Why It’s Important for Teachers to Recognize and Understand Students’ Mental Health Challenges

By Myles L. Cooley, Ph.D., author of A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator: How to Recognize, Understand, and Help Challenged (and Challenging) Students Succeed

There are lots of students with mental health challenges in your classrooms.

Let’s look at the numbers:

Why It’s Important for Teachers to Recognize and Understand Students’ Mental Health Challenges

  • Twenty percent of students have a diagnosable mental health disorder.1 Many more have mental health difficulties that don’t rise to the level of a diagnosis. The majority of these students are in regular education classes.
  • Many of these students cause behavior problems. Rates of expulsion and suspension are three times higher among students with mental health disorders.2
  • There are not nearly enough school psychologists, counselors, or social workers to assist teachers with these students. The numbers of these professionals in schools fall well below levels recommended by their national associations.3
  • You get training in CPR, peanut allergies, and shooter drills, but no training in children’s mental health problems.

What hath the pandemic brought?

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the numbers of students with depression, anxiety, loneliness, and grief.4 The number of students eleven through seventeen years old screened for depression and anxiety was nine percent higher in 2020 than in 2019. Children sent to emergency rooms for conditions rose dramatically between April and October 2020. Jen Vorse Wilka, president of YouthTruth, says, “Feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious is now the No. 1 obstacle to students’ learning.”5

And the future? Although many welcome a return to school, for one-third of students, this will only increase their stress.6

Why is important for you to recognize and understand these students?

Because only if you understand why students behave a certain way can you respond to and teach them appropriately. Here are some examples:


If you believe, as many do, that ADHD is simply a problem with concentration and/or impulsivity/hyperactivity, you won’t understand that these students also have weaknesses in executive functions. These are problems with starting and finishing classwork and homework, sustaining attention, organization, planning, transitioning, and working memory.

Working memory is holding information in your mind while you do something else, and then recalling the information. This executive function can cause problems in all academic subjects. In five-year-olds, working memory is more predictive than IQ is for future academic success.7

Executive function problems are a part of the disability ADHD and should not be penalized but accommodated. For example, a student who doesn’t complete classwork due to slow processing speed or off-task behavior associated with ADHD should not be kept in at recess to complete that work. An appropriate accommodation might be reduced classwork.

Oppositional behavior

Not all oppositional behavior represents intentional defiance. For example, students who resist participating or speaking in front of the class may have social anxiety. Other students who are depressed may act out with misbehavior.

Autism spectrum disorder

These students may need you to be very specific with your language because they interpret instructions very literally. For example, when you’re preparing to go to the cafeteria and you say “Line up,” autistic students may be confused because they think you’re talking about some line that goes up. The first few times you give this direction, it will be helpful if you’re explicit: “Class, we’re going to line up now. That means all of you will go over to the wall and stand in a line. Each of you will be in front of and in back of another student.” In the future when you say, “Line up,” autistic students will understand.

Older students wearing long sleeves on hot days

Students who engage in self-harm (cutting) will usually cover marks on their wrists and arms. Certainly, this is not likely the case for most students who wear long sleeves in hot weather, but it should arouse your suspicion. You are obligated to inform parents of students younger than years old if you verify self-harm behavior.


Regardless of whether a student has a mental health disorder, arguably the most difficult students for teachers are those who misbehave. A relatively new philosophy and practice for discipline in school or at home is based on the assumption that the goal of discipline is to teach.8 What’s wrong with older approaches to discipline?

  • Rewards and punishments don’t teach.
  • Time-outs don’t teach. They isolate and reject children.

The newer approach is based on the following ideas:

  • Kids do well if they can. Most problematic behavior is due to lagging skills.9
  • Kids know what to do, but they can’t do what they know.10
  • Most misbehavior is more about “can’t” than “won’t.” 11
  • Every time kids misbehave, they give us a chance to know what they need help learning.12

So what should teachers do instead?13

  • Connect with the child with a calm face and voice.
  • Define the problem as an observation. (“I noticed you just pushed Felix.”)
  • Do not ask “why.”
  • Stop talking and listen.
  • Validate how child feels.
  • Tell the student how the behavior affects others.
  • Invite the student to a later discussion to find alternatives to the misbehavior.

Ross Greene calls this procedure “collaborative problem-solving.” You can read about this in his books:

  • Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child
  • Lost and Found: Helping Behaviorally Challenged Students

Teachers, you have a really challenging job. Your primary role is to teach. But we know that when students are not okay emotionally, they can’t learn effectively. So, although recognizing, understanding, accommodating, and intervening with these students is one more additional task for you, it will help your students learn what you’re trying to teach. Although teachers are not mental health practitioners, they are the “eyes and ears” of mental health.14


  1. Cooley, Myles. 2018. A Practical Guide to Mental Health and Learning Disorders for Every Educator. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit, 2.
  2. Cooley 2018, 2.
  3. Cooley 2018, 2.
  4. Clopton, Jennifer. 2021. “Students Try to Cope As Pandemic Strains Mental Health.” WEBMD News. webmd.com/lung/news/20210324/students-try-to-cope-as-pandemic-strains-mental-health.
  5. Wong, Alia. 2021. “Students Crushed by Stress, Depression Are Back in Class. Here’s How Schools Meet Their Needs.” USA Today. usatoday.com/in-depth/news/education/2021/04/11/the-ongoing-student-mental-health-crisis/4833824001.
  6. Wong 2021.
  7. Alloway, Tracy Packiam, and Ross G. Alloway. 2010. “Investigating the Predictive Roles of Working Memory and IQ in Academic Attainment.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 106 (1): 20–29. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20018296.
  8. Siegel, Dan, and Tina Bryson. 2016. No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Bantam.
  9. Greene, Ross. 2014. Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them. New York: Scribner.
  10. Barkley, Russell A., ed. 2018. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment, Fourth Edition. New York: Guilford Press.
  11. Siegel and Bryson 2016.
  12. Siegel and Bryson 2016.
  13. Siegel and Bryson 2016; Greene 2014.
  14. Wong 2021.

Myles CooleyMyles L. Cooley, Ph.D., has been practicing psychology for over 30 years. He evaluates and treats children, adolescents, and adults for a variety of problems. Dr. Cooley serves as a consultant to schools and has presented educational programs to educators, mental health professionals, physicians, and parents.


Practical Guide to MHLD for Every EducatorMyles is the author of A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator.


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