The problem with teaching is... it's never as simple as just teaching.
Of course... this is nothing new.
20 years ago, overworked teachers joked society expected them to be teachers and social workers.
Now they joke teachers are supposed to be mental health professionals as well.
Which is why, on social media, you'll often hear people throw up their hands and say, "Can't we just be left to teach?"
But here's the thing.
Factors beyond the school gates have always impacted on students' learning.
And if your pupils are bringing unmanaged mental health conditions into the classroom… you can't get to the teaching.
That's why I'd like to give you:
- A simple way of thinking about how mental health affects student behaviour...
- That lets you focus less on behaviour - and more on teaching
But first, I want to ask...
Does this affect the children in your class?
In 2017, a major survey of the mental health of children and young people was carried out in England.
It turns out mental health affects a surprisingly large number of children in our classrooms and schools, from preschoolers to school-leavers.
The headlines are:
- One in eight school-aged children had a diagnosable mental health disorder (about 4 children in the average class)
- 5% of preschoolers had a mental health disorder (at least one child in the average class starting school for the first time)
- Young women, aged 17 to 19, were particularly high risk - with 1 in 4 presenting a mental health disorder
So wherever you work in the education system, this is a problem that affects your students… and your ability to teach them.
And you may be surprised by what's included in the definition of 'mental health disorder'.
As well as the obvious candidates, like depression, anxiety and eating disorders, the definition includes:
- ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder)
- Conduct disorder
Conditions that often get overlooked when we think about mental health.
(If you want clarification, read our popular article on the difference between autism and ADHD.)
What do many of these conditions have in common?
Many of these disorders result in high levels of stress in the classroom.
Let's take autism as an example.
Many students with autism find it hard to 'read' other people. This makes their classmates unpredictable, unnerving... even threatening.
For them, the other children are like big, angry attack dogs - who could turn at any time.
Now picture the average classroom from this student's point of view.
They're surrounded by 29 attack dogs, all tightly squeezed into the environment.
The result? High levels of anxiety and stress - that push us our student towards the 'fight-or-flight' response.
Once in a fight-or-flight state, our brains lose much of their ability to:
- Form long-term memories
- Use logic and plan ahead
- Use language (understanding what others say, as well as expressing our own thoughts)
These are the exact skills we need to learn.
Or to put it another way: students experiencing high levels of stress cannot access the functions they need to learn.
We've put the emotional cart before the horse.
Of course, most students can only contain that stress for a short time before they explode. This might look like a meltdown or a student storming out of class (both forms of escape).
Rewards and consequences won't work
The obvious place to start with any behaviour difficulty is with consistent systems of rewards and consequences.
However - in cases involving mental health disorders, these probably won't work.
Rewards and consequences rely on a pupil's ability to think ahead and adapt their behaviour for a future pay-off.
But this group of students are experiencing very high levels of stress, pushing them into fight-or-flight.
Their bodies are telling them:
- To focus on surviving a threat in 'this moment' (what happens later is irrelevant)
- To physically get away from the threat (or attack it)
While they may be able to hold in those feelings for a short while, eventually those emotions have to go somewhere.
So our student copes until they can't - and then the we see the explosion in the classroom.
What to do instead
As a general rule, children who feel safe, calm and confident don't present behaviour problems.
We need to consider our child's mental health condition... and work out what factors in the classroom elevate their stress.
Once we know that, we can put in place simple measures that compensate.
The aim is to proactively reduce their stress load - instead of holding the stress in.
According to neuroscience, the 5 main stressors are:
- Biological (eg. nutrition, exercise, sleep, allergens, extreme heat and cold)
- Emotional (eg. intense or confusing emotions)
- Cognitive (eg. sensory overload, information overload)
- Social (eg. interpersonal conflict, confusing social situations, victim of aggression/bullying)
- Pro-social (eg. dealing with strong emotions in other people, putting others needs ahead of your own, guilt)
Let's go back to our student who finds other pupils difficult to understand.
We could think about:
- Exactly where our student sits (ie. does seating them individually lower stress levels? Could they have the opportunity to opt in and out of social seating, as their stress levels permit?)
- What happens during group work (ie. can they have the option to work alone? If they participate in team work, be intentional about which of the other students they work with.)
We're controlling their exposure to social stress. And the behaviours we see in the classroom should be less challenging as result.
(By the way... I'm not saying we should never teach children to contain their emotions. Regulating short-term stress is an important life skill. In this article, I'm talking about children with specific mental health conditions - and trying to contain long-term emotional stress is unhealthy and doesn't work.)
As educators, we don't necessarily need to know the ins and outs of 100s of mental health conditions...
...it's enough to know many of those conditions are driven by rising levels of stress.
- pupils who feel safe, calm and confident don't usually present behaviour problems
- students in fight-or-flight can't learn
For pupils presenting mental health conditions:
- Appreciate that rewards and consequences are unlikely to work
- Identify the stressors
- Put in place counter-measures where that's practical and possible (sometimes, it might not be)
When you get this right, you'll often see challenging behaviours in class reduce. The child will be calmer, and more able to focus and engage with their work.
And that means both you - and your student - can focus on teaching and learning.
Of course, encouraging your students to talk about mental health is the first step to helping them cope with strong emotions. And there's never been a better time to do so than World Mental Health Day on the 10th October.
Want help kickstarting that conversation in your primary school? Or not sure where to start in a safe way? Then check out our done-for-you presentation about managing anger.