Addressing Mental Health Disorders in the Classroom

By Van Stone, Bruce | Teach, May/June 2013 | Go to article overview

Addressing Mental Health Disorders in the Classroom


Van Stone, Bruce, Teach


There is often a prevailing image society has of someone with mental illness. The stereotype is of a person who is out of control, with a "crazy" look in their eyes, and is highly dangerous. That characterization is not only incorrect, but also insulting. Mental health disorders come in many sizes and shapes and there is not a one-size-fits-all method of addressing them. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. However, from my own experience as a teacher, I know that a much larger number of youth are never diagnosed. Educators are often in the front lines of their students' lives so not only are they sometimes the first to notice symptoms of mental illness, but they strongly influence how students perceive mental health. While teaching, I was always aware of instructional strategies and practices that can help their students meet their full potential. I would like to share these strategies that I have used to address mental health in the classroom. Please keep in mind that every child is different and that with each disorder, there are varying degrees of symptoms and presenting issues.

I will begin my focus with the anxiety disorders that can manifest in different forms. Anxious students may be easily frustrated or be perfectionists, having difficulty completing assignments. Or, they may simply refuse to begin out of fear of failure. This can lead to absenteeism to avoid embarrassment.

Here are some strategies that I have used effectively for students suffering anxiety:

* Allow flexible deadlines when they find a particular assignment worrisome. Encourage accountability and follow-through, but not in ways that promote stress and discomfort.

* Provide choices for assignments and help them feel like they have some control over their environment.

* Ensure they write down assignment instructions correctly.

* Post the daily class schedule so students can know what to expect.

* Encourage involvement in extra-curriculars to help alleviate some anxiousness through exercise and a sense of social belonging.

* Model calmness and self-control.

Bipolar disorder is another illness that is seen by teachers in the classroom. Students may experience fluctuations in mood, energy levels, effort, and motivation that may occur many times a day, daily, in specific cycles, or during certain seasons of the year. As a result, a student with bipolar disorder may have difficulty concentrating, understanding assignments that have many parts or that have complex directions and may become defiant when confronted about their classwork.

Here are some suggested instructional strategies:

* Divide assigned readings into manageable segments and monitor the student's progress, checking comprehension periodically.

* When a student's energy is low, reduce academic demands; when their energy is high, increase them.

* Identify a place where the student can go for privacy until he or she regains self-control.

* If a student becomes defiant, do not argue with them; instead, concentre on calming him or her down.

* Regularly check in with the student's parents so that you can share your observations and better understand their cycles of mood fluctuations more effectively. …

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