Provisions like emotional check-ins and take-a-break corners won't help students
As American schools return for the new academic year, one priority has risen above them all: visibly addressing students’ mental health. In Kentucky, some elementary schools now start their days with “emotional check-ins”, where students use an app called Closegap to answer questions on how they are feeling. Forty schools in Houston now have relaxation rooms, known as “Thinkeries”, with bean-bag chairs, warmly-coloured walls and slogans such as “Choose Kind”. Other schools have “take-a-break” corners with “self-regulation kits”: stress balls, acupuncture rings, books with tips on deep breathing. A school in Pennsylvania has therapy dogs, emergency counsellors and is planning to give mental health training to all tenth graders (15-16 year olds).
This obsession with mental health provision is also reflected in UK schools. In 2018, 39% of schools had a mental health policy in place; that figure is now 63%. It is now compulsory for schools to teach pupils about mental health and wellbeing as part of health and relationships education, and the government has allocated £9.5 million in training for almost 8000 schools to have a mental health lead.
The aims behind many of these policies and provisions are noble. A hungry child can’t learn, and neither can an emotionally troubled one. It is important that we teach students to recognise and regulate their emotions, but that doesn’t mean they need to constantly ruminate on them. I worry that a lot of discussions around mental health simply become a form of navel-gazing, and by asking students to constantly reflect on how they are feeling we are encouraging them to dwell on problems, negative thoughts or difficult emotions without giving them the tools to manage or cope with them.
Worse, we might actually be creating problems. If you ask a student over and over again if they are okay, they may eventually come to the conclusion that they are not supposed to be okay, and if they aren’t okay, then there must be something wrong with them. Labelling can sometimes backfire; for example, for anyone who actually suffers from an anxiety disorder, asking them to constantly check-in on their thoughts and feelings may just exacerbate their anxiety, because they then over-interpret and over-value their worries. It’s like asking a hypochondriac to keep a symptoms diary: of course they would convince themselves that there’s a pattern and they are ill. It would be far better to convince them that feelings aren’t facts.
Schools are under so much pressure to do something to tackle the mental health crisis, but that doesn’t mean they should just do anything. For example, asking students to log their emotions on an app is arguably a futile tick-box exercise that simply increases students’ screen time (which is notoriously detrimental to mental health) while allowing a company to mine the data. Although it may be useful in flagging under-the-radar students who are struggling, the sad reality is that teachers do not have the time, expertise, resources or qualifications to help the students who are really struggling the most.
Much has been written already about how schools are filling the gaps left by retracting families, and mental health is an obvious place where pedagogy seems to be increasingly taking over from parenting. Yet we must acknowledge that although playing mindful whale music on YouTube or having a cockapoo as part of your crisis team might help some students to relax, more is not necessarily better.