If you work in a school today, you’ve likely had to tend to students’ emotional needs or give them additional emotional support. Students are relying more on their teachers to help them ease their emotions when they’re feeling distressed. Even as an administrator, I spend a lot of time talking to students about the hardships that they face socially and at home. I started my career in education as a school social worker before becoming an administrator, and I naturally take on the counseling role as needed when meeting with some students.
Not everyone has that training, but the need to provide emotional support for students is growing. In order to support students’ academic success, it’s essential that we address the immediate needs related to students’ emotional well-being. Without the proper education and experience, it’s easy for teachers and staff members to feel overwhelmed.
Consider the following tips when talking to students who need emotional support.
1. Determine if You Should Just Listen or Take Action
Identify if students are sharing their situation because they need you to fix the problem or they simply need someone to listen. Your students aren’t always asking for help every time they share their feelings and experiences. The good part of these conversations is that students often view teachers and administrators as trusted adults. Therefore, it’s natural for them to feel safe enough to share their feelings and emotions with you.
Don’t feel that they want you to work a miracle. Sometimes they just want to know that someone cares and sees what they’re going through. The following phrases show a student that you validate their experience and care about helping them:
Example script: “Thank you for sharing. It takes bravery to express your feelings and emotions. Would you like help with finding a solution, or do you just want me to listen? I’m here for you and can connect you with the right person if I can’t help.”
Most students just want to share their stories. They respond by expressing gratitude for having someone to listen to them. They’ll be more likely to view you as an ally and continue sharing. Occasional sharing is fine. However, if you find that the student constantly wants to share and it’s interfering with instructional time, they might benefit from a regularly scheduled meeting with the school social worker or counselor. Coordinate with those staff members to determine an appropriate day and time to meet. This provides the student with a consistent and predictable structure in which to share and process any stressors that they’re experiencing.
2. Empower Students to Self-Regulate
Everyone occasionally experiences emotional distress and dysregulation. It can be a brief setback but doesn’t need to dominate our whole day. Encourage students to do a reset. Resetting allows students to pulse and self-regulate their emotions without needing to involve others.
There are multiple strategies that can be used, such as taking deep breaths, going to the restroom to wash their face, taking a walk around the building, listening to a favorite joyful song, playing with a sensory gadget, laughing at a joke, taking a drink of water, and more. Ask your students what usually brings them calmness and peace.
Example script: “I noticed that you’re having some difficulty managing your emotions right now. I believe you can turn your day around. How about you take a few deep breaths and go get a drink of water to help you cool off?”
Once they’ve taken a moment to pause, most students respond by getting back on task. After you’ve advised them on how to reset a few times, they might start to self-regulate without receiving prompts from you. If your student isn’t able to self-regulate and is a disruption to the class, seek the appropriate support to address the disruption. As needed, you may choose to contact the student’s parent or request assistance from a staff member or an administrator.
3. Give Students Hope
This tip works best when you have an established relationship with your student. I’ve got some students who have a constant presence in my office. I’m aware of their dreams, hopes, and plans. I try to get to know their family dynamics and strengths. I use what I know about them to help them stay focused on what matters most to them. I remind my students that hard times don’t last forever, and they can make it through. It’s always OK to validate their feelings and emotions by agreeing that their experiences are hard.
Example script: “I’m sorry that you are experiencing this. It would be hard for most people to handle. You’ve made it through other difficult times, and I believe you will press through this as well. Your focus is _____, and that matters most. Try not to allow this to distract you. I know you can do it.”
While this is a brief pep talk, students usually feel empowered to continue with their day. Most people benefit from receiving affirmations and appreciate the encouragement. Students who need deep processing will likely tell you that they need additional support from a school social worker or counselor.
4. Have a Structure of Support and Share Resources
The above tips are for minor emotional distress that can be managed in the classroom or office. It’s crucial that teachers and administrators have a structure in place to know when to call the students’ parents and seek help from the school counselor or social worker.
One way to measure the intensity is if a student states that they want to hurt themselves or others, or someone is hurting them. Please follow your district’s mandated reporting and/or safety procedures. It’s also beneficial to have a list of mental health resources available to share with students. Many districts have school social workers and school counselors who can provide you with a list of local resources that serve youth and families. Keep copies in your classroom or office for easy accessibility.
For additional information about supporting your students’ mental health and social and emotional well-being, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and the Midwest Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Network are helpful resources.