Reading, writing, and arithmetic... isn't that how the old saying goes? I remember when I was in grade school, that was certainly the focus. But a lot has changed since then, and it's time the classroom environment caught up.

Recently, my sweet friend Erin has gained national recognition thanks to her Mental Health Check In poster that went viral on Instagram and Facebook. The concept is fairly simple, but the impact is profound. Students select from a range of options such as "I'm great" or "I'm meh" or "I'm in a really dark place and could use a check in." They write their names on the back of a sticky note and mark which area best fits where they are emotionally and mentally. This allows the teacher to know who needs a little extra love and support that day.

Erin's idea has been shared hundreds of thousands of time across social media and news outlets.

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive for the poster with thousands of teachers implementing this check-in system in their classrooms. Finally, a light is being shone on the importance of mental health. And it's about time. Recent reports state that child and adolescent mental health disorders are the most common illnesses that children will experience under the age of 18. It is believed that one in five children have a diagnosable mental health disorder. However, only 20% of these children are diagnosed and receiving treatment. With our students in crisis, we as teachers must do everything we can to help. Enter the campaign #iteachmentalhealth.

Teachers across the nation are embracing mental health awareness and
highlighting ways they make it a priority in their classrooms.
#iteachmentalhealth is a campaign that started on Instagram as a way for teachers to show the different ways they teach mental health in their classrooms. Posts from teachers of various grade levels and demographics highlight how they make mental health issues a priority. For me, I teach mental health by teaching my students that it is okay to need and to take a break.
I teach lower elementary special education, and even my littlest learners feel BIG things. And being so young and possibly dealing with a developmental delay or processing issue, they don't always know how to handle those feelings. Teachers will often see negative behaviors stemming from their lack of ability to self-regulate. In reality, those behaviors are often that student's way of communicating that something bigger is going on (which is a blog post for another day).

So what can a teacher do when a student is struggling, frustrated, and "on the verge?" Well, what do teachers do when WE are struggling, frustrated, or "on the verge?" We take a break. We walk away for a moment. We make a cup of coffee. We talk to a friend. Taking a break is not giving up.
It is doing what you need to do for yourself to get your emotions under control and get ready to get back to it. I struggle with feelings of being overwhelmed. My anxiety makes me feel like nothing I do is good enough... like I'm not good enough. When those feelings creep in, I lash out at my family. I withdraw from my friends. Neither of those things make my situation any better. I've had to learn to take a break when I start feeling that familiar sense of negativity sneaking up on me. I reach out. I do something just for me to help me regroup. I work through those feelings, and I keep going.

It can be the same for students. No, I'm not saying give your students a cup of coffee. What I am saying is that we need to teach our students to recognize their big feelings and to identify that when those feelings arise, taking a break is okay. Taking a break can look like a lot of things for students. It can be as simple as counting to ten or as extensive as needing to talk to the school counselor or another trusted adult in the school environment. The important thing is to teach the student the appropriate way to request that break. I have a couple of resources that I'm implementing in my classroom that can carry over into the students' general education classrooms, as well. The first is a "Take a Break Menu."
Available for free download here
Teachers recognize when a particular student is being to go downhill emotionally and behaviorally. Having already discussed the menu with the student prior to the start of the hard feelings is important. Remember- crisis mode is survival mode; NOT learning mode. When the teacher sees the student's behavior first start, bring out the menu. Help the student choose an appropriate break to take. A smaller feeling could be solved with a smaller break- counting to ten, taking some deep breaths. Bigger feelings might require a bigger solution. At first, the teacher will need to help the student navigate the menu, but the ultimate goal is that the student will eventually be able to request an appropriate break independently. Which leads me to my next resource.

I created these "Take 5" cards for students to place on their desks when they need to request a break.
Available for free download here
This works well for more mature students as it can be little more discreet than the menu. Another option is for a teacher to identify that a student is "on the verge" and place a card on his or her desk as a teachable moment. This shows the student that what they are feeling is big and taking a break will help. That will help the student learn that when those feelings start is the time to request that break. The key for either of these resources is never to invalidate the students' feelings. When I am sad or frustrated, the worst thing is to have someone tell me I shouldn't be feeling that way or that I am wrong for having those feelings. Empathy and support is always best, and for children, it is vitally important.

It is time that the stigma around mental health issues was dropped. The more it is discussed and the more emphasis is put on teaching self-regulation skills, the better off our students, classrooms, and schools will become. So take a break if you need it, and encourage your students to do the same.

If you have any questions about either of these resources or if you have any suggestions of your own, please feel free to reach out in the comments. Want to get involved in the campaign? Download the template and join us!

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