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How to support students in difficult times

4 February 2020

In the 21st century, teaching is a diverse and multifaceted profession. Today, teachers not only play a significant role in the academic life of students, they are also seen to be a nurturer, a mediator, a mentor, a counsellor, a support-person and, quite often, a moral compass. 

Teaching has become holistic, and there is good reason for this. Educational research supports the notion that a student’s home life is closely intertwined with school life. For example, students from vulnerable homes can vent their emotional pain by bullying. Similarly, they might become the target of bullies. 

In every class, there will be at least one student who is considered vulnerable. This might be due to family and community factors such as parental unemployment or the illness of a caregiver, personal factors such as a physical or a mental health issue, and school-related factors such as poor relationships with teachers and peers. Young people often experience more than one of these risk factors at any given time. For example, family breakdown might lead to low self-esteem and depression, which in turn might bring about a break-up of the student’s friendship group.

A group of young students sat around a table talking with each other while doing an activity.

How does a teacher identify the vulnerable? 

Recognising those who are at risk is the first step in supporting students. Students in danger are most commonly identified by a sudden disengagement from school life, both academic and personal. 

Indicators that students might be at risk of disengagement might include:

  • Inconsistent attendance or non-attendance
  • Low literacy and/or numeracy skills
  • Lack of interest in school and verbalising an intent to leave
  • Negative relationships with peers and teachers
  • Behavioural issues such as aggression or social withdrawal
  • Significant and sudden change in attitude and performance
  • Deliberately defying school rules

Five ways teachers can support students in difficult times 

1) Make slight adjustments

In the classroom setting, small adjustments can provide vulnerable students with much-needed support. Scaffolding class and assessment tasks allows the student to break the activity into small, manageable bites so that the scope of the task is not overwhelming. Another type of scaffold is of the human variety. Make sure vulnerable students are placed in the class with a group of compassionate and considerate peers who are prepared to be inclusive and encouraging. 

2) Provide a go-to person

Sometimes a student simply requires somebody they trust, somebody who understands them, who they can go to during periods of stress. Nominate a staff member in the school with whom the student has formed a connection. This teacher can be their ‘go-to’ person during times of high stress and high emotion. Establish boundaries to ensure the teacher is not emotionally overwhelmed. Studies show that students with access to community support are more likely to remain engaged in school, even when challenged by adversity. Mentorship programs, whether within or outside of the school community, can help provide role models and necessary encouragement. 

3) Establish a calming space

Provide a physical and emotional ‘time-out area’ where the student can feel safe and comfortable to go to until they regain behavioural control is essential in supporting students during difficult times. It should be clear that it is not a punishment and should only be used for short periods. When possible, teachers should avoid a public confrontation with students who have ‘flipped their lid’, and a calming space makes this possible. Once the child or young person has regained control, a reasonable discussion can take place about their behaviour. Boundaries, such as time limits, should be erected around the use of the space. In high schools, this place is typically a room outside of the classroom. At infant and primary school level, the space is within the classroom and might be called ‘Calm Down Corner’, ‘The Think Space’, ‘Peace Corner’ or ‘The Safe Place’. 

4) Establish boundaries

Boundaries are essential when dealing with vulnerable students. All children need boundaries and, due to their home environment, some young people may not have experienced the correct kind. For example, their parents might have put in place excessively strict boundaries. On the other hand, there may have been no boundaries at all. It is essential to be consistent when applying boundaries. Consistent, firm boundaries help to make the child or young person feel safe and supported. 

5) Introduce a family level of care

Build a classroom environment that is nurturing and supportive. Provide students with warm and consistent care that a parent might provide. Developing relationships of trust in the classroom enables emotional wellbeing. This not only benefits at-risk students, but all members of the class. In the daily rush and chaos of a school day, teachers often forget the power of a smile and a kind, encouraging word. 

Teachers who create safe classroom environments can proactively support the whole child by assisting students who have difficult home lives or mental health challenges. By incorporating simple strategies into their skill set, the teacher can support students struggling through difficult times. 

A boy sat at desk with his head on his hands because he feels sad.

Mental health and young people

According to Beyond Blue, in Australia over 75 per cent of mental health problems occur in people below the age of 25, with one in seven young people aged between 4 and 17 experiencing a mental health condition in any given year. 

Globally, according to the World Health Organisation, mental health conditions account for 16 per cent of the worldwide burden of disease and injury in young people aged between 10 and 19 years. Unfortunately, young people are less likely than any other demographic to seek help. 

In any school, a range of mental health issues might exist, from depression, anxiety and eating disorders to self-harm, trauma, psychosis and bipolar disorder. Often, young people are troubled by more than one problem at a time. For example, trauma might lead to depression, then self-harm. 

Multiple factors determine the mental health of students at any one time. The greater the number of risk factors students are exposed to, the greater the potential impact on mental health. 

Factors that can contribute to mental health issues include:

  • Separation from parents (most common in young children)
  • A greater desire for autonomy
  • Pressure to conform with peers
  • Pressure from teachers and parents to ‘perform’ and ‘succeed’ at school.
  • Exploration of sexual identity
  • Increased access and use of technology, engagement with social media and cyberbullying 

Students struggling with a mental health issue are vulnerable. Building support for these young people in the classroom and in the wider school community can lessen the impact of the problem on their personal and academic life.

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