“Do You Need to Talk?” Simple ways to tap into the mental health of our students

This is a guest post by teaching Fellow, zhane burton who currently serves at the orchard gardens k-8 pilot school in Massachusetts.


I am an educator. I am not a psychiatrist nor a trained mental health professional, but in my role as a Citizen Schools Teaching Fellow it’s my job to show students I care. The students I work with are between 13 and 15 years old. They have complex feelings and emotions and I seek to treat them as such, as opposed to “just kids” that don’t know any better. When I am supporting students in their classes, I often ask “how are you?” and mean it genuinely.


As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety their whole life, mental health is a subject that’s very close to me. During the break between Fall and Spring semester, otherwise known as - intersession, I taught a self-care class that gave me valuable insight into how my students were feeling. In the class, I did what people usually think of when they hear self-care: stress balls, face masks, (like pictured to the left) and fun, relaxing things. However, what most people don’t realize is that that's not all self-care is; it’s also owning up to your own behaviors, unlearning certain habits, and trying to better yourself as a whole person. I always started the class with a check-in sheet that included prompts such as,  “What’s your stress level from 1-10?” “What made you happy today?” and “What upset you today?” It was simple and easy, but it gave students  a moment to decompress and reflect before class started.

I also had the students write self-care goals according to those criteria so I could help them and watch them grow. I held 1:1’s and check-ins with each student, using their goal sheets to keep them accountable for how they wanted to better themselves. This process is where I realized how much students were struggling internally and how having a trusted confidant might help. They shared struggles with self-esteem, body image, and a plethora of other things.

Working with middle school students is a whole new road for me and it took some adjusting when it came to classroom management. At first I, like many Teaching Fellows, would get frustrated with students’ behaviors and immediately want to send them out of class when they started acting up. I had to remind myself that this isn’t ok, and most students don’t lash out for no apparent reason. When I would actually sit down with a student and ask them to tell me why they were acting a certain way, they opened up to me. They would tell me about something that upset them during the day, something that may be happening at home, or many other reasons. The point is: there’s always a reason. This isn’t to say that all negative behavior  should be excused, but it’s important to get better insight into our students and understand why they do what they do.

We all have the tools to help our students in this way. Simple questions such as; “Why are you upset today?” “Do you need to talk about it?” “Do you need a break?”  can make a big difference, and I’ve seen them work. My students have told me that they consider me a friend because I listen to them, genuinely care about them, and help them with their problems. I’ve stood by them while they cried and spoken up for them to faculty when I knew they were right.

Unfortunately, my students are often told that they’re a problem and don’t have a future. Showing them compassion is the most basic thing I can do, but it’s one of the most important.  It’s my duty, and ours as an organization, to prove to students that teachers and educators care about them. As a community, we can to do better for our students. We see them hurting and dismiss it as a bad attitude. We need to start listening and helping them.

Interested to learn more about depression in schools? Here are a few resources: