Tips for Teachers: Ways to Help Kids and Teens Who Struggle with Emotions or Behavior

I have often heard stories from adults of passing comments their teachers made to them years ago that stuck with them for life. In many cases, these are positive stories of teachers who believed in someone and gave them the determination to succeed. But sometimes, as in the case of Lynyrd Skynyrd or the founder of the chain Weatherspoons, who named their band/restaurant after the teachers who never believed in them, people will hold onto these harsh words. Teachers have a large impact on a child’s development, which in turn is integral for the formation of a well-adjusted adult. Oftentimes emotional or behavioral problems emerge during these formative years. Rather than just being reactive to problems in the classroom, teachers can play a positive role in their mental well-being and development. Here are some tips for teachers on how to support a student who is acting out or going through difficulties.

Know Your Resources

Teachers can often feel isolated as the sole adult in their classroom, especially in school districts lacking sufficient staff. However, they have a huge support system in the administration and district, as well as with parents. Get to know the district school psychologists and social workers, as well as the programs schools have for children who need extra help. You can also keep open communication with parents on areas the student can grow and ways you can help them achieve their goals. Become familiar with 504 plans and other legislation in place to ensure you have the direction you need to support students who need accommodations.

Understand The Student’s Perspective

By labeling certain students as “the problem child,” whether explicitly or implicitly, you are giving them a negative identity. Students as young as kindergartners can understand when people do not like them, and it has such a negative effect on their development. It also gives you the black and white thinking that makes it difficult to accept the student for who they are. This might be particularly important for high school teachers, as there are higher expectations for students’ maturity. But as is the same for anyone, high school students often cannot control their upbringing, background, and intelligence; being treated sternly for that which they cannot control is particularly devastating to a student’s self-esteem. Further, adolescence is the common time for the onset of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and psychotic disorders, which can cause individuals to have a short attention span and act in unsocial ways. It often takes a while for young people to seek help for their mental health issues, so they may not have the coping strategies to succeed in school at the time. But believing that they are accepted and can achieve their goals no matter their situation is a message that can have more impact on success than any lecture.

Compassion Over Criticism

If a student is acting out, teachers’ first response is often to ameliorate the behaviour. While this might have immediate benefits, speaking harshly to a student can often lower their self-esteem and create further problems. If you need to discipline a student with emotional or behavioural problems, take extra care to explain why you are disciplining and vocalize that it is their behaviour that is the problem – not who they are as a person. Be careful not to stigmatize a student by labelling them as a mental health issue, such as saying, “stop being ADHD.” Rather than focusing on their problem areas, recognize their strengths. Consider having a private conversation with students about their interests and ways you can help them to feel secure. Overall, ensure that the classroom is a safe environment in which to grow.

Seek Support

It can be easy to be frustrated with students and feel the need to vent in the lounge, or snap at them during class, none of which have a lasting impact on your well-being. To make this easier on yourself, brainstorm ways you yourself can be supported. You can have lunch with a few teachers who experience the same thing, or seek your own mental health treatment. In particular, be aware of any signs of burnout in your job. At the end of the day, a rested and supported teacher is going to be the most help to their students.

A Note for Parents: While you are an expert on your child, teachers are also valuable sources of information about your son or daughter’s social and academic lives. While it can be tempting to be defensive of your child in parent/teacher conferences, consider using them as a time to learn a different perspective on your child’s strengths and areas for growth.

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