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Classroom Culture and Mental Health

Oct 28, 2021

During the ten years I spent in the classroom, I taught AP® Psychology all of those years.  I attended numerous content-specific professional development opportunities, flipped the entire curriculum that is readily available for free on my YouTube channel, as well as built resources that many teachers find helpful in my Teachers Pay Teachers store or in our Sustainable Psych Teacher membership.  I’m sharing all of this to say that I became, and hopefully remain, well versed in the AP® Psychology curriculum - I would even venture to say I’ve got my 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell teaches about as indicating expertise, at least in the curriculum that is… but certainly not in the field of psychology.

So as much as I know and love psychology, I am by no stretch of the imagination a psychologist, psychiatrist (shout out to my psych nerds who know the difference), or a mental health professional.  No advice I give today in this episode is advice for handling mental health.  No.  Instead it is advice on building a classroom culture that helps students feel welcome at the core of who they are, not because of their facade, and that they feel comfortable to be vulnerable enough with you or another adult so they can seek help if and when they need it.

So I’ll say it again - I am not giving mental health advice or recommendations on how to go about handling a mental health situation for yourself or for that of your student.

However, my hope is that after listening to this episode you will have a clear vision of a balanced message to send and classroom culture to create around mental health.

It is NOT news to educators today that our students' mental health is different than it was ten or even five years ago.  And then you throw into the mix this whole pandemic, not just the potential and reality for some of getting sick or caring for our sick loved ones, but more prominently impactful, the social distancing, total wrench thrown in young people’s lives, routines, and futures that absolutely changed everything for them, or at least for some.  I would venture to say the impact is and will be immeasurable, never quite completely quantifiable.  But teachers know.  We see it, and, if you’re anything like me and the many teachers I work with, as educators are convicted of sending a welcoming message to all students, but also a message that empowers our students no matter their state of mental health.

In this episode I’ll be talking to the teacher in the room, I bet that’s you, on the topic of taking care of yourself so you can care for others, what recent research is showing us about our students’ mental state, and finally three messages you want to be sending to your students everyday when it comes to their emotional and mental health.

So if you’re ready to talk about this hot button issue like a professional, while keeping it real amongst colleagues with the perspective of wanting to make an impact with your kids, then this episode is for you.  Here we go.

The first thing I want to say to you, teacher friend, is that this is a heavy topic.  And, like teachers do, you want to help everyone in every way possible.

Not Everything, but Something

But here’s the thing.  You can NOT be everything for every student.  You can be something for them.  You are not a mental health professional, you can not be available for calls or meeting student needs around the clock, but you can be a smiling face, an open ear, an empathetic and nonjudgemental sounding board.  

You can lead by example when it comes to healthy boundaries by setting some for yourself - that is to NOT respond to emails and messages all hours of the day, to arrive to and leave work each day at a reasonable time, to talk to your students about your personal life (to a certain degree) in a way that allows them to see you are not all work and that you enjoy just being you.

Rest in the fact that you can’t be everything, but you can be something consistent, reliable, and sustainable.

That is, only if you take care of you first.  If you are feeling continually frustrated, exhausted, and even spiteful about the perhaps seemingly hopeless circumstances of the state of education right now, or feeling alone amongst all your negative or demeaning colleagues, or bewildered by your inability to have impact with a certain student or group of students, then you can’t be a calm, smiling face or patiently listening ear.

That’s not to say that you should just ignore any of those problems, but maybe, just maybe, when you are in your classroom, and it’s just you, the kids, and the content, you can close the door on all the other crap.  Allow the classroom to become a sacred space where you get to forget, momentarily, about all the other things, and just focus on connecting with kids and helping them take steps towards confidence and mastery in the content.  If the classroom becomes that for you, maybe it can become that for your students as well.

Mental Health Looks Different

The stigma surrounding mental health is absolutely a thing and has been since, I would argue, the beginning of time.  If you don’t believe I would tell you to take my word for it and NOT Google the horrific things so-called doctors would do to folks suffering with mental illness before and even long after the field of psychology became a thing.  I would however, encourage you to Google what is in the DSM (that is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), more like, what was in the DSM and what is no longer.  That should give you some indication to the feeble nature of our understanding of mental disorders throughout time.

That is a subject worthy of an entire subject, let alone one episode, and so I’ll let your interests go where they may there, and get back to the point here.  Which is, that mental health and our awareness of it ebbs and flows with our circumstances and with the level of acceptance our culture seemingly grants our minds to understand.  Our kids today are no different.

Most often when we think of children who come to our classroom with mental health struggles or even a diagnosis of some sort, it’s because of some severe trauma or baggage that triggered a chemical imbalance of some sort.

Well, that’s changed thanks to the state of technology and the availability of games, social media, and anything else our devices might grace us with.  According to psychiatrist Anna Lembke in her Washington Post article titled, Digital Addictions are Drowning Us In Dopamine, our emotional and mental states are quite literally drowning in dopamine which then causes our brains to come off the dopamine rush (cause by the many screens and their abilities in our lives) and effectively produce less dopamine when we’re not zombie-faced looking at a screen.

In fact, our brains do more than that.  Lembke describes it as this.

“When we do something we enjoy—like playing video games, for my patient—the brain releases a little bit of dopamine and we feel good. But one of the most important discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the past 75 years is that pleasure and pain are processed in the same parts of the brain and that the brain tries hard to keep them in balance. Whenever it tips in one direction it will try hard to restore the balance, which neuroscientists call homeostasis, by tipping in the other.”

So what this means is that if a student walks into your room everyday after having a huge dopamine rush, and their dopamine rush isn’t continued in your class, their brains will be acting and behaving as if they are in some sort of (what I would bet emotional) pain.  Same goes for you.

Lembke goes on to explain that “​​If we keep up this pattern for hours every day, over weeks or months, the brain’s set-point for pleasure changes. Now we need to keep playing games, not to feel pleasure but just to feel normal. As soon as we stop, we experience the universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance: anxiety, irritability, insomnia, dysphoria and mental preoccupation with using, otherwise known as craving.”

And I’ll add my two cents here that social media, and the inability to resist the endless scroll gives a dopamine rush as well, and will have the same effects as well.

And this is what we are living folks.  Yes, your students in your classroom, also you which this is something to reflect on, right?!? But more importantly, our students.  Not even looking at it through the lens of we now have to compete with all the screens and dopamine-rush-inducing tech.  Let’s just look at it as even without baggage, mental health difficulties happen and are very real.

It’s important that we acknowledge that.  Privilege and socioeconomic status does NOT exempt anyone from mental health issues.

Classroom Culture Surrounding Mental Health

As much as this episode is simply about acknowledgement and awareness around mental health, I want to give you some practical advice.  Something you can almost tangibly take with you and apply in your classroom tomorrow, and for this episode that will directly relate to your classroom culture that surrounds mental health.

I want to give you three resounding messages you want your students to feel and know once they’ve spent a significant amount of time in your room.  And here they are.

Message One: 

You care about their emotional and mental well being, not just their test scores and performance in your class.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but you really have to walk the walk here, not just talk the talk, that is verbalize this in multiple ways in your classroom.  For instance, on test day, reminding students that although they (and you) have been working hard to do well, and you want their hard work to pay off, they are not defined by their test scores.  

You want to send this message in a way that shows students an empathetic yet tough love response that does not condone apathy.  Engrain in your students minds that you are here for them when life’s circumstances or their mental state is unstable, but also that before that point, you know with every fiber of your being that they can do hard things - all they need do is let you know what they need to do it.

Message Two:

The second message you want to clearly send to your students is that we all have mental health, and we all are on the continuum of mental health ranging from complete stability to instability in multiple facets.  What this means is that we all have our own issues we’re handling, some more severe than others, which we need to respect, but no one is perfect.  No one walks around in complete mental and emotional stability 100% of the time.  I would argue that’s not possible without the joy of our heavenly father or is somehow artificially produced, if you catch my drift.

Many physical conditions that do not have a stigma in our society are accompanied by or even impact our mental health.  No one is exempt from parts of their brain and behaviors being qualified as less than healthy.  So while we may all be on our own unique journeys, don’t think for a second that you’re alone.

Message Three:

The final message to send your students is this.  No matter our experiences, we all can take a stance of being tolerant and respectful of all human brains no matter their neurodiversity or mental health issues.  The first or even prerequisite step is to be talking about it, normalizing talking about it, and encouraging tolerance and acceptance.

Another huge way we can encourage acceptance and respect is in our language and the words we use.  As teachers we need to commit ourselves to NOT using the following words and phrases, and not allow them in our classrooms, teaching students the reasoning behind our stance.  

The words and phrases we can’t allow are things like: retard or special in regards to someone of different neurodiversity as us.  

Crazy, psycho, or weird to someone who is obviously or not-so-obviously experiencing mental health struggles.  

And lastly, we can not refer to the everyday roller coaster of emotions that is part of the typical human experience (especially for teenagers) as “I am so depressed,” when what we mean is that we are sad.  Likewise, don’t say you yourself or someone else is “so OCD” because they like things neat and tidy.  Misusing the words meant as clinical depression or obsessive compulsive disorder very much contributes to the stigma surrounding those mental health conditions in a way that minimizes their severity, and almost depicts them as something desirable or that people with these diagnoses are anything more glamorous than someone with a clinical mental condition.  Respect the human behind the diagnoses.

And there you have it teacher-friend.

As always on this podcast, I hope this episode made you think, hopefully in ways you hadn’t before about topics and issues we teachers are dealing with on a regular basis.  That it got your wheels turning around how to sustainably approach the messages you want to be sending your students, and encourages you to know the true impact you have even when you don’t work past contracted hours and answer messages all hours of the day.

The last thing I will say is this, unless you actually are a mental health professional, teacher-friend, you, nor I are mental health professionals.  When something is over your head or a student needs more than you can provide which will absolutely be the case at multiple points throughout your career, do not hesitate one second to contact someone who is qualified to truly help your student.  And before then, know exactly who that someone is.  If you don’t know, reach out to your school counseling staff and/or administration to  know exactly who to contact when on school grounds, and when not on school grounds. 

Remember, you can’t be everything for all of your students.  But you can be something.  And I hope this episode has encouraged you to be a smiling face, a consistent and welcoming presence, an open door, a listening ear, an encouraging mentor, and empowering teacher.

If this podcast is something that resonates with you on a weekly basis, I would so love it if you would share it with your teacher-friends.  Two ways you can do that is simply by subscribing and reviewing the podcast on the app where you’re listening.  And another way is to click the share button - you know where it is (probably around the bottom of your screen, those three dots, and click Share), and send it in a text or in an email to your best teacher friends and let them know what we’re all about over here on the Sustainable Teacher.

Alrighty, I will see you right here, same time, same place, next week.  Bye for now.

P.S. To grab the How-To Video tutorials I mentioned in last week's episode, be sure to complete the form below and I'll send them your way 😀

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