As many people know, these last two years of life in a pandemic have been challenging for many children and adolescents. The stress has particularly affected young people who were already vulnerable, including youth of color, those with disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTQ+.

Although you may be seeing upbeat learners in your virtual classroom at Outschool, it is possible that some may be struggling in a way you may not realize. For some young people, connecting with you, being able to learn about topics they enjoy, and engaging with peers may be particularly important right now and an uplifting part of their day.

The state of young people’s mental health

Uncertainty, anxiety, and grief are some of the emotions that young people have experienced since the arrival of COVID-19, due to disrupted routines and stressed families, the disappearance of regular interactions with friends, and even the death of loved ones.

A few figures underscore the fragile mental health that many children and youth currently experience. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that in 2020, compared to 2019, the number of mental health-related emergency room visits increased:

  • 31% for 12- to 17-year-olds
  • 24% for 5- to 11-year-olds

The situation didn’t improve in 2021. Children’s hospitals nationwide reported self-injury and suicide cases at a 45% higher rate for children and youth ages 5 through 17 in the first half of 2021 compared to 2019. And in December of 2021, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory on the youth mental health crisis. The good news is that adults and educators have the power to help.

Support your learners

Paying attention to the emotional health and wellbeing of children and youth is particularly important right now, and checking in with learners to see how they are doing can provide needed support. You are likely already taking intentional steps to build relationships with learners and families, but this may be a time to increase your efforts.

Even if your particular learners don’t ultimately need more support, everyone gains with positive relationships. Strong relationships are central to Outschool’s EPIC teaching framework, an approach that focuses on empowering, passion-driven, intentional, and connected teaching. And, Outschool has evidence that positive connections with educators as well as peers are a key factor for families when choosing classes.

Create a welcoming community

Creating an environment where all learners feel safe is an important first step. What are ways to build connections and let learners know that you care about and are interested in them? Here are 10 of our favorites:

Start each class by welcoming learners in an age-appropriate way. Your first encounter with each learner sets the tone and lets them know they are a valued part of the community.

Know each learner’s name and how to pronounce it. Realizing that someone took the time to learn your name makes people feel they matter.

Take a moment to ask learners how they are in a way that is comfortable for them and your class community. Young learners might enjoy selecting a feeling card and describing the emotion they are experiencing right now and why. Teenagers might like to mix it up, with a numeric check-in one time and an emoji check-in another.

Make sure to model and communicate that listening is important. Not only does this mean giving learners your attention, but if you remember what learners have shared, that can make them feel special. You may even want to make private learner notes to help you remember so that you can personalize conversations with questions like “How is your new puppy?”

Respond to what learners share. One Outschool teacher, Ashton Khan, asked learners in his class about their particular interests and then brought in speakers on those topics. A parent shared in an interview with Outschool that her son and other learners enjoyed Khan’s “fun and nice” approach and that bringing in speakers based on each learner’s interest “meant a lot” to her son.

Build community with collaborative games like “Raise your hand if…,” where you ask questions, such as whether learners have a pet or like pizza, so learners can see similarities they have with others in the class. For more ideas, see this list of community-building activities that help learners get to know one another.

Be open to all backgrounds and cultures to provide social and emotional safety for everyone, including learners of all genders and sexual identities. Create opportunities for learners to hear from their peers about their experiences and perspectives, as fits your class. Reflect on your own experiences, challenge any of your stereotypes, and commit to seeing the strengths of your learners, including those different from you.

Bring a variety of perspectives into your class, including those of marginalized groups like Indigenous peoples. Not only does drawing on multiple perspectives help learners see different points of view and develop empathy, but it can raise the voices of and shine a light on the contributions of people whose stories our society may have minimized.

Give meaningful compliments. Choose something specific to praise a learner for, such as “I liked the way you described the plot” or “That was kind of you to help your friend.” If you make praise about learners’ actions instead of who they are, that gives them the power to choose that behavior again. Also, be sure to share compliments with all learners in the class – you may even want to keep track of who you have made positive comments to so that you don’t miss anyone.

End the class on a positive note. According to the peak-end rule, people remember the end of an experience. So, have your learners leave your class with a memorable activity like asking learners to share one new thing they learned or having shoutouts where each learner compliments someone else in the class.

Communicate with parents

Building relationships with parents and families is equally important. You may already be sharing positive comments about learners with their parents, but know that each genuine compliment you make builds goodwill and trust and indicates that you care about their child. If possible, make these comments specific. For example, you could point out how engaged a learner is when the class is learning about a favorite animal.

Having a strong relationship with parents also opens the door for you to share your observations and check in with them by sending a message after class, say if a learner didn’t seem like herself that day. Make sure to reiterate how much you appreciate their child and want to make sure she is okay. Use your best judgment about whether this kind of dialogue will be well received.

Health and safety are paramount

These tips are meant to help you create a welcoming, inclusive space that supports all learners’ mental health. Like teachers in most education settings, educators at Outschool should avoid doing anything that looks like medical care, such as giving diagnoses or providing therapy services.

If you teach on Outschool and encounter situations with a learner that cause a larger concern, you can contact Outschool’s Safety Team at safety@outschool.com. If a learner’s safety is in immediate jeopardy, encourage that person to call 911 in addition to reaching out to the Safety Team.

And lastly: Take care of yourself during this pandemic time, too! This period has been tough on many educators and their families as well. Make sure to make time for self-care, whatever that means for you. Consider joining Outschool’s Teacher Wellness Group on Facebook, if you haven’t already. Online platforms like Outschool have opened up new teaching avenues, and perhaps teaching about subjects you enjoy and connecting with learners in your virtual classroom can be a bright spot for you, too. Learn more about teaching on Outschool.

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