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The Virtual School Teacher: How Do You Monitor Student Mental Health During COVID-19?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

Families around the U.S. are adapting to a new normal.

Not just one new normal, but new patterns in almost every area of life: how they shop, how they work, how they spend free time, how they exercise, and how they maintain relationships with friends and extended family.

They’re also adapting to how their kids go to school: if you’re a schoolteacher, that’s where you come in.

At some point over the last couple of weeks, you got a call, email, or notification from your school principal. Or maybe they saw it coming and had a staff meeting while everyone was on school property. Whatever the case, the content of the communication went something like this:

“Authorities have ordered schools in our district to close. We’re shifting to a virtual learning platform starting now.”

Granted, that’s an oversimplification – but not by much. Most teachers had, at most, a weekend to shift all their classes to online learning. Some had a three-day weekend, while others had to make the change overnight.

If you’re a teacher, the order sent you scrambling to adapt everything to a new format. You reorganized the semester curriculum, daily lesson plans, homework, project assignments, and assessments. Then you set up video conferencing. And then you wrote how-to guides for your students and their parents. You did everything you could to make sure your students knew what to do and how and when to do it.

You had to do it fast.

Somehow, you made it happen.

But something in the back of your mind bugged you: what about the at-risk kids? Those teetering on the edge of academic, emotional, or behavioral problems. The ones you keep an eye on every day, watching for signs of progress, or signs of increasing distress.

What was going to happen to them?

Keeping Tabs on At-Risk Kids

You worried about those students.

It probably kept you up at night.

Then the first day of virtual learning arrived, and it all got real. You adjusted everything on the fly. You worked out the kinks in your video conferencing platforms and made your avatar something fun without undermining your role as teacher and authority figure. On day one, you watched as your students logged on and completed assignments. They sent you messages asking for help and clarification, which you answered as promptly as possible.

When you checked attendance and who was turning in what, you noticed some missing assignments, and some incomplete assignments. You also noticed some students had not logged in at all. No logins, no completed assignments, no posted questions, no emails from parents, nothing.

And those are some of the kids you were worried about.

So what do you do?

How can you help those kids?

In the absence of face-to-face contact, how can you tell which kids are succeeding, which kids are holding steady, and which kids are falling through the cracks?

We pooled our resources, tapped into our collective knowledge – many of us here at Evolve have friends and family in education – and created this list of tips for teachers adapting to their new roles in the world of virtual learning.

Tips for Teachers: How to Monitor Student Mental Health During COVID-19

1. Trust your instincts.

Here’s something to remember: you, as a teacher, probably know more about your students and how they learn than almost anyone else. Are there things in their lives you don’t know about? Sure. However, right now you’re probably the world’s foremost expert on your students. You’ve watched them learn and grow over this school year – maybe longer, depending on the circumstance – which means you know their strengths and challenge areas. You know their habits and patterns. You’ve learned how to connect with them and what kind of differentiated instruction they need. You know when to lean in and when to back off.

That’s why – as you go through the rest of this list – you should trust your ideas about your students and what they’re going through. If you think something is off, act on that thought in whatever way is available to you: talk to your administrator, talk to the school counselor, or reach out directly to the student or their parents, if school policy allows.

2. Use the standard metrics.

Everything is the same, but nothing is the same. We say that because now, under these unique COVID-19 circumstances, we want to remind you the exact same metrics you used to gauge student progress before – attendance, completing in-class work, completing homework, performance on assessments – are still there, and they’re still valid. Those are still your first-line metrics for student mental health. Any changes from baseline merit your attention and concern. That’s the most important thing to watch for: things that are out of character or are not consistent with the character and temperament of the student you’ve come to know so well over the past year.

This applies to their virtual work as well as their behavior during video conferences or live virtual learning sessions, as well.

The objective measures speak for themselves – i.e. an assignment is either complete or not – but you have to go looking for the subjective measures. The time to do that is during any live contact you have with your students. Whether it’s a large group video meeting, a small video conference, or a one-on-one video chat, keep your eyes open. Here’s what to watch for:

    • Ability to make eye contact or look directly into the camera: Does your student look directly into the camera? If not, do they know where the camera is? Once you establish what the virtual version of eye contact is, evaluate whether they can maintain it or not. Any change from the student you know merits a follow-up.
    • Body language: Are they slouching? Are they agitated? Do they seem low-energy? Do they seem high-energy?
    • Ability to focus: Are your students able to maintain their focus for an entire class period or for the duration of a videoconference or virtual class?
    • Vocal tone and speech patterns: Allowing for the fact that voices may sound different online, do you detect any changes in the way your students communicate? Does a previously animated talker now have a flat affect? Does a previously quiet student talk a mile a minute?

When reviewing these metrics – both objective and observational – keep in mind that everything is the same but nothing is the same. By that we mean that while the old indicators are still valid, they may not mean what they used to mean. For instance, a high-achieving student who hasn’t turned in a single assignment is not necessarily having problems – they may just be clicking the wrong icon on your virtual platform. At the same time, a relatively unmotivated student who shows up for every virtual meeting, posts lots of questions, and is eager to communicate may be reaching out for help or seeking connection, support, and understanding from you. In both instances, your best option – while following school regulations – is to reach out to the student and family and check in. What happens next depends on how the family responds: if you can’t make contact, tell your principal.

4. Be intentional.

We know you set up all your assignments and virtual sessions with everyone in mind. You maximize your instructional time, ensure each lesson benefits every student, and set up every student to succeed. That’s the academic side. On the mental health and emotional wellness side, you can make a difference by asking a few simple questions every time you post an assignment, lead a virtual class, or participate in a videoconference. General questions to ask groups might be:

    • How is everyone feeling?
    • Is there anything on your mind?
    • Is anyone stressed out over COVID-19?
    • How about your siblings and parents? Are they stressed?

Specific questions you can ask students via email or in videoconferences might be:

    • I noticed you haven’t been turning in your assignments on time. Do you need more time with them? Is there anything going on I need to know about?
    • You seem more quiet than usual. Did you notice that? Is something bothering you?
    • You’re more talkative than I’ve ever seen you. Did you notice that? Are you excited about something?

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Everything we said previously depends on efficient, direct, and proactive communication. Here’s why: the exact same behavior could mean opposite things in different students. For example, a student who’s more talkative than usual could be talking more for two reasons (of many): 1. They’re lonely and desperate for contact with anybody – even their teacher. 2. They love virtual learning, they’re excited about the material, and they’re all in for the first time, ever.

Same behavior, different causes.

The first student might need additional support because they’re verging on a depressive episode, while the second student might need support in the form of a validation for their level of commitment and enthusiasm. The best way to tell the difference between student (1) and (2) is by communicating with them (or their parents) via email, phone, or videoconference. When you find out what’s going on, you can offer the appropriate support. If you don’t make contact, you’re less likely to understand how you can best support your student.

5. Assume good will.

Also assume every student needs a check-in. This is an unusual time for everyone. That’s a fact: we’re living through a global pandemic the size and scope of which hasn’t been seen in a century. Teachers are, by nature, an empathetic bunch, so we want to caution you against assuming the worst when a student you love is a virtual no-show: it’s possible everything’s fine, and they’re experiencing technical glitches. It’s also possible the family has decided that virtual school is for the birds, and they’re disconnecting from everything and circling the wagons for the rest of the school year – or at least until this whole thing blows over.

Be patient and give everyone a chance to get their bearings. Try to avoid jumping to the worst-case scenario: some things that look like problems now might not be problems, at all. At the same time, check in with each and every one of your students, if possible: that’s the best way to know what’s going on.

How to Use These Tips

These five tips can help you, the teacher, ensure you’re doing all you can to help your students. If you sense a problem, reach out, and get no reply, then it’s time to let your school principal or guidance counselor know what’s going on. They can arrange phone calls, conferences, or socially responsible meetings. They can follow up where you can’t, and help get to the root of whatever problem your students might have. We know firsthand of principals getting on the phone with students to walk through the ins and outs of virtual learning platforms, teachers texting students and parents with advice, and guidance counselors conducting in-person home visits – while following all the social distancing guidelines, of course.

The Role of the Teacher

You know better than anyone that teachers do more than teach. They’re part of a team that guides students from youth to adulthood – a process that entails far more than learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. One thing COVID-19 teaches us – something we should all know already – is that teachers are also de facto front-line mental health workers. While most are not trained therapists, they are often the first to notice changes that may indicate underlying and/or developing mental or emotional disorders.

Teachers notice things, and when they see changes, they tell the people who need to know.

That’s what to look for now: changes.

The challenge is that this is a time of change, which means that changes in behavior are to be expected. You, as a teacher, are used to noticing changes. That’s why you adapt material mid-lesson when you’re losing the class or alter your approach to a subject mid-semester when your first attempts at teaching specific material does not work. In the virtual milieu, the trick for you is to be more intentional and explicit about noticing changes than ever before, because it’s possible you’ll notice things no one else does.

Those things may be positive, and they may be negative.

If they’re positive, you’ll be the first person to validate your student’s progress – and that’s a good thing. If you notice behavior that could indicate an underlying problem, you may be the reason a student who’s struggling with an emerging or underlying emotional or behavioral disorder gets the help they need – and that may be more than a good thing: it could make all the difference.

Commmunity Notice: If you or a parent you know is struggling, Evolve offers free virtual support groups for parents of teens seeking practical guidance and emotional support. Choose from our parent support groups on Tuesdays at 7pm PST or Thursdays 10am PST.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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