Educators’ Roles in Promoting and Protecting Mental Health

 Exploring Mental Health Practices in Elementary Schools

Bailey Kay, Alyssa Geffs , Sylvana Mastronardi, Mackenzie Millar, and Jack Toldo

Please cite this page as:

Mastronardi, S., Millar, M., Toldo, J., Kay, B., & Geffs, A. (2022, April 1). Educators’ roles in promoting and protecting Mental Health. Classroom Practice in 2022. Retrieved [date], from

Emotional reactions are internal indicators signaling whether remediation is necessary. Understanding and applying coping mechanisms is an unrealistic expectation to bestow on youth as big emotions can overwhelm an individual’s system. According to Zimmer-Gembeck, Van Petegem, and Skinner (2016), children’s coping responses depend on their sense of control and emotional state. While children may receive support at home, many will not. As educators spend the majority of their day with their students, they are ideal advocates for mental health. Statistics show 1 in 5 children and youth in Ontario will experience some form of mental health problem (Children’s Mental Health Ontario, 2020). Meanwhile, 70% of mental health problems have early onset during childhood or adolescence, 28% of students report not knowing where to turn to when they want to talk to someone about mental health (Children’s Mental Health Ontario, 2020). With access and connectivity, educators can implement a range of prevention and intervention strategies to effectively support students’ mental health.

Promoting Mental Health in Elementary Schools

The relationship between mental health promotion practices in the elementary school environment will be explored by analyzing how the teacher’s role is an imperative factor when providing the support adolescence needs in today’s climate. As we delve into the atmosphere of elementary school classrooms, it can be determined that there is a direct correlation between students’ mental health and their academic achievement (Graham et al., 2011). This relationship is heavily assessed and monitored by parents and teachers as they spend day in and day out with their students and children. However, it is within the teacher’s responsibility to maintain a positive emotional climate at school in addition to providing equitable education and inclusivity within their classrooms to sustain a healthy balance for optimal social emotional learning. That being said, the teacher’s role in promoting the mental health of students can equate to several factors. This first factor is access; an opportunity is provided to teachers by giving them access to reach and support an entire school population of students (Nikolaou & Markogiannakis, 2017). As teachers are given this access, it is their responsibility to adopt the role of protecting their students from not only physical harm, but also emotional psychological harm. In doing so, teachers are able to provide the appropriate resources, preventative plans, and interventions to their students by merely being with them the majority of the day. This introduces the next factor which is time. The amount of time students spend at school and under teacher supervision allows teachers to impose a significant influence on child development. This is why it is imperative for teachers to introduce a positive emotional climate on the first day of school by adjusting student expectations, goals, and objectives (Nikolaou & Markogiannakis, 2017). This can be accomplished by creating a classroom that is student-centered where teachers work collaboratively with their students and deepen the trust, communication, and bond within the student-teacher relationship.

As this relationship is established, teachers have the opportunity to promote mental health awareness and implement positive mental health practices by taking actions that optimize and protect students social and emotional well-being (Graham et al., 2011). This alleviates the stress, anxiety, and fear of failure in school work by talking openly about their struggles and finding

fluid solutions in opposition to rigid deadlines. Lastly, it is a teacher’s responsibility and role to detect any students experiencing mental health problems or challenges (Schulte-Körne, 2016). This factor presents one of the most important roles a teacher possesses when promoting mental health in the school environment. Observation of students is one of the most valuable skills a teacher can utilize when detecting mental health challenges in students. Observing the relationships between students and observing individual behaviors is a key indicator when determining whether a shift is occurring between social groups or in an individual’s personal life. It is a teacher’s responsibility to shape a positive, safe, and welcoming environment for students so they feel comfortable enough to confide in their teachers and peers with any struggles they may be experiencing. If they do not have that support system in their school community, then it is up to the teacher to note any significant shifts in attendance, participation, schoolwork, and behavior. This will provide teachers the opportunity to address mental health and promote positive habits by bringing awareness to their classroom and providing the support and resources their students need.

Agency and Agentic Engagement as Tools for Detection and Intervention of Mental Health Issues in the Classroom

On average, educators spend up to 1,274 hours with students in a classroom setting per school year. During this time, educators attend to student behaviour, performance, and engagement. Because of their relativity in the classroom, educators are uniquely positioned to provide early detection and prevention of mental health issues. While a change in student behaviour can communicate potential emotional disturbances, fostering open communication provides opportunities for educators to enable authentic student dialogue.

One approach to creating open communication within the classroom involves the creation of a democratic relationship between students and their education. Educators play an important role in forming a positive connection between students and learning. How that connection is defined remains a by-product of teacher pedagogy. More specifically, it is a derivative of how educators characterize their roles and the roles of their students in the construction and manifestation of curricular objectives. Though there is a spectrum of educational pedagogies, democratic classrooms position students as active participants in the instructional design of curricular focuses thus leading to increased student motivation and engagement. While this is not a new concept, this approach does stray from the traditional authoritarian practices that have consumed classrooms for decades.

John Dewey, a prominent 20th-century philosopher and father of educational progressivism, strongly advocated for student-focused education. Dewey believed children should be active constructionists in their educational experiences, with educators providing purposeful and realism-based instructions and activities pertinent to their interests and societal affairs. Positioning students as influential designers in the focus and application of their education demonstrates a student-centered learning approach. By employing this approach, educators can facilitate the development of student agency. According to Bandura, a 20th-century social cognitive theorist, an agent is an individual who initiates intentional influence on their operating styles and their existing situational conditions. An agent in the classroom is empowered to actively and constructively contribute to their learning, development, and performance. Reeve and Shin (2020) posit that agency and agentic engagement are requirements of being an agent. While agency refers to student motivations that fuel their desires to create purposeful and meaningful changes within themselves and their environment, agentic engagement is the actions and behaviours that manifest their aspirations.

“Experience itself primarily consists of the active relations subsisting between a human being and his natural and social surroundings. In some cases, the initiative in activity is on the side of the environment… In other cases, the behavior of surrounding things and persons carries to a successful issue the active tendencies of the individual, so that in the end what the individual undergoes are consequences which he has himself tried to produce. In just the degree in which connections are established between what happens to a person and what he does in response, and between what he does to his environment and what it does in response to him, his acts and the things about him acquire meaning. He learns to understand both himself and the world of men and things.” (Dewey, p. 232, Democracy and Education)

Though agency and agentic engagement must arise from the student, educators play a crucial role in facilitating the open expressions of student motivations and provisions of meaningful contexts in which students can initiate agentic actions. Educators can provide opportunities for agentic action while also honouring pupil expression by bridging student motivations to the curriculum. More importantly, educators implicitly communicate valuation and interest in the sentiments of their students by listening to their preferences, goals, and dreams. Teachers supporting student autonomy will observe improved student functioning and learning circumstances.

According to Reeve and Shin (2020), by supporting student autonomy through the development of agency and agentic engagement, teachers have noted outcomes such as:

An increase in:

  • Classroom engagement
  • Conceptual learning
  • Skill development
  • Academic achievement
  • Performance
  • Prosocial behaviour
  • Positive self-concept
  • Emotional vitality

A decrease in:

  • Antisocial behaviours
  • Problematic peer relationships
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Classroom disengagement

As the efficacy of a student-centered approach hinges on the responsivity of the teacher and the learning environment, it demonstrates the reciprocal relationship of influence between student and teacher that houses the potential development of agency and agentic engagement. Educators, influenced by student motivations, create an environment of respect and consideration. In opposition, dismissing student motivations may lead to an incongruent classroom as students mirror the educator’s actions. By embodying curiosity and open-mindedness, as Dewey states, educators create experiential democracy. Curiosity, Meadows (2006) explains, leads educators to continually absorb information about student interests to satisfy their pupil’s educational capacities and societal contributions. Meadows (2006) further states that open-mindedness involves the open acceptance of educators to the wide range of students’ ideas and perspectives.

Democratic classrooms that foster agency and agentic engagement allow educators to create authentic relationships with their students. By empowering students to voice their sentiments, educators provide open lines of communication. In turn, educators can effectively recognize and intercept mental health issues.

 Classroom Intervention and Mental Health

As discussed previously, teachers play a cardinal role in safeguarding students’ mental health; it is a heavy burden to carry, but one that can be lightened through effective intervention programs and bullying prevention techniques. A teacher intervention (typically prevention and response) program is relevant to mental health because it provides the teacher with a formula or guidelines for dealing with and positively preventing disruptive behaviour. It allows teachers to pinpoint unwanted behaviour and find a way to rectify it while still preserving the student’s dignity. When drafting the prevention portion of an intervention program, teachers need first to establish the ground rules of the classroom, ensuring students’ commitment and understanding of mutually agreed upon codes of conduct and standards. Creating a shared framework to operate within helps engender Battiste’s ideas of a “community of learners” (2015) which is fundamental when supporting students’ mental health.

Additionally, the response portion of an intervention plan must not meet challenging behaviour with aggression or unprofessionalism as this could compound said behaviour and can lead to further problems for the student. To protect students’ mental health, teachers must not use a response plan as “punishment” but rather, as Jones argues, a way to teach students that behaviours have consequences (Jones, 295021). While perhaps unknown to the students, neutrally responding to behaviour as said prior will help them foster their autonomy and idea of self. A proper and effective response plan also helps teachers prevent bullying in the classroom. By demonstrating to the class how to deal with conflicts or problems in a calm, respectful way, the teacher is modelling to the class positive behaviours that they can emulate in their social interactions. Moreover, another way teachers can create anti-bullying attitudes in the classroom is to utilize and educate their students on Reimers idea of restorative justice (2020). Reimers restorative justice emphasizes the morality of individuals, and thus the classroom. It stresses that violation of rules should be seen as more than just rule-breaking, but instead a breach of personal relationships, friendships, and responsibilities.

 Social-Emotional Learning Interventions

With the rise of mental health problems in elementary school-aged children, educators must ensure they have all the tools they need to help support students and create effective prevention strategies in the classroom. One way to go about this would be implementing social-emotional learning interventions. Educators spend the majority of the day with students and are a large influence on their mental health. To begin supporting students’ mental health, it is important to teach them what mental health is and different ways they can improve it. This learning aims to develop “cognitive, emotional and behavioral skills; self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, skills for initiating relationships, and responsible decision making (Nikolaou & Markogiannakis, 2017). A teacher’s role is to create learning opportunities on these skills to help support students’ mental health in the classroom.

Harvard’s Graduate school of education provides specific ways to implement social-emotional learning in the classroom setting. They recommend being intentional and engaging in role-playing while making intentional opportunities for learning (Tatter, 2019). They also suggest not being afraid of putting aside class time to help build up these skills. Another way to implement this type of learning includes creating a warm classroom climate and focusing on relationships (Tatter, 2019). It is important to let students know educators care about them and give them leadership opportunities in the classroom to develop trust. Along with this, it is important to create and maintain strong, long-term relationships in the classroom (Tatter, 2019).

John Dewey’s teachings support the idea of building strong relationships in the classroom as he argues that human beings can realize satisfaction and happiness through relationships with others and that developing personality in isolation is impossible (Bunge, 2004). A teacher must provide opportunities for social engagement and relationship building in the classroom. Harvard also discusses the importance of making discipline more inclusive and broadening the definition of student success (Tatter, 2019). The teacher should focus on healing relationships as opposed to punishment. Along with this, teachers should ensure that students know their success is not defined by just their grades, and that it can come from many other opportunities such as progress. Lastly, Harvard recommends that teachers advocate for their classrooms (Tatter, 2019). This is important as an educator has the connections to advocate for their student’s needs, whether it is a specific supply needed for the classroom or bringing in guest speakers.

Implementing social-emotional learning is an important role that teachers need to take on however, this can be easier said than done. With implementing social-emotional learning interventions, several challenges follow along. One of the main challenges is teachers feeling like they do not have any time. Taking time away from the curriculum can be hard however, teachers must realize the importance of these interventions and have their student’s best interests in mind. One way to overcome this challenge is to continue teaching the curriculum, but integrate social-emotional learning within lessons. This can be done through the choice of stories told to the class, or by creating opportunities for group work. Social-emotional learning interventions can show positive improvements in students’ mental health, and teachers should be using the skills listed above in their own classroom environments to provide further support for their students.

“The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social emotional learning as the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” (Move This World, 2018).

Teachers’ Role in Formatting Supportive Relationships within School Contexts

Teachers have a large role to play in the formation of supportive relationships in the school context. The relation between variables such as teacher–student relationship quality and student achievement have been well‐researched and documented for their importance (Hajovsky et al, 2020). Teacher-student relationships as well as parental involvement are an important part of students’ social capital and learning (Ma, Liu, and Li, 2022). Jeon et al (2021), also stresses the importance of building positive relationships between teachers and students’ parents, emphasizing that these relationships contribute to teachers’ relationships with students. Importantly, positive teacher-student relationships correlate greatly with a students’ academic performance (Ma, Liu, and Li, 2022). There are many great strategies to encourage and support student learning, such as through: Specific teaching strategies, encouraging students motivation, meeting students’ needs, school culture, educational environment, and the supportive dimension of education (Tripon, 2021). Classroom climate, including the role of teachers being supportive, is a very important factor in student educational success and outcomes (Tripon, 2021). Tripon (2021), emphasizes that supportive teachers use quality educational relationships and stimulate the students’ involvement in their own learning. Relationship‐building of student‐teacher relationships can also result in a significant reduction in challenging behaviour and hence is an effective model for student behaviour support (Yassine, Tipton, and Katic, 2020).

Research continues to explore and find the ways in which relational learning is fundamental for the well-being of students and their success, especially for students from disadvantaged contexts (Stahl, 2021). Relational learning is an important resource especially for marginalised students, which can inform their decision in regards to pursuing higher education (Stahl, 2021). Relationships between students and teachers contribute not only to students’ conception of themselves but also their general well-being, confidence, and aspirations (Stahl, 2021). Moreover, Stahl (2021), suggests that the importance of positive student–teacher relationships is of utmost importance, especially for marginalized or disengaged students. Teacher–student closeness also has large positive effects on students’ self‐efficacy (Hajovsky et al, 2020).

Optional Resources

  • Here is a website that suggests different age-appropriate books on mental health.
  • This website offers strategies that the web author and teacher uses in her classroom.
  • Here is a website, designed by a curriculum specialist and special educator, which offers de-escalation strategies for classroom educators.


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Classroom Practice in 2022 Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Catherine Vanner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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