A whole-school plan to support student wellbeing

Shivani Mathur Gaiha, Sneh Verma, Yashu Kumar

A majority of mental health problems begin to take root during adolescence. The pressure on school-going adolescents to perform academically and conform socially is high, leading to alarming levels of emotional and behavioural problems. Youth experiencing mental health problems lack awareness of when and where to seek help and they often hide or neglect problems for fear of public and peer stigmatization.

Supporting students’ mental wellbeing is an unspoken part of a teacher’s job. Whether with the goal of improved academic performance, hassle-free classroom management or as an end in itself, teachers shape student outlook and behaviour every day. While not all behaviours are exhibited in the classroom, teachers spend significant time with students and are privy to information about their thoughts, moods and behaviours.

The big picture
In India there is no national or school mental health education campaign and standardized teachertraining curriculum on mental health. Thus, although mental health-related ideas and actions are part of a teacher’s life, they remain relatively unexplored and unsupported. This gap cannot purely be filled by school counsellors. Teachers, however, come in close contact with students on a regular basis. With changing dynamics in family ties across India and a traditional reverence for teachers, teachers are a safety net for students in terms of counselling, emotional support, mentoring and tackling day-to-day issues. Thus, a large share of the responsibility for early detection of problems or preventive strategies rests on teachers.

Developed countries are overhauling their systems to improve how their teachers manage their classrooms and help their students. Despite national mental health education campaigns, such as the Time to Change in the UK and several NGO-supported programmes to raise awareness about children and young people’s mental health, the Department of Health and Education announced new measures and investment in schools. These are aimed at improving skills and knowledge of school staff and students related to mental health and wellbeing. Several programmes have been started by schools in the US and in other developed countries to prevent and recognize mental health problems and to facilitate integrated crisis management.

Teachers share notes about student mental wellbeing
Teachers have an insider’s view of student academic and social expectations. The importance of inculcating coping strategies among students for stress and challenging situations was highlighted at a workshop.

An integrated and strategic school mental health promotion plan
The groups recognized by teachers for ongoing support included school management, parents, counsellors, students and teachers. Steps and mechanisms for action for each group are described in the Figure: School plan for action…. While the school management has established codes of conduct, rules for extreme cases of indiscipline and crisis, it requires a plan for prevention and supporting student wellbeing. This may be seen as achievable through a two-pronged strategy, which is both educational and environmental in approach.

All students, irrespective of whether they show any need for assistance in learning and coping with academic or social life in school need to be cared for and understood. Although teachers, parents and management may work together with students on the ground, the commitment of school management in creating a programme that improves student mental and emotional wellbeing is a first step. Such a programme needs to be flexible to adapt to the needs of the students and teachers in the school.

Educational elements of such a programme may include apprising all concerned groups of common signs and symptoms of mental health problems. This must be done creatively, in a manner that helps teachers and students relate to content and bring forth the reasons that prevent help-seeking. For example, a student who is not able to complete homework may be associated with a lack of interest, low value for education or lack of family support. In such a scenario, teachers must be equipped to assess the situation and encourage the student towards positive change without pushing her/him. And at the level of the school environment, relationships, openness and trust must be encouraged so that teachers, parents, students and the management all come forth with their problems to work together.

With teachers, including mock sessions, case analysis and role play in capacity building programmes helps develop their understanding of student behaviour. It can help to hone their perception and judgment regarding when to seek help from a counsellor or involve parents. A teacher-trainer and a counsellor who have experience of engaging groups of teachers may facilitate such an interaction. This will enable the balance between relatability and scientific information. An attempt must be made to inspire teachers to be better listeners, observers and remain positive towards students and their problems.

Several hotly debated issues are around how teachers should respond to current challenges such as students bunking classes, valuing tuitions more than school teaching or engaging in substance use. Other issues regularly faced by teachers relate to student internalization of exam pressure from family, attention-seeking, truancy, poor concentration and distraction, indiscipline, using abusive language and not abiding by school rules. Some mock scenarios developed at the workshop connected mental health issues of anger, anxiety, body image, panic and depression. These discussions were thought-provoking and useful to build the capacity of teachers to respond in a timely and supportive manner. It is recommended that school managements use strategies to enable their teachers, starting by presenting a set of cases to groups of 4-5 teachers to suggest what their likely immediate and future response would be and to identify underlying reasons for such student behaviour. Such an exercise will also help teachers learn from collective wisdom and experience, rather than feel alone in their response.

Cases for working group analysis

  • Student A performs consistently well, is obedient, over-achiever, good in debates too. He cheats in the exam!
  • Student B’s parents do not allow her to participate in any school activity. They are scared of class 10 and career decisions. She bunks her tuition class to go out with her tuition friends. The parents call you and ask for the names of friends in school and their phone numbers.
  • Student C tries to stand up and make a joke or distract others with fart sounds. He is throwing grapes from his tiffin at other students in class.
  • A group of students are quieter than usual towards the end of the day. At the end of the class, a student tells you separately that the entire group uses whitener for substance use.
  • Student D has a bulbous nose and has pimples on her face. She is average in studies. She has few friends. Everybody makes fun of her appearance, calling her moti, podgy, witch passing rude comments during class. She gets upset every day.
  • Student E and F like each other. They are constantly bunking class together. You cannot leave the rest of the class to go look for them. You are also the class teacher.
  • Student G is a shy, quiet boy. His classmates put derogatory things on their Whatsapp group. During break he gets beaten up by them, his lunch is taken away and he comes to you for help.
  • You ask student H to answer a question. She appears blank or day-dreaming in class. Her notebooks are incomplete and she does not do homework.
    The back-benchers are playing games during class. They do not appear to be listening to you.
  • Student I comes to school with open hair, painted nails, short skirt and wrong shoes. You have confiscated the shoes as per school rules. She is constantly challenging your authority by saying – “what will you do, ma’am/sir? You have to give my shoes so I can go to the toilet.”

For students, using activities, games, videos and impactful ways to understand themselves and their motivations would be an important step. Simple worksheets could help them introspect how they feel about school, learning and what bothers them. They could feel empowered through a discussion about their highs and lows in order to help them feel connected, hopeful and to understand that everyone goes through problems. Feelings of loneliness and isolation among students were discerned by all teachers. This is important, as when faced by a problem, these students are likely to bottle up their problems.

School counsellors may need to be connected with a psychiatry hospital or expert for advice or referral services. Teachers’ expectations of the counsellor’s ability to bring about behaviour change often require an intervention. When teachers feel that it is an appropriate time to intervene with students, they may send them to a counsellor. However, a deeper understanding of how counselling may help can strengthen the collective response of the two. Counsellors may in turn compile a list of anonymous cases and responses for new teachers to learn to tackle challenging situations. They may also compile an annual feedback to the principal regarding the types of issues they came across among students. Their participation in internal research may go a long way in identifying trends among classes, and when the school management may want to hold workshops on substance use or time management for students.

A responsive programme cannot be inward looking and must take on board parents, the most influential decision-makers, after the students themselves. Most teachers felt that parenting in today’s times is challenging. A lack of productive time spent with children, has led to parents overcompensating at different levels and in different ways. Pre- emptive meetings with parents during orientation to new classes or schools may help to lay down some basic rules and supportive actions. Despite different approaches, schools and parents are working towards the same end. Parent-teacher meetings are currently used to share notes about problematic behaviours, congratulate or highlight areas for improvement in students. The opportunity may be used annually to share information about prevention and guidance on parenting and open communication.

Finally, interactions occur among all these groups every day. Whether it is a student talking to a parent about the pressure to buy a smartphone, a teacher with the management about a student who cheated in an exam, or students sharing with one another about insecurities, each group may be activated to have champions or leads that have access to resources or knowledge about who can help if the need arises. A teacher as lead for mental health at the school and a counsellor can jointly map out the top causes of student distress related to school life, the teacher’s own mental health, dos and don’ts with students, as well as identify desirable actions by teachers. A counsellor alone will be unable to unite teachers and convey the significance of learning from one another. Although the school’s immediate goal can be to begin working with vulnerable students or students facing problems, such a long-term plan is needed to inculcate values and emotional balance among students apart from an eagerness to learn.

Teachers nurturing young minds

A workshop with 45 middle school science teachers aimed to promote collective reflections on teachers’ role as classroom disciplinarians, informal counsellors and overseers of young people at a critical stage of physical and emotional development. These teachers belonged to 15 DAV schools from cluster I in Delhi, and they were convened by Kulachi Hansraj Model School, Ashok Vihar for a joint capacity building programme.

The workshop was facilitated by Shivani Mathur Gaiha, a public health communication practitioner working on mental health of young people, Dr Koushik Sinha Deb, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Dr Swati Gupta Kedia, Assistant Professor (Clinical Psychology), Amity Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (AIBHAS). The workshop facilitators visited the school prior to the workshop to collaboratively assess and develop scenarios that would likely prompt teachers to relate experiences of student distress or what they considered ‘problem behaviour.’

“We’ve got 40 students and 21 problems”

Teachers discussed several mental health-related issues among students: gender and appearance-related insecurities, truancy, bullying, cheating, lying to parents, stealing, attention-seeking, slow learners, rebellious behaviour, substance use and other similar issues. Teachers also found it challenging to manage quiet or shy students. Teachers participated animatedly in discussions on parenting, school environment and adverse trends in student life. Their stories further stimulated discussion of warning signs of student mental health problems, and how best to promote early detection and action for their wellbeing.

Beyond the staff room: Steps to improve student wellbeing

Most teachers were of the opinion that their current source of information and support to deal with “troubled or troublesome” students was other friendly teachers in the staff room, and the principal, if things went wrong. Some teachers suggested that it was their first time talking about non-academic, behavioural challenges in a workshop setting. Teachers found the workshop useful to introspect, vent their emotions and felt that they often do not find an opportunity to discuss these topics constructively. The session recognized the efforts of teachers in helping students find themselves and urged teachers to look after their own wellbeing too. Teachers then ideated on a whole-school approach to tackle the problems of students or support new teachers, which is the focus of this article.

This activity was conducted under the aegis of the DAV Centre for Academic Excellence and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s public engagement grant to Shivani Mathur Gaiha, a doctoral candidate.

Shivani Mathur Gaiha is a PhD candidate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK. She can be reached at Shivani.MathurGaiha@lshtm.ac.uk.

Sneh Verma is Principal at Kulachi Hansraj Model School & Training Coordinator (Head of Six Clusters), DAV centre for Academic Excellence (DAVCAE) Delhi and NCR.

Yashu Kumar is Supervisory Head, Senior PGT Physics, Member – Academic Council, Delhi and National Capital Region DAVCAE.