Six Ways to Support Secondary Mental Health
All children and youth have the right to lead happy, healthy lives. Adolescence is a critical stage of life for mental health. It is a time when physical, emotional, and social changes are occurring, making adolescents particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. Making attempts to protect adolescents from adversity, promote social-emotional learning and psychological wellbeing, and ensuring access to mental health supports are essential. As classroom guides, it becomes a responsibility to help support each student’s overall health and wellbeing during these vital years.
What is Mental Health for a Secondary 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 an adolescent’s strengths and weaknesses in developing and coping that exist on a continuum.
Why is Being Mentally Healthy Important for Secondary Students?
Mental health impacts many areas of an adolescent’s life including their school performance, decision making capabilities, and physical health. Mental health problems in youth are related to other health and behavioral risks including increased risk of drug use, and a greater likelihood of engaging in violent acts and/or risky sexual behaviors. Since many habits are established during adolescence that will continue well into adulthood, this is a critical time to help youth develop good mental health.
What Factors Affect a Secondary Student’s Mental Health?
The presence or absence of protective and risk factors contribute to the mental health of adolescents. A protective factor can be defined as “a characteristic at the biological, psychological, family, or community (including peers and culture) level that is associated with a lower likelihood of problem outcomes or that reduces the negative impact of a risk factor of problem outcomes.” Opposingly, a risk factor can be defined as “a characteristic at the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precedes and is associated with a higher likelihood of problem outcomes.”
Some examples of protective factors include positive physical development, academic achievement, high self-esteem, good coping skills, supportive family relationships, clear expectations, and physical and psychological safety. Opposingly, some risk factors include poverty, exposure to aggression or violence (at home, in school, or in the community), traumatic events, peer rejection, exposure to substance abuse, sexual abuse, poor social skills, low self-esteem, and early puberty. Media influence can exacerbate risk factors. Additionally, it has been found that students of color and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ report experiencing more mental health problems than their white, heterosexual peers.
The good news is that adolescents are very resilient. Building strong bonds and relationships with adults and peers at school, at home, and in the community provides youth with a sense of connectedness that can promote positive mental and physical health and provide protection from risk-taking behaviors.
What are the Warning Signs for Secondary Students?
Symptoms of stress or distress change over time as a child grows. It may be tough to tell if troubling behavior in an adolescent is just a part of growing up or if it is a greater concern. Closely observing to identify a student’s typical patterns of behavior and temperament will allow Montessori guides to recognize 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. For secondary students, paying close attention to behavioral signs and symptoms that interfere with the child’s daily life and are persistent (lasting weeks or months) will be important factors in determining the severity of the problem.
These are some common warning signs guides can look for that may indicate a stressed or distressed secondary student:
- A loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Low energy level
- A change in sleep patterns including sleeping too much or too little and appearing tired throughout the day
- An increase in the amount of time spent alone, and avoidance of social activities with friends and/or family
- Excessive diet or exercise, or fear of gaining weight
- Self-harming behaviors (such as cutting or burning their skin)
- Engaging in risky or destructive behaviors alone or with friends (including, but not limited to smoking, drinking alcohol, or drug use)
- Expressing thoughts of suicide
- Periods of highly elevated energy and activity, and requiring much less sleep than usual
- Expressing that they believe someone else is trying to control their mind or that they hear things other people cannot hear
6 Ways to Support a Secondary Student’s Mental Health
- Help in developing a sense of connectedness. Feeling connected to adults and peers at school, as well as to family and community members, helps adolescents know that people care about them. Guides should work to build strong bonds and relationships with their students and to foster strong connections amongst their students so that each child knows they have a reliable support system and that they matter to others.
- Integrate social-emotional learning. Utilizing Grace & Courtesy lessons that are appropriate for adolescents and engaging in experiential social-emotional lessons that allow students to recognize, understand, and validate their emotions and the emotions of others can be very helpful in developing skills that are essential during times of conflict and distress.
- Ensure students have access to mental health services. Making mental health services accessible to students and ensuring they are able to utilize these resources when they express a need is critical. Whether this is a mentor at the school, a counselor, a school psychologist, or an outside mental health professional, it is vital that guides are aware of these relationships, explain their value and purpose to students, and promote their use when deemed necessary (either by the guide or by the student themselves).
- 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 guides 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 youth’s independence will develop a strong sense of self and will help them when dealing with negative emotions. Providing adolescents with opportunities to take responsibility for themselves and to accept leadership positions in the classroom can help to promote a strong sense of self, acting as a protective factor for mental health. Acknowledging and validating an adolescent’s emotions can help them understand what and how they are feeling and that their feelings are accepted.
Each of the strategies above are helpful in maintaining happy, healthy relationships with secondary 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 student’s family is vital so that they might make a decision they feel is right in regard to consulting with a medical or mental health provider who specializes in adolescent 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.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.