How to Use Mental Health Check-Ins to Address Students’ Social and Emotional Needs

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

How to Use Mental Health Check-Ins to Address Students’ Social and Emotional NeedsStudents often have many things going on in their lives that are hidden from view; they may be grappling with traumatic experiences historically, in the home, in the neighborhood, with peers, in academics, or with their dreams and ambitions. Our students are emerging individuals with their own unique struggles. Someone in the school might be aware of their needs but can’t share them with others due to confidentiality. Sometimes students choose to process their emotions close to the vest.

Regardless of whether students discuss their personal trials, we adults need to interact with students without assuming we know their motivations. There might be factors we can’t see lurking behind student behaviors.

In schools, our professional purpose as counselors and educators is to foster our students’ confidence and curiosity. No matter our function, we are triaging the social and emotional needs of our students while they are with us in our scholastic bubble.

The Purpose of Check-Ins

SEL check-ins tell our students a lot about how we value them and want to develop relationships. Checking in with students does not have to be an intense, deep conversation about mental health. Many times, quick and intentional interactions with students help them develop a larger belief that there are people who recognize their existence and care about their well-being.

Laying the Groundwork

The key to student check-ins is consistency. In middle school, it takes about three meetings with a student to get them to trust your authenticity. Here is the pattern of response I experience with almost all students as I am establishing a relationship them:

  1. awkward and quiet with little eye contact
  2. question responses to every question asked by adult
  3. small bits of personal information offered as if testing
  4. excitement to communicate, with classic middle school nonchalance
  5. hook-line-and-sinker buddies with open conversation

Mind you, these interactions are typically around five minutes each—not long at all! Once you put in the work for the first couple of meetings, each subsequent Hello, how was your weekend? How is your mom doing? Don’t forget homework! is more impactful because the student believes you really want to know the answers. Responses from the students are also much more meaningful, and they grow more and more honest and emotionally based as time goes on. How are you feeling today? might then elicit a real and clear emotional check-in so that you can better assess what the student needs to have a successful day.

Recycle Old Habits

One of the easiest ways for teachers to incorporate mental health check-ins with their students is to rethink the way they use their entry and exit tickets. Exit tickets are classroom tools where students answer a couple of questions or provide a short answer before students conclude class. Entry and exit tickets can be used together for data collection on student understanding, and they are typically quick assessments.

Why not make them wellness centered? By getting a check on mood (maybe a sad/happy/indifferent scale for students to choose from) when students come into and leave the room, teachers can see what they may be combatting during instruction, as well as collect accountability data about the classroom environment’s impact on student feelings.

Quick check-in questions can include asking students what they need, how their evening went, how frustrated they were with their homework, whether they have thought about their goals, where their anxiety over an upcoming test is settling in their body, and so on. The possibilities are endless—just be sure to check in on the emotions instead of the content.

Using entry and exit tickets for mental health check-ins will also give teachers an idea of what students need. Are more than half the students anxious about a test or sad about a current event? With the data gathered during check-ins, a teacher would know what kinds of resources could benefit students, such as a specialist (maybe a school counselor or writing specialist) or help with organization or a breathing exercise.

What are some ways mental health check-ins can be implemented throughout class?

Individual Check-Ins: Emphasize privacy and confidentiality with minute meetings or doorway greetings.

Example: Take the last five to ten minutes of class to give students an exit ticket and ask that they bring you their ticket individually to turn it in so you can discuss. You can train patience by telling them to come up one at a time!

Whole-Class Check-Ins: Emphasize general feelings and events all students will experience with digital surveys, hand raising, and reflection charts that can mark either singular periods of time or continuous shifting.

Example: Give each student a two-sided card and instruct the students to turn the card over when they become frustrated during class. You can train self-regulation by asking that students close their eyes and take a deep breath until you can get to them to assist.

Peer Check-Ins: Emphasize community building and empathy building by creating pairs or small groups in which you give students sentence starters with discussion time.

Example: In groups of three, tell students to take turns identifying their favorite and least favorite memory from the weekend. You can train leadership by telling the students to take turns being the interviewer to help the other two students problem-solve their least favorite memory.

Simplicity Is Key

Mental health checks-ins do not need to be time-consuming or require psychological or clinical follow-through. I have so many teachers that have amazing doorway techniques; they make little connections with every student as kids walk into their classroom. They make eye contact, some of them shake hands (pre-COVID), and others say each name with a genuine salutation. These teachers will without a doubt be more likely to then email me when their students have settled into an assignment and let me know who could use further assistance.

Taking time to lay the groundwork for student relationships will lead to more meaningful interactions. Even when a student shoos you away, keep at it! When you show a student you truly care about how they are doing, instead of asking on a whim or as part of the job of an adult, they will feel safer about really opening up to you. This type of deeper connection gives you a much better read on how the student is truly handling their day, week, or year.

Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.


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