It’s a challenge most teachers face on a weekly basis – what do we say to support a student who is suffering with a mental health problem? How do we begin that supportive conversation?

It’s a scary moment. We aren’t counsellors but we have been confided in. We can’t say nothing – that will seem uncaring. We want to say the right thing but we are worried about making things worse. So what can we do?

1. Actively listen

It sounds obvious but it is harder than it looks. To actively give your attention fully to a student requires a real degree of mental concentration. We listen at 125-250 words per minute but our brains think at 1000-3000 words per minute and often 75% of the time we are preoccupied, distracted or forgetful. Active listening requires the following steps:

Listen – show you are paying attention in your body language and encouraging statements such as “Ok”, “I see” and “Right”. Avoid interrupting and make appropriate eye contact.
Question – Use open and closed questions  – these show you have listened and can clarify any issues and gain insight.
Reflecting – Reflect the information back to let them know what you are seeing from their words and actions – “You have said you are ok but you seem worried about…..”
Paraphrasing – Paraphrase the information you have been given to show them you have listened and get an agreed picture. e.g. “If I am right x has happened which has led you to feel upset and worried…”
Reframing – Reframe what you have been told in a positive light. Try to diffuse the negativity and widen the meaning of an issue to allow the student to see there could be other motivations behind situations.

2. Fact vs Opinion

Students will often relay information they feel as confirmed fact. They believe that if they feel something bad is going happen (anxiety/worry) then it must be true. If they feel rubbish about themselves, their negative opinions of themselves must be true. Challenge them with FACT/OPINION cards.

When a student is discussing beliefs they have about circumstances, ask they whether they believe it to be a “Fact” or “Opinion” using the definitions given. This will go some way in training students to challenge negative beliefs and thought patterns that may make them perceive every day events in a way that can affect their confidence and make them feel anxious.

Shame is a big issue in anxiety – when asking students to say if something is a fact or opinion understand that to them it will feel very real so this needs to be respected. Anxiety is incredibly unreasonable and illogical  – it can make the most benign and unthreatening situations seem terrifying.


3. Use emotional coaching techniques

Where a student is visibly struggling either through anger, panic or crying (but also at any other time!) emotional coaching is a really useful method to calm a student and reduce the shame an episode like this can often bring about. Emotional coaching happening using the following step:

Empathise – show them you understand what they are feeling- “It must be terrible feeling that way”
Validate – let them know it’s ok to feel they way they do “You must feel angry/sad/frustrated”
Name Emotions – Help them to find names to put to their emotions and direct them to new emotions

Using these simple techniques you can begin to calm a student, reduce shame and help them understand and respond more constructively to their emotions.

4. Use number scales

Sometimes taking a student through their day and asking them to choose a number from 1 – 10 for worry, happiness, mood etc can help you to start a discussion and find problem areas in the school day. This tip can also be really useful for testing is a student’s worry has reduced during your conversation – you can rate at the beginning and end of the conversation. Using numbers to recognise growing anger symptoms and leave stressful situations before problem behaviours occur.

5. ABC approach

How we see the world depends on our own beliefs about situations. Sometimes students may have a perspective that is damaging to their mental health due to thought distortions. Let’s have a look at a situation:

ANTECEDENT – Student’s friend ignores them
BELIEF – Student assumes that the friend is angry at them and doesn’t want to be friends anymore
CONSEQUENCE – Student keeps their distance, is angry and upset. Leads to further isolation

Let’s change the belief

ANTECEDENT – Student’s friend ignores them
BELIEF – Student believes that student must be having a bad day
CONSEQUENCE – Student tries again with friend later on, asking what is wrong and trying to help.

By allowing a student to recognise how their beliefs about events influence their behaviour, they can learn to judge situations differently to have better outcomes for their own mental well being.

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