SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING

How to Improve Mental Health in Schools: Mental Health Matters

Mental health is a critical part of our overall health and well-being. As educators, we need to understand the importance of mental health and create a safe and supportive environment for our students. Here are 12 strategies you can use in your school to promote mental health.

12 Mental Health Strategies for Students to Promote Well-Being

1. Promote positive body image and self-esteem

Schools can encourage self-esteem in many ways. One way is to provide a positive learning environment where students feel safe taking risks and making mistakes. Teachers can also help students develop a sense of accomplishment by praising their efforts, not just their successes.

Classroom activities that emphasize cooperation rather than competition can help students feel good about themselves. In addition, schools can promote healthy body image by teaching students about the importance of exercise and nutrition.

2. Teach stress management skills

One recent study found that 49% of surveyed high school students reported feeling a “great deal of stress” every day. So, what can schools do?

For starters, schools can teach stress management skills by incorporating mindfulness and relaxation exercises into the curriculum. Students can also be encouraged to talk openly about their stressors and learn how to cope with them in healthy ways.

Teachers can try educating students about how their body feels when stressed out (e.g., tight muscles). You can also ask if they’ve noticed any changes in appetite or sleep patterns, as well as other symptoms like headaches and stomach aches.

3. Encourage outdoor classes 

Outdoor classes are essential to mental health in schools because they allow students to get some exercise, fresh air, and sunlight. And fresh air is essential for good health. Exposure to sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D, which is necessary for strong bones.

4. Promote emotional literacy education

It turns out a lot of research shows a clear link between literacy education and improved mental health outcomes. Literacy education helps people understand the world around them better. It gives them the ability to process information more effectively, make informed decisions, and clearly communicate their thoughts and feelings.

Literacy education also helps people build self-esteem and confidence. It teaches them that they can learn and do anything they set their mind to. Ultimately, literacy education empowers people to take control of their lives and achieve their fullest potential. One study from the National Library of Medicine noted that after acquiring information about mental health/illnesses and desirable behaviors, participants significantly improved their mental health immediately after – and even three months after – the program.

5. Foster a sense of belonging and community connection at school

A sense of belonging and community can have a powerful positive impact on mental health. When we feel like we belong somewhere and are part of something larger than ourselves, it provides purpose and meaning in our lives – things that can be vital to our emotional well-being.

And when we’re connected to other people in real life, the benefits are even greater because we get to interact with others face-to-face who understand what we’re going through. One study done by the University College of London found after interviewing numerous students that many of their descriptions of a sense of belonging included references to their emotional well-being.

6. Get parents involved

How do you involve parents in fostering a positive mental health environment in schools? By educating them about signs of distress, how to get help for their child if they think they are struggling, and how to support their child’s mental health. You also involve them by giving them opportunities to be involved in their child’s education by providing resources to use at home, such as keeping up with one’s sleep schedule and avoiding excessive screen time before bedtime. Check out the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine for even more at-home mental health care resources.

7. Emphasize Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

It’s easy to incorporate social and emotional learning into your school curriculum. One way is to have students work on group projects that involve collaborating and communicating with classmates and employing problem-solving and decision-making skills. You could also have students take home activities or lessons related to SEL, such as self-help books or mindfulness techniques. You can also incorporate SEL into the classroom curriculum by teaching conflict resolution and empathy topics – such as encouraging them to care for their needs and those around them.

8. Make time for movement

Exercise is vital for students’ mental health because it helps them feel powerful, capable, and in control. Movement also releases endorphins which make you feel good while doing it, elevating mood and reducing anxiety. This makes exercise an excellent coping mechanism during difficult times in life – something your body knows how to do well!

Lastly, exercise provides opportunities for socializing with friends (think recess or football). Socialization has been shown to reduce stress levels among children and youth – and may even help improve language development through shared conversations about their experiences on the playground or at school events. In short, exercise is beneficial for the body and mind.

9. Incorporate meditation

It’s been shown that meditation can have a powerful effect on the brain, and peer mediation reduces conflicts. Not to mention, numerous studies show that mindfulness training, in which people are trained to be more aware of their thoughts and feelings, reduces stress levels and increases cognitive function.

Schools should consider replacing detentions with meditation because it helps children learn how to control their emotions and avoid lashing out or getting into trouble. Meditation also teaches self-control which is vital for all kids but especially those who feel like they never quite measure up – as well as instilling values such as patience and tolerance for others’ viewpoints. Replacing detention with mindfulness programs has shown remarkable results. Take this one success story of Patterson High School in Baltimore, MD, where after one year of implementing the mindfulness program, suspensions and altercations decreased by over half.

10. Hold an annual “Mental Health Day”

On this day, students would talk about their feelings and receive extra support from teachers and peers. Schools could also offer additional counseling services and host guest speakers. In addition, teachers could teach lesson plans based on mental health for all subjects. Think graphs of mental health stats for math, an essay for English, and mental health resources around the world for social studies.

11. Carve out free time

It’s been well documented that free time in schools is essential for mental health. A recent study published in the School Community Journal found that adolescents who have more unstructured time in school (when they’re not required to learn) are less likely to experience depressive symptoms. Unstructured time has also been associated with better mental health overall, not just reduced levels of depression. In a nutshell, teachers should dedicate at least 10-15 minutes each day to doing something their students enjoy. 

12. Revise your lunch menu

School lunches can improve students’ mental health by improving their focus, concentration, and overall mood throughout the day. One study published in the BMJ Nutrition and Health found that students who ate healthier, including more fruits and vegetables at lunchtime, were less likely to be depressed or anxious. Another study from Ohio State University showed that just changing what kind of snacks are available can make all the difference. The study found that replacing sugary drinks with water improved children’s feelings of well-being. Additionally, providing healthy snacks and drinks in between classes can help to keep students’ energy levels up and their minds clear.

Finding Creative Ways to Improve Mental Health in Schools

Mental health is a critical issue for students, and educators must look for creative ways to add the necessary support to our schools. Fortunately, there are many things we can do to create safe and healthy learning environments for our students. So, start using some of these 12 mental health strategies for your school today! Check out the health and human services for the latest updates.

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.