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Mood Problems in the Classroom

Everyone experiences periods of sadness or irritability from time to time. Most students are resilient and their occasional difficulties with mood are short-lived. Sometimes though, problems with mood are associated with a diagnosable mental illness like Major Depressive Disorder (sometimes called Depression, which is a cluster of symptoms related to low mood), Persistent Depressive Disorder (sometimes called Dysthymia, which is a milder, chronic form of Depression), or Bipolar Disorder (sometimes called Manic-Depressive Disorder, which has low mood alternating with elevated mood).

Because changes in mood are common, especially amongst adolescents, it can be tricky to tell when a mood problem is present. Generally speaking, additional supports may be needed if feelings of sadness or irritability

  • are out of proportion with the circumstances
  • last most of the day, every day
  • persist over long periods of time (a couple of weeks)
  • interfere with thoughts, feelings or daily functioning

You’re not a mental health professional, but you can provide helpful support that can make all the difference for a student struggling with a mood problem. You can help students learn to recognize and manage their feelings and connect them with more support if necessary.

How to help students

Most students will do well with general support for their mental health. Here are some everyday strategies to try in your mentally healthy classroom:

  • Greet each student warmly every day.
  • Show them that you are glad they are part of your class and that you are pleased that they are at school today.
  • Consider including time at the beginning of class for checking in and connecting with students as they settle into the academic work.
  • Show an interest in student stories, opinions, and concerns. They may be “trying on” new ideas, and you can help to influence this in positive ways through careful listening and support.
  • Develop understanding and vocabulary around mental health within the classroom to reduce stigma for students who may be struggling.
  • Convey by your words and actions that each day offers the chance for a fresh start.
  • Notice when students are late or absent frequently, and wonder why, especially if this is a change in behaviour. Offer a warm welcome for those struggling to get to school.
  • Reduce stigma by normalizing emotional ‘ups and downs’ and by being a good model for coping with life stress.
  • Encourage participation and active engagement in classroom life.

Notice signs of a mood problem

You’re not a mental health professional and can’t diagnose mood problems. You are, however, a caring adult who may notice signs that a student is struggling. These are some common signs of mood problems. It’s important to note that many of the items identified in the list are typical components of adolescent development and don’t necessarily indicate a mental health disorder. Knowing a student’s typical behaviour and recognizing changes is a good place to start.

Signs you might observe

  • less interest and involvement in previously enjoyed activities
  • sad mood, tearfulness
  • irritability, quick to anger
  • difficulty concentrating on tasks/activities, forgetfulness, inattention
  • hypersensitivity (e.g. cries easily, appears to overreact to small issues)
  • lethargy, fatigue
  • decreased academic performance and follow-through on tasks
  • impulsive and risky behaviour
  • periods of elevated mood, racing thoughts, feeling unrealistically powerful

Things a student may describe

  • aches and pains
  • changes in appetite
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • feelings of low self-worth
  • sense of boredom
  • substance use
  • suicidal thoughts and behaviours

Important: Take all disclosures of suicidal thoughts or behaviors seriously. Follow your school protocols for response and support. Never leave a student who has expressed suicidal thoughts alone without support.

For a student at risk for a mood problem, the following strategies may help to prevent things from escalating, or may minimize the impact. Also, as noted below, you are part of the Circle of Support and caring classroom actions can help with recovery when a student has been diagnosed with a mood disorder. Working with the student, their family, and involved mental health professionals is important to ensure that the strategies used best meet the student’s needs.

General strategies to support a student who may be experiencing a problem with mood include:

  • Pay particular attention to tier 1 strategies for students at greater risk (they may benefit from a higher “dose” of these caring practices!).
  • Check to see that there is a support person (you, another teacher, a school administrator) available to quietly welcome the student to school and/or to check-in with the student during the school day.
  • Acknowledge the effort required to attend class each day, as appropriate.
  • Provide support to help with school performance, like offering advance organizers, checking student understanding of concepts and tasks, and giving ample notice for tests, assignments, other deadlines.
  • Limit timed tasks and other stressful academic demands.
  • Chunk assignments and provide support and encouragement for attempting school work.
  • Correct errors or suggest improvements in the context of offering praise and support.
  • Set realistic expectations and priorities collaboratively, including the student whenever possible, providing accommodations for learning (e.g., extra time for tests and assignments).
  • Develop a classroom coping plan with the student (this may include developing signals to indicate when they need extra support, or to remind them of a coping strategy).
  • Look for natural opportunities to teach/reinforce problem-solving, relaxation techniques, and other coping skills.
  • Develop a home–school communication system to share information about the student’s academic, social, and emotional progress.
  • Be aware that some situations may be particularly difficult for the student. Understand that refusals to participate may be associated with their mood problem.
  • If students fall behind academically, reassure them that they can catch up. Show them the steps they need to take and be flexible and realistic about your expectations.
  • Model an optimistic outlook, and help the student to ‘find a silver lining” when challenges occur.
  • If a student is returning to school following hospitalization or a prolonged absence, work collaboratively with the student, their family and their support team to develop a plan of specific strategies for reintegration considering issues of stigma, workload, missed content and reassurance.
  • Be aware and familiar with your board’s procedures for dealing with students who are expressing suicidal thoughts.

What to do if you’re concerned about a student’s mood

Remember, it’s not your role to diagnose mental health issues. But you can observe, document and work collaboratively as part of a team to provide caring support at school.

When to take action

  • The student’s mood appears to be affecting day-to-day functioning.
  • The signs of difficulty seem severe or prolonged.
  • The student or their family has expressed concern.

What to do

  • Follow your school board’s protocol for accessing mental health support. This may include
    • consulting with your principal, vice-principal or member of your school’s mental health leadership team
    • discussing your observations with the student and/or their parent/guardian
    • a referral for professional mental health support from school board personnel (e.g., school social worker or school psychologist)
    • a referral for professional mental health support within the community

You are a critical part of the support process because you help with early identification. You will remain part of the student’s circle of support as they move to, through, and from professional mental health services.

Depending on the student’s needs, some or all of the practices listed above may be helpful. Working closely with the student, their family, and mental health professionals within the circle of support is the best way to ensure that classroom support meets the student’s mental health needs.

Take care of yourself

It’s essential that you take care of yourself too—for your well-being and so you’re better able to support the students you serve. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings and try basic self-care strategies . Learn to recognize when you need additional support. Help is available for you through your employee assistance program.

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