What proportion of education should include strategies for mental well-being?

“1 in 10 children on average has a diagnosable mental health problem” as published by The Guardian.com in May, 2017. That’s two to three students in each of our classes that need special attention. Teen suicide has quadrupled since the 1950’s. What is our responsibility as teachers to adopt new methods to address this growing need for attention to mental well-being? This is an overwhelming thought in addition to the demands of our curricular areas and meeting the national standards. Should teaching stress management techniques also be part of our job?students mental health?

Yesterday I had the great fortune of meeting an important figure in U.K. education, Dr. Carrie Herbert.  Dr. Herbert is the founder of Red Balloon Schools which supports young people who self-exclude or are isolated at school because of bullying or other trauma. Her centers provide an academic and therapeutic program to help these students receive an education and reconnect with society.

When I told her that my enquiry is based on the increasing number of students suffering from anxiety and stress in the United States, Dr. Herbert described how stress and anxiety has changed among young people since she began twenty years ago.  The demand for her way of schooling has greatly increased as the childrens’ diagnosed mental health issues have become more complicated.  She described what she believes is three broad reasons attributing to the crisis we are in today with children’s mental health:
Social Media: the new social norm in which young people are expected to participate in a continuous  broadcasting of themselves.  They have to be “on” all the time.  These expectations are overwhelming.
Parents’ longer work hours : It shouldn’t be a shock to any of us that stressed parents often equal stressed kids. The days of sitting at the dinner table as a family at the same time have dwindled. Parents are often distracted from their kids by cell phones and/or computers.  Work schedules often include long commutes or high expectations for long hours. In addition, the high rate of divorce also contributes to a child’s loss of time with one or both parents.
Teaching Methods: Tests and statistics. Much of education has gone back to the memorizing of facts followed by testing. Creativity, inventiveness, and most importantly a child’s sense of PURPOSE driven by interest is hard to find in a typical classroom. Dr. Herbert recommended the book Negotiating the Curriculum which is based on a pedagogy developed in Australia which has greatly influenced her way of teaching the troubled students who come to The Red Balloon School. More on this book later…

I will be posting more about the Red Balloon Schools and the success of their methods following my visit to at least one of their sites. If you’re interested in learning more, the website is http://www.redballoonlearner.org.

As to the question I asked at the start, I believe that we do have a responsibility to equip our students with tools that address mental wellbeing. It starts with adults/teachers/parents assessing our own methods of coping with stress. Are we always rushing through our school hallways or workplace looking exasperated with meeting the days expectations? Do we allow time for ourselves and our students to mentally transition to the next space in which we are to learn and perform? At the school in which I teach, our health teacher does a very thorough job addressing mental well-being, but it can’t be up to just one teacher during a selected marking period to deliver the idea.  I believe that the only way we’re going to effectively help our students avoid harmful choices to alleviate stress is to revisit our priorities as a school/family/community and decide whether or not we want our children to have the hurried feeling that I know many of us feel all the time.

The next question is, what can you share with your students/children that you feel is a healthy way of coping with and perhaps even alleviating your stress…and then do more of it.

Like the stewardess says, put your air mask on first so that you can help others.

About Dr. Carrie Herbert: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1019772/The-Mails-Inspirational-Women-Year–humbling-stories-sacrifice-devotion-restore-faith-human-decency.html

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