Understanding Self-Harming Behaviors and Students: The Basics for Teachers

Self-harm or self-injury is often used as a way to manage intense emotional distress. At its core, intentionally hurting oneself is a coping mechanism that serves a variety of functions, including:

  • Distracting from emotions
  • Creating physical pain to feel something when experiencing numbness
  • Enacting a form of control when feeling out of control
  • Engaging in self-harm as punishment

While it is true that self-harming behavior is separate from suicidal behavior (due to the lack of intent to die from the action), research has indicated that engaging in self-harm increases the risk and likelihood of experiencing a suicide attempt. Additionally, serious injuries can occur from self-harming behaviors even when suicide is not the intention.

Examples of Self-Harm and Warning Signs to Watch For

The prevalence of Non-Suicidal Self-Injurious (NSSI) behavior during adolescence is an important topic of awareness for teachers. Most often, NSSI takes place in the forms of cutting, carving, burning, scratching, and hitting, and these behaviors are considered outside of the social norm. It is common for children engaging in self-injury to try to hide the behavior out of shame and embarrassment.

It’s important to remember that self-harm is a form of coping. If the student conducting self-harm had effective skills to address the emotional challenges, they would likely utilize those instead (including asking for help). However, the stigma often associated with needing psychological help continues to be a barrier to seeking support.

As a teacher, you are in a unique position to spot the signs of student self-harm. The following are some warning signs that could help you identify a student potentially struggling with NSSI:

  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, even in hot temperatures or under typical physical education uniforms
  • Visible scarring
  • Picking, rubbing (to create a skin burn, such as with an eraser), or scratching at themselves, particularly excessively and potentially while seeming distracted or in distress
  • Fresh wounds, including cuts, bruises, burns, and other wounds
  • Explaining away frequent injuries as “an accident”
  • Withdrawing from others and isolating
  • Feeling helpless, hopeless, and/or worthless
  • Difficulty in relationships with others
  • Emotional instability and mood swings
  • Maintains sharp objects, matches/lighters on hand

What to Do if a Student Is Self-Harming

If you have concerns that a student may be engaging in self-harm, follow your instinct and take action. Interact with the student, and create space for a conversation where you can compassionately share your concerns. Maintain a sense of openness if the student is willing to engage in conversation with you, and help create safety for sharing. It is possible that the student will brush off your concerns or even react with irritation; but no matter the response, follow up on your concerns and get additional help for the student.

Utilize professional support systems, especially those at your school, including nurses, social workers, psychologists, counselors, and administrators. In school systems, these professionals are most equipped to further assess the student, connect the student with appropriate resources and care, and facilitate any necessary communication between staff and caregivers.

As a teacher, one of the most important things you can do is create an atmosphere where students feels respected, cared about, and safe while also being treated “normally” within the classroom. And if a student becomes connected to additional services (such as therapy), you can also remain flexible if the services coincide with classroom time by making accommodations, including extending the deadline on an assignment or offering resources for additional instruction they may have missed.

How to Help Students Build Coping Skills

Your role in the classroom provides you with the unique opportunity to assist in developing healthy coping skills for all of your students. Even if you teach math or science, consider ways that brief, helpful emotion-management techniques can be introduced, practiced, and encouraged in the classroom. A few ideas include:

  • Ending class with a deep-breathing exercise
  • Conducting a weekly mindfulness activity (you can get ideas online or via an app)
  • Providing time for private journaling

A great smartphone app that was created during the global pandemic is COVID Coach, a one-stop shop for healthy coping skills to address a wide variety of challenges, including loneliness, feeling sad/hopeless, handling anger, dealing with sleep challenges, and navigating relationships. This app is a great starting point for you to explore skills to introduce to your students, and you can recommend it to your students as well.

Lastly, while we’re on the topic of the pandemic, the reality of virtual schooling can have a dramatic emotional impact on students. The nature of increased isolation, stress, and anxiety can increase the risk for self-harm among students. And distance-teaching can make noticing warning signs even more challenging. But know that one of the biggest ways you can have an impact is to just be present, tuned in, and available. Continue to lean into your students, especially when you have concerns for possible self-harm, and reach out to the professional support roles who can provide additional assistance.

  • Venée M. Hummel, LCSW is a clinical social worker and clinician at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Centerstone in Clarksville, Tennessee, and an instructor at the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She provides clinical services to veterans and military-connected family members, with a specialty focus on evidence-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, and the impact of deployments on children, couples, and the entire family. She previously completed a fellowship in combat trauma research, assessment, and intervention at the STRONG STAR Research Consortium and Consortium to Alleviate PTSD at Fort Hood, Texas. Ms. Hummel is also the proud daughter of a U.S. Army soldier with over 30 years of active-duty service, and she is honored to dedicate her career to giving back to the community that helped raise her.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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