10 Tips to Support Mental Health in Online Learning Environments

mental health
Lindsey Kucich presenting at Tech & Learning’s Future-Proofing Your District Plan Conference (Image credit: Future)

Supporting the emotional well-being of your school community can be a challenge even in the best of circumstances -- but in these difficult times, this task may seem even more daunting. 

Here is the No. 1 Rule that I share with teachers, parents, and students: Give yourself grace. We are all doing the best we can as we navigate these uncharted waters. We will make mistakes, we will learn from them, and we will get better. 

Here is advice to support yourself and your school community in online learning environments and during times of crisis:

1. Not New, Just New To You 

  • Recognize that distance learning may be new to you, but it is not new to everyone. Schools across the country have been delivering quality distance learning for years. 
  • Schools have closed many times due to disasters and have learned how to adjust, such as during Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires. 
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, reach out to those who are seen as experts in the field for support. 

2. Look At What You Have and Need 

  • Use the supports and current systems already in place (Class Dojo, PBIS, Parent Square, Remind, etc.). You don’t have to change everything. In fact, unnecessary change can cause more stress. 
  • Conduct a needs assessment for your entire school community: teachers, parents, students, administration. By collecting data from your stakeholders, you can assess what is working and what is not so you can keep making adjustments. 

3. Use Different Lenses 

  • When developing the plan, consider the lenses of everyone involved. 
  • Ask students what they would do if they were in charge. The California Department of Education, for example, surveyed their students to ask them what they most needed. Their answers helped better inform the Department’s plan as students revealed challenges that had not yet been considered. 
  • Also ask those parents what they need to help manage all of these changes. 
  • How do students want to learn? They can also help you understand how they learn using technology. 

4. Use Your Experts 

  • Create specialized teams for challenges and solutions. 
  • Utilize the strengths of your community. Parents most likely have a wealth of skills you can utilize as you plan your needed support. 
  • You may need to create a new job to add in experts. 
  • Collaborate with those who any change will impact before a final decision is made. This is critical to reduce the stress that comes with change. 

5. Define What Education Looks Like 

  • Do not try to force school traditions and roles. 
  • One size does not fit all. 
  • This is something new to you, so choose from the many models available what you want it to look like. Use your community voice to define what these new learning models will look like in your districts. 
  • Accept that education is no longer the same. It’s not going to go back to “The way it was,” even when the pandemic is over. Yes, school doors will reopen, but we have now discovered new tools to teach and learn. 
  • Use this as a learning experience and allow time for a grieving process as your community accepts that the old ways are over. 

6. Build a Sense of Community 

  • Focus on school climate, which is more important than ever. Suicide rates are linked to isolation. It is on us as school leaders to keep everyone connected.
  • #BeKindFIRST – You may be familiar with the quote: “If you could be anything, be kind.” Being kind FIRST is a movement that will help build community fast. Say hello to people. Try to get over the fear of being the first to say something in a social situation, whether in person or online.  
  • Focus on building relationships and making connections. 

7. Monitor Remotely 

  • Set behavior expectations and define roles for students, parents, and teachers. Understand that everyone might not know what to do. Do I need to be in the room? Do I need to check on my children as they are receiving instruction? Define who is responsible for what and list those expectations. 
  • Create a check-in system for emotional struggles and frustrations. You aren’t always going to be able to see if someone is frustrated. Students do not always self-advocate. For example, the school counselor or school psychologist can follow up with students who have a history of social emotional difficulties. The case manager can do weekly check ins with students on their caseload. 
  • Progress monitor and collect data on behavior, participation, attendance, communication, etc. 

8. Provide Trauma-Informed Training 

  • Treat every student as if they have experienced trauma. Everyone has lost something. 
  • Teachers/staff and parents need to be taught what to look for regarding a student's emotional health. 
  • Teach warning signs for suicide/risk assessments. 
  • Provide resources and a plan for how to help students, parents, staff, and teachers. Who is the point of contact? Get your school psychologist involved. 

9. Make It Safe 

  • Ask teachers/staff/students what they need to feel safe. This is not about keeping six feet apart or putting up plastic sheets, but about mental health. 
  • What resources does your staff need to do the job effectively? You don’t know for sure until you ask. This also helps them to feel valued and heard.  
  • Establish a point of contact they can reach out to for help. Not just for tech issues, but for emotional support. Your school counselor can help to establish a community of liaisons who can be available for support as needed. 
  • Remember this is not just about procedures; it's about feeling protected. Remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  

10. Think Outside The Box 

  • There are several different ideas of what distance learning will look like. You can have a blended look. 
  • School hours can be in the evening. 
  • Consider “looping students” in with their teachers for 2-3 years to help students feel safe. When we did this during the trauma of the California wildfires, the academic achievement of those students who stayed with the same teacher for 2-3 years was much higher than students who switched teachers. 
  • Offer mental health support sessions to parents and students. 
  • Teachers can have office hours. 
  • Organize parent support classes. 

Be humbled, learn through trial and error, and remember nothing is set in stone. The choices and decisions you make are not permanent, and if they need to change it will likely only cost you either more time or more money. Provide reassurance to your colleagues, teachers, parents, and students that you are doing the best you can for everyone. 

No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. 

Based in California, Lindsey Kucich manages Mental Health Therapists, Social Workers, and School Psychologists at Global Teletherapy. Lindsey is also the host of SPEDtalk podcast that airs live on Global Teletherapy's Facebook page. She is dedicated to helping students and their therapists feel successful. She enjoys integrating technology in the mental health field and is currently developing telepractice psycho-educational assessments. She enjoys the teletherapy lifestyle and looks forward to meeting and talking shop with like-minded therapists. Lindsey Kucich presented at Tech & Learning’s Future-Proofing Your District Plan Conference, a one-day virtual conference that helped districts take the lessons learned from current remote learning programs to create a long-term plan that supports effective teaching and learning both online and in person. Find the on-demand content for the conference here.