Managing emotional health of school students

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An emotion is a complex psychological state that unites three distinct conditions—a subjective experience, a physiological response and a behavioural or expressive response—(Hockenbury and Hockenbury 2007). Emotions seem to rule our daily lives. So, it is important for schools to coach students for emotional health.

We make decisions based on whether we are happy, angry, sad or bored. During the 1980s, psychologist Robert Plutchik introduced the ‘Wheel of Emotion’ in which different emotions combined or mixed together like colours. He talked about 8 primary emotions, each having a message to aid individuals in decision making.

  1. Fear: The message is that something needs to change.
  2. Anger: The message is to fight against problems.
  3. Joy: The message is to remind us what is important.
  4. Sadness: The message is to connect us with those we love.
  5. Acceptance: The message is to open our hearts.
  6. Disgust: The message is to reject what is unhealthy.
  7. Anticipation: The message is to look forward and plan.
  8. Surprise: The message is to focus on new situations.

Emotional health, on the other hand, is a positive state of wellbeing which enables an individual to be able to function in the society and meet the demands of everyday life. It is also related to a high EQ (emotional quotient). Individuals with high EQ are more successful in life because they deal with anxiety and stress better, develop a closer relationship with parents and teachers, turn out to be better behaved teenagers and have amicable temperaments.

Modern education aims at all round development of a child—physically, morally, socially, emotionally and spiritually. That’s why it is important for schools to coach their students for emotional health right from the beginning of school years as a part of life skills. In this respect, here are 10 important ways in which a school can initiate it.

  1. Make children learn to label emotionsThe first step in EQ development process is becoming aware of one’s own emotions and ‘naming’ them. Research findings indicate that naming one emotion allows it to ‘slow down’ and consider them before acting. So, when one is angry and he is able to name the emotion, he would be able to express and handle it better. For example, it will be easier for him to say, “Í am angry because….” This slowing down provides a link between the emotional brain (including amygdala), which in turn causes us to overreact or choose an action that does not help to solve the problem, and the cognitive brain in the pre-frontal cortex (Barbey 2012).Learning to label the emotions can be done in the following ways:
    • Make different emotional faces and have the children guess what you might be feeling or ask them to draw faces with different emotions.
    • Throughout the day, help children label their emotions as though ‘you are feeling upset that the game period is called off – what can we do to make you feel better?’
    • While reading out stories, have the children guess how each character is feeling and why.
    • Play an emotion walking game ‘ring a bell and everyone walks sad or happy or curious—this way the body language or the non-verbal part of emotional expressions can also be taught.
  2. Teach children to accept failures and frustrations
    Failures are a part and parcel of life. Hence school should not be a place to run at the rat race, but most importantly, students should learn to deal with failures and frustrations too. To start with, teachers must focus and praise the effort rather than the outcome. This way the child will have the courage to persist towards the goal in spite of all the limitations. Each failure is a learning lesson and comes with huge experience. Reflection after every failure is important to learn not to repeat the mistake. Reflection can be done verbally or in a written form with the help of a mentor.
  3. Convey warmth to classroomHere are some practical ways to convey warmth—i) Using words to reflect the child ‘s experience; ii) Using first name to address him/her with an eye contact; iii) Using open ended question to help the child express himself/herself—‘What did you enjoy most in the park?’; iv) Demonstrating interest in the child by being at the same level as he is and having an open and relaxed body posture) speaking in a soft normal volume and tempo; and v) By giving every child a chance to express himself/herself in the class, according to her/his strength.
  4. Teach self discipline
    Self discipline is one of the most important and useful skills needed to reach goals. A good school teaches self discipline before it starts any academic lesson. Self discipline is not being harsh to oneself, but is self control in one’s actions and reactions. It is difficult to practice, but ironically it makes life easier in the long run. It makes one determined in a decision and gives the strength to follow through.Self discipline is thus an antidote to addiction procrastination laziness, and impulsive actions. In the classroom, self discipline can be encouraged by: a) Providing structure and a similar schedule everyday; b) Educating children about healthy choices (through charts, role play, drama, etc); c). Implementing appropriate consequences to 3-5 non-negotiable rules to be displayed on the display board of the classroom; d) Shaping behaviour one step at a time—For example, diagrams can be made for the primary class showing the three steps in having lunch: i) Wash your hands; ii) Take out the tiffin box and eat; iii) Keep away the box and clean the table; e) Praise good behaviour and offer incentives; and f) model self discipline yourself.
  5. Appropriate feedback and constructive criticism
    When the feedback is predominantly negative, studies have shown that it can discourage student’s effort and achievement (Hattie 2007).The best form of constructive criticism is using the ‘Hamburger Technique’ where the feedback starts with something genuinely positive about the student (top bread of the hamburger) followed by the concern (the filling of the burger) and then followed by suggestions for improvement (bottom piece of the burger).
    Constructive criticism differentiates a good teacher, who is remembered for ever, from the rest. Feedback should come timely soon after the work is done and yes, the teachers should also invite anonymous feedbacks from the students for self improvement, at the end of each academic session.
  6. Prepare for digital citizenship and safety
    Handing over unsupervised internet access to children can be risky to the emotional health. So, at the beginning of secondary schools, workshops or life skills sessions on e-safety can go a long way to save children from undue stress. The following areas need to be covered—meaning of cyber bullying and consequences; importance of privacy setting and having passwords that need to be changed periodically, pitfalls of sharing photographs or videos, the phase ‘think before you send’, and the meaning and importance of emojis, hidden cost of app usage, and in app purchasing. All that is learnt can be finally played as a game or quiz by inviting a guest to the classroom, to give the programme a touch of ‘fun learning’.
  7. Time for physical activities
    Regular physical activities should be encouraged in all the schools, not only for physical health but also to reduce anxiety and depression. It has been found that even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti anxiety effect as it releases endorphin a ‘feel good’ hormone. Meditation classes were also found to have similar effects. Thus physical training (PT) classes reduces stress ,calm children and makes them happier and more attentive . Importance of physical activity learnt in school can also help a person stay motivated for games and exercises in adult hood. We all know ways to keep the restless child engaged in the classroom by giving him some duties like distributing the copy or run along to get the duster helps.
  8. Introduce Quality Circle Time (QCT)
    Introduced in schools by Jenny Mosley, Quality Circle Time (QST) provides valuable opportunities for pupils to practice speaking, listening, waiting for turns, team building and problem solving. It is an enjoyable and uplifting part of the school day or week. In senior classes, QST can help to solve various problems after brain storming the probable causes and management of the issues. So, QST in school appears to provide a useful structure for enabling some children who otherwise might contribute little to the classroom.
  9. Teach ‘gratitude’
    A sense of gratitude can decrease stress, and increase a sense of belongingness in the classroom community. ‘Gratitude’ has other important mental health benefits too. A person, who is grateful, tends to spend less time comparing him with others and feeling envious. It helps children to step into someone else’s shoes (empathy) and realise that another person has done something nice for him. Like we teach our children to read and write, we need to teach them gratitude as well.
    At the initial entry level to the school, toddlers should be taught to say ‘Thank you’. By the time the child reaches primary level he/she should be able to reflect on their day and be able to say, ‘One thing that made me feel good today.’ Middle school students can make gratitude lists and then roll up to form ‘gratitude chains’ to be displayed in the classroom. Every morning going through a list of things we are grateful for, kept at the bedside, certainly gives a positive start to the day.
  10. Offer mental health screeningUsing standardised testing in schools by the school counselor/psychologist (a post which has become mandatory in all CBSE schools) for emotional wellbeing and identifying troubled kids who need special help as referral has now become the order of the day for saving the school fraternities from campus violence, substance abuse, self harming behaviour and suicide.

Once identified, they can be given the support of a counselor, administration and parents. Depression rating scales, stress rating scales and suicide rating scales are being used in schools. Teachers also need workshops on special needs and psychological/behavioural problems, so that they can identify the red flag’ symptoms and act accordingly. Researchers found that mental health screening played an important role in reducing barriers to learning, providing students access to services of mental health. It also provides the parents with needed awareness, and results in positive educational and behavioural outcomes.

In India, 10 percent of children in 5-15 years age group have a diagnosable mental health disorder which creates problems in the learning environment, if not addressed. Learning Disability (LD) screening also needs to be done after 6 years of age, if suspected. So, the special educator can provide accommodation and interventions accordingly.
Student’s mental health and behavioural management is one of the contemporary issues faced by the school community today. Behavioural problems like bullying teasing violence minor and major disruptive behaviour may lead to ‘unsafe’ school environment. Disruptive students affect other students as well. An indicator of a good school is thus the degree to which the school has the power to manage the emotional wellness of the students by preventing occurrences and controlling escalation of such deviant behaviours. This is the only pro-active approach to balancing academic performance and emotional health of students.

Paromita Mitra Bhaumik is based in Kolkata and she has been working in the field of psychology, education and coaching for learning and development over the last 20 years. A certified Special Education Need Coordinator (SENCO) trained by ORKIDS in New Delhi, she is a life associate member of the Indian Psychiatric Association. She is a registered rehabilitation psychologist with the RCI (Rehabilitation Council of India) and Founder Director of Anubhav Positive Psychology Clinic in Kolkata.