Mentally healthy schools and learning environments
There are many ways to promote mental health in schools and classrooms. Approaches vary depending on your preferences, the needs of your students and the local context. At its core, a mentally healthy school and classroom is a learning environment where every student feels like they belong.
Reflect on your practice
Maintaining positive relationships with students within a caring school community and safe, welcoming, inclusive classroom, contributes to students’ social-emotional wellness and readiness to learn. In addition, mentally healthy classrooms have a critical role in facilitating social emotional skill development – via instruction, embedded opportunities for practice and ongoing modelling. Use our reflection tools to reflect on the practices used in your school or board and to identify strengths and areas for growth.
School and classroom strategies that support student mental health (Tier 1)
Many of the suggestions below are things you might be doing already. They come naturally to you as a caring educator. The goal is to use these practices consistently and with intention.
- Greet students warmly, by name, as they enter the classroom.
- Show an interest in activities that students are involved with outside of school.
- If your school has a healthy food/breakfast program, allow time for students to get a snack before they settle down to work.
- Check in with students who may need a bit more encouragement and support throughout the day.
- Repeat instructions/speak more slowly for newcomer students and those for whom English/French is a second language.
- Establish predictable classroom routines.
- Provide flexible accommodations for students as needed.
- Pay attention to student dynamics and intervene early if interpersonal problems arise.
- Consider having different seating options available in the classroom (e.g., individual work areas, group work areas, informal seating areas, etc.).
- Build a calming, separate space for students that allows them to take a step back from the busy classroom, as needed. You may consider having fidget toys available. Ask students for ideas to help you design the space.
- Examine the materials in your classroom, such as posters on your walls. Are they representative of your students? Are cultural and faith elements appropriately diverse?
- Consider including positive, hopeful messages around the classroom that inspire a sense of belonging.
- At times, it might be appropriate to change the lighting, allow for music, and/or encourage movement in the classroom.
- Know your students – understanding their strengths, needs and interests allows you to build genuine personal connections.
- Ask students for their opinion and provide opportunities for shared decision making (such as classroom norms and environment).
- Foster student voice and encourage engagement in the promotion of mental health.
- Support the development of leadership opportunities for students in ways that are comfortable for them.
- Learn about, and demonstrate an appreciation for, the diversity of students within your classroom. Help ALL students to feel that they belong at school.
- Review the Foundations for a Healthy School and Supporting Minds
- Take time to reflect on your personal beliefs related to mental health and well-being.
- Build your mental health literacy so you know the signs of difficulty and how to help at school.
- Know your students – take time to learn their unique stories and strengths.
- Read the Ontario Student Records for each student.
- Focus on your well-being and personal resiliency practices.
- Offer explicit instruction in social-emotional well-being skills, such as problem-solving, decision-making, conflict resolution, etc.
- Offer explicit instruction in cognitive well-being skills, such as time management, study skills, stress reduction techniques, particularly during exams and for culminating assignments.
- Post visual reminders that promote mental health and help-seeking.
- Model and regularly build in time for mindfulness/contemplation, self-regulation, and stress reduction techniques.
- Recognize that parents and families know their child best.
- Include families as part of the team in efforts to enhance student mental health at school.
- Provide parents and families with information about what students are learning about social-emotional skills and mental health at school so they can reinforce skills at home.
- When you notice a student showing emotional/behavioural problems in the classroom, clearly explain your observations to parents, without diagnosing or labelling the problem.
- Connect with families regularly to discuss their child’s progress at school.
- Show compassion and understanding for the well-being of families when students are struggling.
- Provide opportunities for ongoing dialogue with students and parents to support mental health and reduce stigma about mental illness.
- Know how to help student and families access mental health services.
- Provide translated information about mental health services in the community.
- Remain a part of the circle of support when a student is receiving more intensive care by board or community mental health professionals.
Resources to support mentally healthy learning environments
How to tell if a student is thriving
Often, when we think about mental health, problems in this area come to mind. While it’s important to have an eye out for students who may be having difficulty in this area, it’s also good to watch for signs of wellness among your students. Pausing to notice what is going well can help us to keep perspective. Remember, most students are mentally healthy most of the time.
This list below is not exhaustive, but offers a few indications to suggest that a student has good mental health. Noticing these signs can help you to maintain a wellness bias in relation to mental health.
- separates from family readily, confidently
- participates enthusiastically in physical or learning activities
- demonstrates developmentally appropriate self control (impulse control)
- enjoys healthy active living, even if they have physical limitations or disabilities
- makes friends easily or has at least one good friend
- reaches out to help a peer in trouble
- can resolve conflicts with talking and compromise
- shows appropriate range of emotion (e.g. sad when appropriate)
- appears mostly happy and content
- bounces back from failure or mistakes
- shows empathy to a peer
- enjoys interactions with peers
- overcomes initial hesitations or fears with new experiences
- seeks comfort from adults when appropriate
- can calm down and regulate emotional state when disrupted
- explores the learning environment with curiosity
- completes assigned tasks
- engages in creative play or group work
- perseveres with challenging tasks
- participates in learning activities
- asks for and accepts help from the teacher
- makes plans and follows through
- can identify the source of a problem and think of ways to resolve it
Although most students are resilient and do not develop emotional distress, some will require additional support because of stressful circumstances, vulnerabilities, or experience of trauma. Learn what to do if you’re concerned about a student.