Teachers

Know what to say. Know what do


In Ontario, 1 in 5 children struggle with their mental health. It is quite likely that there are students in your classroom experiencing such difficulties. It is important for you to be able to recognize a mental health concern and connect students to the support they need.

Mental health problems are often overlooked because they are not always physically seen, and can be difficult to identify. As well, your child may find it difficult to ask for help because of the stigma attached to many mental health issues. By educating ourselves and others, we can help to reduce this stigma. Like any physical illness, mental illness is not the fault of the person struggling. It is important that they receive the support they need.

How can you tell if a student may be struggling with their mental health?

When mental health problems are left untreated, children and youth may cope in unhealthy ways. It is important to be alert to changes in your students. Here are some potential signs to watch for:

  • Change in behaviours, friends, or normal activities
  • Low energy and motivation
  • Outbursts of anger or rage
  • Decrease in marks and school performance
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Avoidance of others (e.g. friends, teachers, parents)
  • Signs of self-injury
  • Use of alcohol or drugs
  • Change in personality
  • Constant worry or sadness
  • Negative self-talk
  • Change in physical health and/or hygiene
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Has experienced a recent loss

What can you do if you notice a change in a student’s behaviour?


If you have noticed warning signs, the next step is to act. 
Here are some suggestions:

  • Understand your role. Be alert to changes in students and focus on ways that you can help. For example, be flexible and explore strategies to help them manage their school work.
  • Start a conversation.
  • Say something! Talk about the changes you have noticed with the student and why you are concerned. Be sure other students cannot overhear your discussion.
  • Keep it short and give them the opportunity to gather their thoughts, but set a time to talk again.
  • Show them that you care by listening and staying calm.
  • Be a valuable support by being patient, compassionate, and non-judgmental.
  • Never swear secrecy. It is important for the student to understand that you are there to listen and connect them with supports, and that their safety and well-being is a priority.
  • Leave the door open for further conversation. Let the student know that you are available to talk at any time.
  • Get other caring adults involved. Let the student know you are going to contact someone to help them. Keep the student involved in choosing who those people will be as much as possible. Contact the school principal or counsellor with your concerns about the student. This will ensure that you are not breaching protocols or confidentiality when deciding to get others involved.
  • Get informed. Learn about different mental illnesses and the impacts that mental health problems can have on learning. Focus on the ways in which the mental health problem is affecting the student as a learner, and build on their strengths
  • Student safety. Go with your instinct. If suspect your student is in danger because of what they have told you or what you have witnessed, get help, follow school protocol and legal obligations.

How can you ensure a student who is struggling with their mental health continues to learn?

  • Be positive. Recognize small achievements, because they are often a huge struggle for students faced with a mental illness (for example, a student coming to class). Providing positive reinforcement and encouragement is a vital part of restoring the student’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Recognize and build upon student’s strengths.
  • Identify your student’s needs. Consult with the student, parents and other school personnel to determine what specifically is interfering with learning. Look into special services offered in/outside of the school, as they may be helpful to the student.
  • Create goals. Help the student to identify what they would like to get from the school experience. Discuss possible barriers that may get in the way of each goal and how to work around them.
  • Be supportive and flexible. Encouraging words can do a lot to help the student feel more at ease in the classroom and more confident in their abilities. Often those struggling with their mental health can’t meet all of their responsibilities. Alternative options for assignments, projects and tests that better meet the student’s abilities may need to be developed.
  • Managing crisis. When the student seems to be having a hard time and is becoming confrontational, tense, or aggravated, speak to them in a clear, calm and non-threatening tone. Gently negotiate them to a quite place away from other students. It is best to leave doors open so that the student doesn’t feel threatened.