Addressing Childhood and Adolescent Mental Health in the Classroom

Zinobia Bennefield, Ph.D., Sociology, UNC Charlotte

According to recent estimates, approximately 20 – 30% of all US youth meet the criteria for some form of mental disorder. Anxiety and depression are the most common, but increasing in prevalence are behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorders, anger and aggression related disorders such as intermittent explosive disorder, and body dysmorphic disorders just to name a few.

Teachers are on the front lines, encountering the mental health needs of their students and aiding in the development of socio-emotional skills. Yet, recent research suggests that teachers are often under prepared to meet the mental health needs of their students and in some cases, the extreme mental health needs of their student’s has a negative impact on the wellbeing of the teacher’s themselves.

The seminar will address these issues and more. Dr. Bennefield will take a teacher-centered approach in exploring mental health within the classroom context. The seminar will use a multi-disciplinary approach with data from biology, psychology, education, theology, sociology, and social work. Data sources will include qualitative data (i.e. first person accounts, interviews, etc) quantitative data (i.e. research articles and survey data), and pedagogically relevant materials (i.e. children’s books, lesson plans, videos, music, art, etc).

Suggested Seminar Topics:

1. What is mental health?

a. In this lesson teachers will be introduced to different perspectives (i.e. biological, psychological, and sociological) on mental health. Teachers will discuss the difference between mental health and mental illness and why attention should be paid to both.

2. In what ways does the “mental illness experience” differ between children and adults?

a. In this lesson, teachers will challenge their adult based assumptions built around mental health and explore how mental health and illness is uniquely experienced by students (in varying age groups) and teachers. 

3. How do social identities and discrimination affect the mental health of students and teachers?

a. In this lesson, teachers will learn how social identities (i.e. race, class, gender) and the discrimination that accompanies them (i.e. racism, classism, sexism) shape the mental health of students.   

4. How does teaching impact the mental health of adults?

a. In this lesson, teachers will explore the ways in which teaching conditions (i.e. class size, administrative support, colleague support) are associated with stress, burnout, and chronic fatigue. Teachers will discuss how to protect their own mental health.  

5. How does the school setting affect mental health of teachers and students?

a. In this lesson, teachers will explore the connection between school factors like administrative support, class size, and testing affect the mental health of students and teachers. We will also explore the relationship between teacher and student mental health.

6. How do I deal with mental health issues in elementary school aged children?

a. In this lesson, teachers will explore the common mental health needs of elementary aged children and how to use classroom management, curriculum, and activities to address them.

7. How do I deal with mental health issues in middle school aged children?

a. In this lesson, teachers will explore the common mental health needs of middle school aged children and how to use classroom management, curriculum, and activities to address them

8. How do I deal with mental health issues in high school aged children?

a. In this lesson, teachers will explore the common mental health needs of high school aged children and how to use classroom management, curriculum, and activities to address them

9. How do we create positive, optimistic, psychologically well students and teachers?

a. In this lesson, teachers will discuss the importance of positive psychology and how happiness in the classroom is often neglected but very important state of mental being.

10.  How do we create interventions?

a. In this lesson, teachers will explore the pros and cons to the current ways in which mental health in children and adolescents are treated and create their own.

11.  Does meditation and mindfulness belong in the classroom?

a. In this lesson, teachers will be given an introduction to the origins and practice of meditation and mindfulness, shown mindfulness activities that can be added to their curriculum in order to promote mental health among students, and guided on how to turn what they are already doing on a daily basis into a mindful meditative activity.