Six Ways to Support Elementary I & II Mental Health
Childhood is supposed to be a time for health, happiness, and positivity. A child’s mental health directly impacts their physical well-being, their social relationships, and their ability to experience academic success. The Elementary years are a critical stage of life for mental health as the child experiences rapid brain growth and development. During this time, children are acquiring cognitive and social-emotional skills that will shape their future mental health and success in society. Given the amount of time children spend at school, it becomes the responsibility of classroom guides to support each student’s overall health and well-being during this formative time of their lives.
What is Mental Health for an Elementary-aged Student?
Mental health can be defined as one’s emotional and social well-being; it impacts how someone thinks, acts, and how they feel about themselves and others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, “Being mentally healthy during childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems.” It includes a child’s strengths and weaknesses in developing and coping that exist on a continuum.
Why is Being Mentally Healthy Important for Elementary Students?
Being mentally healthy not only means that children have a positive quality of life, it allows them to be meaningful contributors in their home, school, and community environments. Disruptions to an elementary-aged child’s mental health could negatively impact their classroom learning and social interactions, both of which are critical to their success. Additionally, mental health has a complex interactive relationship with one’s physical health; both affect how one thinks, feels, and acts, both internally and externally.
What Factors Affect an Elementary Student’s Mental Health?
The nature of a child’s environment impacts their overall well-being. Negative experiences at home, in the classroom, and in the digital sphere can have a detrimental effect on an elementary student’s mental well-being; some common examples include poverty, genetic predisposition to mental illness, exposure to violence, mental illness of a parent or other caregiver, and bullying.
What are the Warning Signs for Elementary Students?
Symptoms of stress or distress change over time as a child grows. Warning signs might include difficulties in how a child plays, learns, speaks, and acts, or how the child regulates and expresses their emotions. Closely observing to identify a student’s typical patterns of behavior and temperament will allow Montessori guides to recognize persistent changes. For students who may be newer in the classroom, educators can look for behavior that is unexpected for children based on age and developmental milestones. Inquiring with caregivers on behaviors they are seeing at home can also be helpful in identifying what is considered normal behavior for each child.
These are some common warning signs guides can look for that may indicate a stressed or distressed elementary-aged student:
- A change in appetite, bowel movements, and/or sleep patterns
- Lack of desire to participate in family or school activities
- A reduced tolerance for frustration, which may present as whining or irritability
- Displaying repeated aggressive or impulsive behavior
- A change in seeking attention from educators
- Separation anxiety or withdrawal from caregiver
- Loss of earlier developmental achievements/regression
- Anxiety, worry
- New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
- Inability to relax
- Physical symptoms with no known physical illness (included, but not limited to, headaches and stomach pain/upset stomach)
- Inability to regulate emotions
6 Ways to Support an Elementary Student’s Mental Health
- Create a sense of safety and belonging. A sense of safety is paramount to students’ learning and mental health. Montessori Grace and Courtesy lessons can be helpful in promoting positive behaviors such as respect, responsibility, and kindness and in reducing negative behaviors including bullying. Allowing students to help develop classroom rules will enhance their feelings of personal responsibility and security in their environment. Building strong relationships among students and between students and staff is important to promoting mental well-being.
- Teach and reinforce prosocial behavior and problem solving. Assisting students in developing social skills, problem solving strategies, and conflict resolution skills all support good mental health. The independence and autonomy inherent in a Montessori classroom help to build self-esteem, allowing children to recognize that they are capable and can make a difference. The social responsibility that is encouraged and facilitated through Grace & Courtesy and Care of the Environment lessons present children with the opportunity to help others and their classroom environment, fostering connectedness, and building a sense of community.
- Promote resilience. It is important that students know how to overcome challenges. A sense of trust and belonging, connectedness, social responsibility, and competency can all be easily fostered in a Montessori classroom and are ways in which children can feel empowered while learning how to navigate difficult situations.
- Learn to regulate one’s own emotions to be fully available to students. Through a process of self-awareness and self-care, educators can become more in-tune with their own emotions. Developing an understanding of how one is feeling allows guides to work through those emotions and to learn how to regulate them appropriately. Effectively managing one’s own emotions empowers them to be present in the moment, making them available to meet the needs of their students.
- Learn how to identify and respond to students’ emotions and behaviors. Carefully observing students assists guides in understanding typical emotions and behaviors, allowing them to recognize noticeable differences that may be indicators of anxiety and distress.
- Follow learned Montessori principles and actions. Fostering a child’s independence will develop a strong sense of self and will help them when dealing with negative emotions. Allowing a child to help with routines and self-care activities to the extent possible will help instill a sense of pride. Offering limited choices, especially during difficult times when a child refuses to engage in a specific activity will empower the child and help to ease the existence of a power struggle. Labeling, acknowledging, and validating a child’s emotions to help them understand what and how they are feeling and that their feelings are accepted is critical.
Each of the strategies above are helpful in maintaining happy, healthy relationships with elementary-aged students and in supporting their mental health. However, it is important to note that if any of the aforementioned warning signs are present, guides should engage in careful observation and take detailed, subjective notes. Communicating what one is seeing openly and honestly with a child’s parents is vital so that they might make a decision they feel is right in regards to consulting with a medical or mental health provider who specializes in childhood mental health.
AMS members receive unlimited access to our on demand library of professional development. Learn more about this subject by accessing our video on Understanding Anxiety and Depression in Children and Teens.
About the Author
Heather White, EdS, is a Montessori in-home teacher and nanny, a Montessori educational consultant for the Andrew’s Institute, a Montessori educator for adult learners, and a volunteer moderator for the Montessori at Home 0 – 3 Facebook page. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Lower Elementary coordinator, and associate head of school. She also has experience as a School Psychologist intern. She is AMS credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.