3 Ways to Help Teachers Support Student Wellbeing

Teachers Support Students

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By William Kist, Professor Emeritus at Kent State University 

So many times, we read after a catastrophic event that there were all kinds of clues in front of school personnel, warning signs that could have been heeded.  

In this post, we’ll discuss three teaching strategies—and the ways school leadership can support them—that can help us not only attend to clues of a student in crisis, but also create a more supportive school culture.  

Identifying the risks

The data is clear—our society is amidst a youth mental health crisis. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released their Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) based on survey data collected in the fall of 2021. The report demonstrates just how many kids reported experiencing poor mental health, felt persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, or had even made a suicide plan or attempted suicide.  

CDC suicide stats

How many of these kids are flying under the radar on a day-to-day basis? How can we do a better job of detecting which of our students need help?  

Increasingly, efforts such as the I-Promise School in Akron, Ohio (supported by the LeBron James Family Foundation) are putting just as much effort into the so-called “wrap-around services,” such as parent education and family support, as they are putting effort into developing the curriculum and instruction and lesson plans that go into our classrooms.  

But not all schools have the resources for such wrap-around programs. Fortunately, there are cost-effective strategies that educators can use every day to support their students and make sure a student in crisis does not go unnoticed.  

With the support of school leadership, teachers using these practices in their daily lessons can strengthen their positive relationships with students—resulting not only in stronger academic performance, but also a healthier, more supportive school culture.  

Strategies for supporting student wellbeing

We know that building rapport and establishing positive relationships with students is the foundation of good teaching. But these foundational elements for teaching and learning are also essential for recognizing early warning signs of a student in distress.  

The three tools administrators can empower teachers with as you work toward building a supportive school culture can be summed up simply: Listen, Talk, and Create. 

But what actionable steps can school and district leaders take to realistically cause this sort of cultural shift in your schools? 

1. Listen

A former student once made vague comments about hating life and her circumstances. While these comments were delivered in the context of apparent jokes, they included veiled suicidal references. I asked to speak with her after class and ultimately referred her to our school counselor. That student wrote me a letter years later, thanking me for saving her life.  

Be sensitive to some of the phrases and imagery that kids use that are troubling, even if they tell you it is “just a joke.” These so-called jokes can be cues to get help—but first we must listen! 

Actionable Strategy:  

Teachers must feel that they have the space to engage with kids, and that the pipeline toward mental health professionals is safe, secure, and most importantly, responsive.  

To build this culture within your school, district and school leadership should consider the following: 

  • Communicate to teachers that it’s okay to take time away from test preparation to attend to student needs.  
  • Keep an eye on the load that school counselors experience. I was fortunate that the school counselor in my school was able to attend to the tip I gave her immediately. This responsiveness saved my student’s life.  
  • With the right technology, it’s easier for teachers to report red flags. Teachers, counselors and staff need to have time to really listen to their students—and the system in place to simplify reporting concerns. 

2. Talk

Building positive relationships takes time—and communication. It stands repeating: make it clear with your entire staff that it is okay to take time to talk with students.  

While conversations about pop culture seem like the discussion has gone off task, it’s actually an opportunity—the students are reaching out and engaging in talk about the content and experiences that are meaningful to them. That sort of engagement creates opportunities for teachable moments.   

Staying current on pop culture trends will help you create positive rapport and healthy relationships. 

Actionable strategy:  

Administrators need to make sure that teachers and staff members know that everyday conversations with students is not “off-task” behavior. If anything, we know that conversations actually help build a learning community that helps students learn. Expand on this sense of connectedness by: 

  • Encourage teachers to set aside the day’s lesson occasionally for a check-in with students.  
  • Consider scheduling student rapport and connectedness trainings where staff can share key insights to student interests and evolving pop culture.  
  • Include school counselors and psychologists in these discussions—and schedule mental health training for your staff so they can better recognize the early warning signs of students in need of support. 

3. Create

In overly scripted classrooms, teachers often don’t have time to assign creative writing or any assignment that takes them off topic. But it is often via these creative efforts that we really get to know our students best.   

Creative moments don’t have to be time-consuming—though there is clear value in larger creative projects. And, since the pandemic, teachers and students are more comfortable creating and learning in online spaces.   

For example, consider these quick ways to build creativity into daily classroom lives: 

  • Ask for sketch-to-stretch exit slip of a scene or concept from the day’s lesson. Student drawings can be quite revealing of their moods and attitudes.    
  • A graffiti wall transforming one of your bulletin boards (either in person or online) into an interactive space where students write lines from their favorite poetry or song. If you’re online, you can broaden the “graffiti” to include video clips, sound files, and visual art.  
  • With multimodal memoirs, students assemble favorite texts from their lives and display them—perhaps as an Instagram story or a Google Site.  

Actionable strategy: 

Encouraging teachers to use these creative strategies can occur informally—consider giving praise when an original instructional practice is observed or sending a quick email to faculty linking to a lesson or idea that fosters inventive use either of analog or online student inventiveness or both.  

Also consider holding a school-wide celebration of learning that exhibits student work. This could include some live in-person events in the form of a poster research fair, or the event could feature dramatic or musical productions or the showing of visual art. There could even be an online component—perhaps just a simple Google Site that would display videos or music files that the students have created.  

Finally, set time aside at faculty meetings for brief discussions about utilizing cutting-edge applications such as AI image or video generation, for example. Fostering student and teacher creativity can go a long way towards building an atmosphere of innovation while also encouraging honest dialogue.  

Creating an Atmosphere

The emphasis needs to be on creating an atmosphere in the school that allows for time and freedom for teachers and students to get to know each other on a different level. Providing opportunities for students to connect with their teachers and their learning community—building those crucial positive relationships—creates the space they need to feel safe sharing when they need help. These relatively brief sharing activities not only serve to support learning; they also could help to save lives. 

StudentSafe™ is the first-of-its-kind platform to help schools recognize, document, support and manage the wellbeing of individual students. The hallmark of Raptor’s patented technology is the emphasis on cataloging low-level concerns so your teams can see a student in need of support at the very earliest signs of distress. Now all the small pauses and quick mental notes your staff makes in concern for a student can be easily entered into a single secure platform where your trained teams are able to see a picture forming of a student who may need help.  

Dr. William Kist

Dr. William Kist

William Kist is Professor Emeritus at Kent State University as well as a former high school English teacher and curriculum supervisor. He has written five books, including the recently published Curating a Literacy Life, and co-edited Bringing Critical Media Literacy into ELA Classrooms, which has just won The 2024 Divergent Publication Award for Excellence from The Initiative for Literacy in a Digital Age. As an instructional coach and consultant, Bill has worked for schools and districts across the United States and Canada. He can be followed on YouTube (williamkistmedia) and Twitter (williamkist).

Related Resources

Guide to K-12 Student Wellbeing
Strategies to Recognize, Document, and Support Students in Distress

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