Six students failed my child development course this past semester. Out of 25.
That’s right, almost one-quarter of them did not pass.
I’m certainly not proud of it. In fact, it’s the first time that’s happened in my ten years teaching in higher ed.
And I strongly believe it’s because I didn’t make students’ mental health and wellbeing a priority.
According to the New York Times, “Colleges across the country are facing a mental health crisis, driven in part by the pandemic. After almost two years of remote schooling, restricted gatherings and constant testing, many students are anxious, socially isolated, depressed — and overwhelming mental health centers. At a few institutions, there has been a troubling spate of suicides. Now another swell of Covid cases, driven by the Omicron variant, threatens to make life on campus worse.”
Specifically, loss of motivation or focus, as well as loneliness and isolation, were the major concerns of college students who sought counseling during the pandemic. This is based on national data collected by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.
Yet, despite this ongoing crisis, I had put the burden on students to initiate contact. With many of them struggling this past semester, it’s clear I have to take on an active role.
One way I’ll do this is to make mental health and wellbeing more visible.
Visible means more than being active. Visible also means students feel that you care. I doubt they’ll feel it if I merely list the phone number for the campus counseling center in my syllabus.
I’m also reminded of the seven touches of marketing, a principle I learned as a former advertising executive:
If you want your prospects to take action (such as buying your product, visiting your website, or calling for more information), you have to reach them at least seven times and/or seven ways.
You’ll probably need much more than seven touches these days.
With students’ mental health at stake, this issue needs to be addressed multiple times and in multiple ways throughout the semester. Only then will they “feel it.”
So here are at least five ways I plan to make mental health and wellbeing more visible:
1. Create a Mental Health & Wellbeing Activity or Assignment
This could be as simple as opening with an ice-breaker activity, where students share their common struggles. You can do this in-person, synchronously online, asynchronously online (e.g., on the discussion board), or even in a hybrid classroom.
For a student teaching seminar class last fall, I spoke candidly about the challenges I faced as a new father. One example included the stresses of teaching synchronously with twin newborns at home. This served as a powerful reminder of the challenges we all share, even if many of my students weren’t parents. Yet we all identify with external distractions on Zoom. Imagine how much more powerful this moment would be if I opened up a discussion with students.
Aside from ice-breaker activities, you can also make mental health an actual topic of study in your syllabus. Here was my recent four-part module with teacher candidates:
- Pre-Discussion: Is burnout a real problem among public school teachers?
- Reflection/Discussion: How do you deal with stress every day?
- Reading: The importance of cultivating a daily/weekly self-care routine
- Assignment: Create a personalized “self-care routine” infographic to share with the class
I was so impressed with my students’ self-care plans (see two examples below), which were created using a graphic design tool called Canva:
This topic can be brought up during the first week of school or near the finals period. Either way, it can serve as a concrete reminder for students to take care of themselves. I’ve had several students express how this assignment pushed them to think more intentionally about their health.
2. Check In With Students Periodically
How often do you follow up with individual students who struggle? I know it’s time-consuming, but emailing, say, the bottom 20 percent of performers even just three weeks into the semester can show you care. If you have 20 to 25 students (as I do), that’s 4 to 5 students per class you’re following up with. Here’s my simple note to them:
Hey [Name], I noticed that you’ve missed a couple of assignments for this class. Just wanted to check in with you and make sure everything’s OK.
While learning the material is crucial, your wellbeing is even more important. If there’s any way I can help, I will make it a priority.
Just reply to this email.
A few notes:
- The informality of the email can help students open up, especially that last line (“Just reply to this email”), which serves as an explicit call to action. You don’t want to come across as impersonal or inaccessible.
- You can further personalize each email with the student’s name and the specific assignments he or she is missing.
- This template works for large classes too (just use without the names).
- This email and any subsequent follow-up threads can also serve to document patterns of progress (or lack thereof), should you need it later on.
- You can resend this email (or some modified version of it) later in the semester if needed.
In the end, not every student emailed will respond, but initiating contact goes a long way. You might be surprised, as I was, with how open some students can be. And if you’re not comfortable addressing their problems, simply direct them to the experts in your campus.
If students feel the stigma of getting professional help, tell them the following:
“I know it’s not easy to seek outside help. One way you can think about it is this: most of us have no problems seeing a doctor when we feel physical pain. So why wouldn’t we do the same when we experience mental pain? Our mind is just as important as than our body.”
3. Bring In External Expertise
This suggestion is fairly straightforward but easy to overlook. Is there someone (perhaps a colleague at the campus counseling center) who can talk about mental health?
One of my colleagues leads a yoga/meditation class during her time off. She’s offered to demonstrate de-stressing (breathing) techniques with my students. They also get to create take-home lavender sachets, which was a fun and active break from class.
4. Conduct a Survey
Surveys are useful at the beginning of the semester (to help you anticipate issues) or midway (to see how students are progressing). You could list questions such as:
- How do you feel you are you doing in this class? (on a scale from 1 to 5)
- Is something outside of school interfering with your best work in this class? Please explain.
- How can I, as the instructor, best support you to do your best in this class?
Note that students aren’t required to answer more sensitive questions like #2 above.
If you’d like a Google Forms template to modify, go here. (You will be asked to make a copy, after which you can tailor the questions for your particular course. Once done, provide the link to your students.)
5. Lighten the Workload
At the end of last term, I asked students to fill out a “How-can-I-improve-this-class?” survey. It’s different from the course evaluations they normally complete.
No surprise – lightening the workload was a top request. This time I’m paying extra attention, mostly because of COVID. Rather than cutting out specific tasks (e.g., posting a reflection on Blackboard or coming to class with a question or comment), however, I’ll likely remove a couple of topics from the syllabus and spread the rest out. This will deepen students’ learning.
Technically, lightening the workload isn’t as “visible” a method as the other four, unless you explicitly tell students you’re cutting out topics. Regardless, reducing the amount of topics you cover is typically good practice, pedagogically speaking. It will allow you to incorporate more mental-health related content and deepen the learning for other topics.
The expression “perception is reality” is particularly relevant here. Even if I technically addressed mental health in my syllabus, it doesn’t mean students will feel that I care. So, I’m now more focused on paying attention to how students perceive the role that mental health and wellbeing plays in my courses. My goal? To nudge at least one hesitant student to reach out. How they respond may be the subject of a future article as I share my learning journey with you.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your feedback and experiences dealing with mental health in your class – leave a comment below!