Low-cost mental health initiatives for the classroom

May 19, 2022

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, making this the perfect time for a conversation about good mental health practice in one of the places we need it most: the classroom.

The connection between mental health and learning is not news to educators. Teachers and education coordinators know this firsthand, but schools don’t always have the necessary resources to give students the mental health support they need.

With that in mind, here are a few low-cost, easily accessible, and highly effective means for teaching mental health in school.

1) Get out in nature

Research consistently shows that spending time in nature has far-reaching benefits to mental health. Even without significant physical activity, exposure to the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural world can boost mood and emotional regulation.

The easiest way to help your students capitalize on these naturally-occurring mental health benefits is to take them out on nature walks (if accessible in your area). Help your students notice the beauty of nature by:

  • Listening intently to birdsong

  • Touching the bark of trees

  • Smelling flowers

  • Feeling the soil between their fingers

These types of highly sensory ways to engage with your surroundings enhance what researchers call your “connectedness” with nature. A stronger connectedness is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety.

If you don’t have accessible parks or trails nearby, you can still boost mental health by connecting with nature in the classroom. Here are a few ideas you can do with your students:

  • Write a poem or short story about something in nature

  • Speak or journal (more on this below) about an experience in nature, or a favorite spot to visit

  • Bring nature inside with potted plants or artwork

2) Practice Meditation

Learning to meditate can have deep benefits for your students’ mental and emotional health — not to mention academic performance. Meditation has been shown to improve children's’ concentration, reduce anxiety, and strengthen their working memory. 

If it sounds impossible to ask a classroom of children to sit still and clear their minds, remember that meditation can take many forms. Any activity that holds your students’ attention and helps them slow down can bring benefits. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Do a deep breathing exercise. Have students count to 5 as they breathe in, and then again as they breathe out. 

  • Practice light yoga or stretching as a class.

  • Lead your students in a body scan activity. Have them sit down and follow your instructions to ‘tense’ and ‘loosen’ their muscles, one body part at a time. 

  • Give students something tactile such as a coloring activity, puzzle, or object to hold in their hands and describe.

The best part is that you don’t have to spend a long time practicing meditation to reap the benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following guidelines:

  • Preschool children: A few minutes per day. 

  • Elementary school children: 3-10 minutes twice a day. 

  • Teenagers: 5-45 minutes per day (or more based on preference).

3) Use journaling in class

Journaling provides an outlet for relieving and reducing stress, including physiological symptoms of stress like elevated blood pressure. It encourages introspection, creative thinking, and independent reflection which can help students process and commit to memory the concepts they learn in class. It can also provide students with a safe place to acknowledge their emotions, enabling them to develop healthier processing skills.

There are multiple ways to approach journaling exercises:

  • Use journaling as a two-way conversation, in which your students write to you and you write back.

  • Treat journaling like a diary, in which students can write to themselves and you are simply an observer. 

  • Connect journaling directly to lesson plans, by asking students to journal about recent class concepts and reflect on their understanding or questions.

4) Incorporate social emotional learning

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a process that encourages young people to develop core competencies around their sense of self and their impact on other people. Research from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) shows that SEL can increase academic performance, improve classroom behavior, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

It can also bolster diversity in the classroom by empowering students of various backgrounds to better connect and empathize with one another.

Try some of the following techniques to incorporate SEL into your lesson plans:

  • Leverage books as jumping off points to spark deeper discussion around thoughts and feelings. Ask your students to speak about how a story made them feel, or their interpretation of the characters’ emotions or decisions.

  • Pause for “brain breaks” during the day to allow students to check in with themselves (these are great opportunities for the activities mentioned above, like journaling or meditation!).

  • Use nonverbal communication like eye contact and fist bumps (or elbow bumps!) to foster a feeling of community and a positive classroom culture.

  • Plan group activities to give students a chance to practice social skills like collaboration and communication.

5) Find ways to volunteer

Volunteering is all about helping others, but it benefits the volunteer as well! Spending time in service to others has been shown to boost oxytocin, which is connected to lower stress and higher life satisfaction. People who volunteer can experience what researchers call the “Helper’s High” — an extended feeling of calmness and improved sense of self-worth that comes after helping others. 

Volunteering also offers kids many learning opportunities, such as building empathy, understanding challenges other people face, seeing how a problem affects their community, and feeling increased self-esteem by recognizing their ability to change their world.

You don’t have to go far to do service. Volunteer close to home (or rather, school!) by having your students help clean up the cafeteria after lunch, do acts of service for teachers and faculty, or start a school garden that everyone will benefit from. You can bring volunteering into the classroom with activities like writing letters, stuffing envelopes, or fundraising for a local nonprofit.

Mental and emotional wellbeing impacts everything from children's social skills and behavioral growth to their academic performance. Even if you don’t have the resources and funding for large mental health initiatives, teachers can still support your students’ mental and emotional health with low-cost activities in and around your classroom. Bonus: These activities can benefit your mental health, as well!

Topics: Mental Health

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