Kids with mental health issues often have limited access to the help they need. A study by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research found that while 14 percent of Canadian children have a mental health disorder that requires professional intervention, as few as one in six will get mental health care that may help them.
As a teacher, what can you do if you’re not sure how to respond to disruptive behaviour, or you don’t know whether professional help is on the horizon?
Applewood Academy for Progressive Learning is an alternative school created specifically for kids with emotional or behavioural needs. While there is no substitute for a professional diagnosis or a treatment plan that’s backed by solid clinical research, here are a few starting points from our experience that you can discuss further with a mental health professional or parents.
Discuss lifestyle and nutrition
When accepting new students to Applewood Academy, “lifestyle is a big part of our screening process because improper childhood nutrition or sleep can have a huge impact on behaviour,” explained Jeffrey Waplak, clinical director for Stevenson, Waplak & Associates, Quinte Children’s Homes and Applewood Academy.
What happens at home impacts what happens at school—and vice versa—so starting a discussion with parents about proper diet and a healthy lifestyle can be a positive first step.
- Vitamin D. Our bodies synthesize vitamin D during exposure to the sun and, as far north as we are, most Canadians don’t have as much as we need. Research has shown an increasingly strong connection between vitamin D and our mental health.
- Omega-3s. Considered an essential fatty acid, Omega-3s are crucial for good mental health as well as normal growth and development.
- Caffeine. From any source, including pop or chocolate, regular doses of caffeine can cause agitation, depression or anxiety.
Caffeine can also interfere with sleep, something children need to grow, develop and function at their best. Lack of sleep can leave children and youth more inattentive, hyperactive, or lazy.
Identify challenges in the classroom
At Applewood Academy, we help kids with often extreme cases of behavioral problems reach their best potential. “The kids who come to Applewood commonly show aggression, verbal defiance, impulse control problems, anxiety, or depression,” Waplak noted.
Behavioral problems make it hard for kids to learn, Waplak said, so one of the first steps is to consider their diagnosis and their behaviours. “Then we consider how those behaviours interfere with his or her ability to learn and how those disruptions can be minimized.”
Within the classroom at Applewood, several key strategies help teachers support each other and build positive relationships with students:
- Mutual respect. “Every kid here has an issue with authority, so we work really hard to meet them on their level,” explained Cara Pinchuk, who’s in charge of planning and program development at Applewood. She says shattering stereotypical roles and expectations helps the kids recognize that their teachers are human, too.
- Open communication with parents. Because home and school life are so closely connected, sharing what’s going on—both positive and negative—helps adults respond appropriately and build consistency.
There are also more personal ways to connect one-on-one with a child who has a mental health issue.
- Be willing to listen. Even if the timing isn’t great when they decide they want to talk, try to focus on what they’re saying.
- Catch kids at being good. Being quick to reward the positive has shown to be more powerful recognition for kids who are often looking for any form of attention.
- Be consistent. Establish that certain types of behaviour are unacceptable, but recognize honest effort.
- Acknowledge the little things. At Applewood, having students show up for school can be a success; recognize that it’s a starting point.
- Understand what motivates. Like catching kids at being good, consistently rewarding positive actions gradually makes negative behaviour less appealing.
Get professional assistance
When a behavioural issue is getting out of hand, it may be time to ask for professional help. Some of the more common childhood disorders include:
- Conduct Disorder,
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder,
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD or ADD), the most common childhood disorder,
- Aspergers Syndrome,
- Tourette Syndrome,
- Anxiety Disorders, and
- Mood Disorders, including depression.
Identifying the cause of behavioral issues can help professionals find ways to effectively treat and manage the disorder. If you would like more information about mental health issues in children and youth, please contact us.