According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental health issues touch all Canadians at one time or another, either affecting themselves or a family member, friend or colleague (CMHA, 2018). An emerging issue for teachers is dealing with students experiencing mental health problems, which are becoming more prominent in schools due to an array of personal, familial, and community challenges (e.g., family loss, technostress, social inadequacies, lack of physical and/or academic skills) (Berg, Hickson, Bradford, & Fishburne, 2017).
Disturbingly, research indicates the following:
- 3.2 million 12- to 19-year-olds in Canada are at risk for developing depression (CMHA, 2018).
- Mental disorders in youth are ranked second highest in hospital care expenditure in Canada (CMHA, 2018).
- Only one out of five children in Canada requiring mental health services receives them (CMHA, 2018).
The Role of Teachers
Teachers can play a significant role in supporting the mental health and healthy lifestyles of their students. Perhaps this need has never been greater. With support from administrators, parents/families, community organizations, and community members, teachers can provide a strong foundation for mental and physical health. Providing opportunities for children to gain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy lifestyles is critical (Berg et al., 2017).
Teachers are well positioned to positively impact students daily. Because children spend a considerable amount of time at schools, we can play a primary role in fostering a positive outlook on health and wellbeing (Berg et al., 2017).
It is vital that we recognize that it is not only the verbal messages that students hear from their teachers that are important but also the nonverbal messages that students observe throughout a school day. Although these non-verbal messages can be received during formal lessons, they can also be observed during lunch breaks, recesses, and school-wide activities.
As students may develop ideas about their own health choices and behaviours through our non-verbal messages, we should appreciate the importance of communicating suitable messages both within and out of formal teaching (e.g., hallways).
Sending Messages that Support Mental Health
We consider the language and words that we use to promote positive mental health in our students, however, how we present ourselves can be equally as important. There are many opportunities on a daily basis for us to convey non-verbal messages to our students related to mental health. Choosing healthy food and drink items at school, fitting physical activity into our school day, modeling helping others to feel included, and promoting optimism are just a few examples of the ways we can promote positive mental health, all of which are delivered through non-verbal communication.
Whether they like it or not, teachers must view themselves as role models. (Dean, Adams, & Comeau, 2005)
The following are a few examples that we can incorporate into daily actions in our schools.
Choose Healthy Eating.
Healthy eating is an important part of promoting positive mental health. What we choose to eat and drink during our breaks as we walk down the hallway to and from the staff room is often observed by students. So too are the snacks and drinks that we have on our desks. The messages we send to students can, if we are not careful, be contrary to what was taught during health class or what we expect of students. If we tell students that water is a better choice than a “sugar-filled” soda, but then proceed to drink an energy-style drink, what message are we sending to our young learners? If we are frequently consuming such food items as chocolate bars or chips in front of students, what does that “tell” them? We should ask ourselves, is eating an apple instead of a bag of chips during supervision a healthier message to send to students?
Be Physically Active.
Arriving at school early to participate in physical activities with students prior to the morning bell sends a clear message that physical activity is important for everyone throughout their lives. Engaging in an activity with students, who would normally be sitting around the hallways (e.g., badminton, running club, yoga), can convey that physical activity is a cherished part of the day. We have a wonderful opportunity to be physically active whilst teaching students indirectly outside class time. We can demonstrate to them through our actions that physical activity is just as important for us as is it for them! Even a “before the school day” group walk can provide all of us with the energy or focus required for the day ahead and help support our own mental health while promoting positive feelings in the students around us, too!
An underlining basis for modeling is that it becomes easier for learners to understand, appreciate, and replicate actions and deeds after watching something being modeled by a teacher. Demonstrating how to be kind, the body language we use when accepting someone else’s point of view, the simplicity of greeting everyone with a smile first thing in the morning, can all present students with a picture of being welcome and included. It can help to encourage them to also include others. The way we present ourselves helps to support the verbal messages we often share.
A perfectly timed “thumbs up” compared to a poorly timed grimace might be all the difference between a student having the confidence to try that math problem a second or third time. When teachers display enthusiasm during lessons they can help students reach greater levels of motivation (Vidourek, King, Bernard, Murnan, & Nabors, 2011). Modeling optimistic behaviour is something we all can and should do. Remember our Unique Role. We, as educators, are uniquely positioned to send countless silent, but very powerful and influential, messages that may help students develop positive mental health.
Putting Things into Action!
Schools cannot achieve the aim of enhancing learning and academic success if students are not healthy (Story, Nanney, & Schwartz, 2009). Although teachers cannot “do it all,” there are countless ways to support student mental health, and that can include positive nonverbal messages. For example, a few simple but easily achieved ideas that can be implemented in schools immediately include:
- Standing next to the classroom door and greeting students individually as they enter
- Bringing a healthy snack and lunch to school, and choosing to eat with the students (making sure to “show off” your nutritional lunch while initiating a class discussion)
- Beginning the day with a class walk around the school grounds, and discussing how physical activity impacts our mental health
- Inviting a “therapy dog” and owner to join your class for the morning
- Changing into activewear for the teaching of physical education
Clearly, health and education are interrelated. Students who experience higher levels of wellness (e.g., physical, social, emotional) are perceived to be better learners (Suhrcke & de Paz Nieves, 2011), and better-educated individuals are healthier (Bradley & Greene, 2013). Health extends beyond what is taught in a classroom, and incorporates programs, policies and personal actions that promote well-being.
Lead by example!
It’s not always what you say to students…
students also learn by watching and observing!
What will they learn tomorrow?
Berg, S. Hickson, C., Bradford, B. & Fishburne, G. (2017). Teaching for health & wellness in children and youth. Ripon Publishing: Victoria, BC.
Bradley, B.J., & Greene, A.C. (2013). Do health and education agencies in the United States share responsibility for academic achievement and health? A review of 25 years of evidence about the relationship of adolescents’ academic achievement and health behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(5), 523-532.
Canadian Mental Health Association (2018). Fast facts about mental illness. Retrieved from: cmha.ca/media/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/#.V2bQrGgrKUk
Dean, M.B., Adams, T.M., & Comeau, M.J. (2005). The effect of a female physical educator’s physical appearance on physical fitness knowledge and attitudes of junior high students. The Physical Educator, 62(1), 14-25.
Story, M., Nanney, M.S., & Schwartz, M.B. (2009). Schools and obesity prevention: Creating school environments and policies to promote healthy eating and physical activity. Milbank Quarterly, 87(1), 71-100.
Suhrcke, M., & de Paz Nieves, C. (2011). The impact of health and health behaviours on educational outcomes in high-income countries: A review of the evidence. World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. Retrieved from: euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/134671/e94805.pdf?ua=1
Vidourek, R.A., King, K.A., Bernard, A.L., Murnan, J., & Nabors, L. (2011). Teachers’ strategies to positively connect students to school. American Journal of Health Education, 42(2), 116-126.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Brent Bradford (PhD) is an Assistant Professor (Faculty of Education) at Concordia University of Edmonton (2015). He has extensive teaching experience at the K – 9 school level and served as a Teacher Educator (University of Alberta, St. Francis Xavier University) while pursuing graduate work (2009-2014). He has published in the field of Physical and Health Education and recently, co-authored two teacher education textbooks (Physical Education ; Health Education ). He has served on numerous committees, including the Board of Directors for Physical and Health Education Canada. Brent can be reached at email@example.com.
Clive Hickson (PhD) has been a physical education specialist, elementary school classroom teacher, vice-principal of a K – 7 school, and principal of K – 7 and K – 12 schools. He has served on numerous education committees and has worked on provincial curriculum resource development. Clive is now a Professor and Associate Dean at the University of Alberta. He teaches senior-level curriculum and instruction courses in elementary school physical education to elementary school pre-service teachers. Clive has served on the Board of Directors for Physical and Health Education Canada. Clive can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2019 issue.