become its own metacommentary in some of my courses.
Ultimately, the same skills of empathy and compassion that helped you to spot struggling students in a physical classroom will serve you well in the digital one.
“Each child has individual needs. I think kiddos and their parents need a way to express these needs and have them heard. That may be a tall order in this busy time, but we’re all operating outside the box right now,” Shein told me.
Trusting yourself to be the teacher you have always been will help you to build this trust with your students.