The year 2020 brought with it one of the greatest global health concerns of our age, and consequently one of the most challenging and stressful years--not just for the general public, but students as well. Changes to learning environments, separation from friends and family, and general anxiety over the many unknowns related to COVID-19 all provided (and continue to provide) unique challenges to students and educators.
With these challenges also comes greater awareness of our emotional health and that of our students. The focus is now on finding tools to deal with daily stress, making classrooms nurturing and safe environments for students, and promoting emotional well-being for both students and staff. This focal shift may be the key to a fresh start for whatever 2021 and the future may hold.
In this article, we will discuss emotional well-being, its impact on students and educators, and ways you can easily promote the emotional well-being of students in your classroom.
What is emotional well-being?
According to the National Center for Emotional Wellness, emotional well-being refers to an awareness, understanding, and acceptance of your emotions, and your ability to manage effectively through challenges and change. Emotional well-being falls under the blanket of mental health and is considered an important element in the growth and education of youth.
Why is emotional well-being important for students?
Children experience many stressors related to their lives both inside and outside of the classroom. Emotional well-being can provide students with the knowledge and skills required to deal with these and other unique challenges they may face as they grow and learn.
Students with greater levels of emotional well-being are more aware of how they are feeling, allowing them to better articulate their thoughts and needs. They are also able to self-reflect and regulate their emotions more effectively, leading to improved interpersonal relationships and greater empathy. Finally, these students learn to be more self-accepting of critical thoughts and perceived failures, leading to greater emotional resilience when facing challenges.
All of these factors make emotional well-being a critical part of helping students navigate the trials and tribulations of young adulthood.
4 ways to promote emotional well-being in schools
While the benefits of emotional well-being can certainly be powerful, the implementation of an emotional well-being program need not be complicated. The emotional well-being of students starts from a solid foundation of simple, healthy habits that can be encouraged in a classroom environment.
Here are four ways you can promote emotional well-being in your school:
1. Mental Health Check-Ins
Mental health check-ins allow students to voluntarily share their thoughts, emotions, and concerns with their classmates in a judgment-free environment. These check-ins need only take a few minutes and can be scheduled at regular intervals--even daily--to allow students to practice identifying their emotions and articulating them to others.
Mental health check-ins have the added benefit of classroom transparency. They can help students recognize the struggles of their classmates, enhance the feeling of a classroom community, and indicate to students that stress is a natural part of the human experience. Check-ins also give teachers a gauge on the emotional state of the classroom so that they can tailor their instruction to their students’ needs.
It’s worth noting that mental health check-ins are not intended to act as therapy or even necessarily to identify problems or implement solutions. For students, they are simply meant to provide a safe place to share feelings and normalize the discussion of emotional health. If you believe that a student could benefit from additional help outside the discussion, you can follow-up with them after the exercise.
2. Brain Breaks
In times when stress is overwhelming, sometimes the best option is just to do nothing. “Brain breaks” give students the opportunity to forget the anxieties of pressing work or responsibilities and take a few minutes for themselves. These can be active brain breaks, such as moving around and exercising, or they can be passive, such as enjoying the silence in the room, looking at the sky, or resting your body and mind.
This process of disconnecting from daily stressors--even for just a few minutes at a time--can have profound effects on the brain and how we learn. Savina et al. (2016) found that movement breaks in the classroom help students to refocus attention and give the brain necessary time to consolidate information. Similarly, a 2018 study showed that students were twice as likely to find the hidden shortcut to a math problem if they were given a 10-minute break.
Another important aspect of brain breaks is the allocation of time for self-care. The activities themselves matter less than simply impressing upon students that taking time for themselves is important, that their emotional needs are of an equal or greater priority to the work that they are doing, and that learning how to manage stress and strong emotions is a key factor in health and happiness in life.
3. Incorporating Mindfulness Practices Into Classroom Curriculums
Mindfulness takes the aspirations of emotional well-being--creating awareness, understanding, and acceptance of emotions--and creates a structure of practice by which students can strengthen their minds and learn to better understand themselves and others.
Mindfulness often begins with short breathing exercises that encourage students to pay attention to the physical sensations, thoughts, or emotions that they are experiencing. Mindfulness techniques can also include relaxation, stretching, or focusing exercises that students can perform daily. This regular practice helps develop pathways in the brain for self-awareness and equanimity, and the exercises themselves can serve as a kind of emotional toolkit for students to turn to in times of stress.
4. Leading by Example
While developing proper self-care and emotional awareness habits is invaluable for students, it’s critical not to neglect the needs of an equally important segment of schools: teachers and staff. A recent Gallup Poll showed 46% of teachers reported high daily stress--on par with nurses and medical staff—and teaching consistently ranks as one of the top 10 most stressful jobs in America.
So, what can you do as a teacher to encourage emotional well-being at your school? First, lead by example. Take care of yourself. Pay attention to how stress affects you and your body. Take breaks and admit when you are overwhelmed. Students can tell when teachers are stressed, and messages about emotional health ring truer if teachers are giving themselves proper time for self-care.
You can also participate in emotional well-being exercises alongside your students. Seeing a teacher perform self-care exercises can also help normalize and promote emotional well-being as a lifelong pursuit, not just a lesson in school. This interaction also helps reinforce positive behaviors and fosters an environment of caring and compassion. You might find yourself benefiting as much as your students and embodying many of the same attributes you want to see in them.