Many students struggle with online learning. But what about their mental health? It’s hard to tell how learners feel when you only see them through a computer screen.
The number of mental health disorders seen in children is on the rise. Around half of all lifetime mental health problems start by the mid-teens. It’s vital we support students’ wellbeing, as well as academic outcomes.
Whilst they feel more distant when you’re teaching from home, your students need you more than ever.
What causes mental health problems?
There’s never one answer to what causes mental health concerns. Your learners come with a variety of home experiences and situations that can impact on their wellbeing.
Students may struggle with:
- Digital poverty: Learners without reliable internet and technology at home feel left behind and isolated. They are frustrated they can’t keep up with their peers.
- Isolation: It’s hard as an adult to get motivated to work. Students can struggle to self-regulate and feel unable to manage schoolwork.
- Financial difficulties: Financial insecurity and debt put a tremendous burden on families.
- Caring responsibilities: Many children are home carers supporting parents or younger siblings.
- Unsafe home environment: For students who are victims of domestic violence or abuse, online learning means spending more time at home.
Students with pre-existing mental health needs often have support structures in place. Whilst there are challenges, it’s possible to move from face-to-face to virtual support.
But what about other learners who have not shown previous issues? Many of your students are likely to need increased pastoral support whilst they learn remotely.
Here’s seven ideas to help you support their mental health and wellbeing needs in your school.
1: Signpost wellbeing support
You may never spot the students struggling with mental health. They often hide problems and never ask for help. Signposting support to all students, not just the ones you’ve flagged as a concern, means everyone can access the help they need.
Make time in each lesson to talk about where they can find support. Add helpline numbers and useful websites to the last slide in your presentations. Create a page on a collaborative platform like Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. Regularly email wellbeing tips home or share them on social media.
2: Create opportunities to talk about mental health
Your live virtual lessons don’t need to be just about learning. Add a little time for them to chat together. Home learning can feel isolating. Talking time lets them keep those class bonds strong.
Create virtual drop-in sessions students can choose to attend. Many young people message rather than phone their friends. Promote virtual coffee shop events where the purpose is to talk.
But remember, vulnerable students are unlikely to share worries with a large group. Make sure they know how to talk to you alone. Remember students with limited access to technology. How will you reach out to them? Many schools have created rotas to call all students to see how they are.
3: Make wellbeing buddies
Some learners won’t want to talk to you, but they might open up to a peer. Pair students up using their school email addresses and show them how they can support each other. Share regular topics for discussion and give them a chance to talk about worries.
Remember to follow your school’s online safeguarding procedures and think about how you can monitor communications. Remind them to talk on your school’s chosen platform, or cc you into their emails to let you monitor and keep them safe.
4: Look for mental health warning signs
A perfect student suddenly not meeting deadlines? The reliable learner who’s missing your live lessons? There are often signs that a student is struggling. Instead of going zero-tolerance, talk to them about what the problem is and let them share their worries.
Use regular surveys or digital wellbeing trackers to gauge wellbeing across your school and spot pockets of problems to address. Include a space for students to add in their own concerns rather than making them entirely tick boxes.
5: Promote health and wellbeing
Make healthy living the top of your teaching agenda. Encourage healthy eating, exercise, and hobbies to keep your students active and happy.
Create virtual clubs that can run on video calls, like online yoga or exercise classes. Create positive competitions, such as how many miles a year group can walk in a month. Make it collaborative rather than competitive to encourage everyone to take part.
6: Educate parents about mental health
The vast majority of parents care deeply about wellbeing and will be supportive of your efforts. They often spot problems before you do. Just don’t assume they’ll know how to help.
Offer advice using your school’s social media accounts and share tips for them to use at home. Tell parents about warning signs to watch out for and what they can do to help.
Run online meetings to discuss wellbeing with parents and offer them 1:1 calls to discuss their child. Check there’s a robust process in place. Who do parents call? What happens then? It’s important that no one gets lost in the system.
7: Make wellbeing a school priority
With the pressure of moving to home learning, mental health might not feel like your top priority. But failing to meet the wellbeing needs of students now will just cause bigger problems later.
- Adding wellbeing to the agenda for staff meetings
- Looking at tracking procedures for flagged students
- Checking how staff can raise new concerns
- Running wellbeing events, lessons, and classes
Reach out to local mental health charities in your area to see if they have useful resources you can use. Many will run sessions by trained professionals you can access.
Don’t forget your own mental health
It’s easy to worry about student wellbeing and forget your own mental health needs. You need to prioritise looking after yourself if you’re going to support your students when they’re working remotely.
Your work-life balance is important. Make opportunities for exercise in your day. Include time for hobbies and check out useful apps for relieving stress.
Student mental health is a worry in all schools, but the rise of distance learning makes it harder to spot young people who are struggling. Working online can make your students feel more distant, but they still need your personal support for their wellbeing.
Working at home can feel isolating for everyone. Build opportunities to talk as a class and school community. Let your students, and staff, share how they’re feeling. You can help every member of your class access the support they need.