By Deanna Swift, Ph.D., C. Psych., Implementation Coach, School Mental Health Ontario
Ontario schools are well-positioned to promote the mental health of all students and focus on the prevention of mental health problems and early intervention for students who may be more vulnerable to mental health problems, like those with learning disabilities (LDs). Educators can make a significant positive impact on student mental health and well-being by creating caring conditions, teaching mental health literacy, and when students are struggling with a mental health difficulty and then referring them to the appropriate supports.
Every Ontario school board and school authority has a Mental Health Leadership team that oversees a strategic plan focused on student mental health promotion, prevention, and early intervention. In their efforts to create a mentally healthy classroom, educators are encouraged to become familiar with their board’s strategy and resources.
The Aligned and Integrated Model (AIM) from School Mental Health Ontario offers a provincial framework and resources for educators and school staff to support student well-being at all three tiers of promotion, prevention, and intervention.
To learn more about the role of educators in promoting mental health, click here to view the “Tip Sheet for Staff to Support Positive Mental Health for All Students (smho-smso.ca)”
Supporting the Mental Health of Students with LDs
Students with learning disabilities may be at greater risk for mental health problems including ADHD, anxiety, mood disorders, and interpersonal problems (Buber et. al., 2020). Good teaching practices and classroom accommodations to support students when they are presenting with feelings, thoughts, and behaviours that are interfering with learning can be an important protective factor and help bolster their skills toward success.
Supporting Minds Strategies at a Glance (smho-smso.ca) provides educators with specific strategies and ideas for how to support students with mental health problems such as anxiety, mood, or attention difficulties in the classroom. This reference guide provides good teaching practices and accommodations to both support and improve students’ well-being in response to common observable signs of mental health problems.
Greeting all students by name with a warm smile and a genuine welcome helps students feel comfortable at school and builds educator-student relationships. Students need to know that you care about them and their success at school.
When schools and classrooms are welcoming and caring spaces, students are more likely to attend and engage in learning. Moreover, students with learning challenges benefit from knowing there are caring educators who are available and willing to help them with patience and understanding. Strong caring relationships open the door to asking for and accepting help and are paramount to the academic success and well-being of students with LDs (Hamre & Pianata, 2006).
Along with the student, welcome their technology, including laptops, phones, headphones, smart pens, and iPads. Making space for technology to be utilized, charged, and stored securely helps encourage their use and integration into the classroom. Devices are essential learning tools for students with LDs and creating an environment that breaks down barriers and promotes their use demonstrates that we value all kinds of learners equally. Students with LDs often report that they don’t like to use their technology and devices because they don’t want to stand out from their peers. When we welcome assistive technology as part of the learning environment and highlight adaptive learning activities, we can elevate the benefits of using tech in the classroom. Welcoming all students in the class to bring and utilize their own devices for learning helps normalize the use of technology, preparing students for post-secondary learning and the workplace where technology is often an essential tool for success.
Student mental health is promoted when schools cultivate a community where students’ culture and diversity are celebrated and where all types of learners can be successful. All students want to feel included and see themselves reflected in the learning. Students with learning exceptionalities may disengage in learning if they don’t feel their success is valued or supported. Students with LDs often wish to blend into mainstream classroom learning rather than be identified as a special education learner or be required to go to an alternate setting for special instruction. Being made to feel included in the classroom can instill a greater sense of confidence in students to ensure that they know they are valued, contributing members of the class.
Students with LDs often experience peer rejection, bullying, and loneliness due to either the stigma associated with a special education label and/or due to poor social skills, putting them at further risk for negative self-concepts and poor mental health (Zeleke, 2004). Educators can be mindful to group students together for success and provide opportunities for students with LDs to foster friendships and a sense of belonging among their peers.
Developing talents, interests, athletic and artistic skills can provide struggling learners with a creative outlet and feelings of accomplishment that may serve as a protective factor for mental health problems. Offering school clubs, teams, and opportunities for students to engage with educators and peers with similar interests can promote feelings of belonging and acceptance which are essential for mental well-being.
UNDERSTAND Mental Health and Your Students
Getting to know each student along with their unique academic, social, and emotional strengths and needs helps educators to check in with students about how they are doing, observe their baseline behaviours, and notice early on when a student is struggling. Watching for changes in a student’s mood and behaviour that interfere with learning or social functioning is the first step to supporting them, followed by having a caring conversation with the student. In many cases, acknowledging and trying to understand a student’s distress leads to finding collaborative solutions for the classroom and promoting resilience.
Learning challenges can be stressful for students and sometimes lead to feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and helplessness, putting them at risk for mental health problems. Universal design with differentiated instruction can provide opportunities for success and mastery of learning which can go a long way to promoting self-esteem and feelings of competence for students with LDs. Well-developed and implemented individual education plans based on assessment and an understanding of the individual’s strengths, needs, and interests, and that address specific processing deficits, academic challenges, and skill development, are essential for learning and academic success. A good education plan can help mitigate academic stress and should be reviewed and updated as a targeted intervention when a student is experiencing mental health challenges.
It is also important to consider the cultural context of the student with an LD, such as belonging to a racialized group or identifying as LGBTQ2+, to best understand what factors may put them at risk or impact their mental health. Be mindful of systemic oppressions, stigma, bullying, and a lack of culturally relevant resources that may be affecting the success and well-being of students with LDs. Becoming an adult ally for students with LDs who are marginalized is another way to protect their mental health. Here are
Increase your own Mental Health Literacy
You don’t have to be an expert on mental health to make a big difference as an educator or to support the mental health of students with LDs. By implementing the AIM model of mental health at school, you are helping to promote wellness, build protective factors, and provide supportive strategies for success.
Many educators have not received formal training related to mental health and mental health problems. However, in the past decade, there have been many new resources developed for educators to better understand the impact of well-being on student achievement and to guide them in delivering mental health literacy curriculum and a thoughtful approach to supporting students.
Educators can gain a deeper understanding of mental health at school by completing the MH-Lit: Mental Health in Action course from School Mental Health Ontario, designed to provide them with basic knowledge about common mental health problems as well as strategies and practices for the classroom.
Click here to access the MH LIT Online Course - Educators - School Mental Health Ontario (smho-smso.ca)
Continue your learning about how to best support the mental health of students with LD by completing the LD@school module: Supporting the Well-Being and Mental Health of Students with Learning Disabilities
PROMOTE Mental Health through direct teaching and everyday practices
- creating mentally healthy classroom environments that help students to feel that they belong and are welcome and included
- encouraging activities and initiatives designed to promote positive mental health
- teaching social-emotional skills to help students navigate relationships, figure out who they are and how they belong, and stay resilient when life hands them challenges
- building student mental health literacy so they know how to care for their mental health, identify signs of difficulty, and reach out for help early if they need assistance
- working to reduce stigma related to mental health and mental illness
- helping students who may be struggling with a mental health problem through ongoing classroom support and accommodations
Creating a positive mentally healthy classroom environment that reduces stigma, includes culturally relevant learning, and integrates discussions about mental health is an important role for educators and promotes well-being for all learners. While mental health promotion is good for all students, it is even more essential for students with LDs and mental health problems. Students with LDs often have lagging/weaker social-emotional learning (SEL) skills and need extra support as a result. With explicit, intentional lessons and incorporating daily mental health practices into the school day, educators can help bolster skills for resiliency and success (Milligan et. al., 2016).
Educator resources are available from SMH-ON to help you create and maintain a healthy classroom as well as promote mental health literacy through ready-to-use lessons.
Everyday Mental Health Practices (Primary, Junior, Intermediate)
Virtual Field Trips: Stress Management and Coping (Early Years, 1-3, 4-6, 7-8 and 9-12)
Health and Physical Education Curriculum-Mental Health Literacy Lesson Plans (Primary, Junior, Intermediate)
Conversation Starters (Intermediate, Secondary)
In addition, when delivering mental health promotion lessons or practices in the classroom, here are some additional considerations for supporting wellness amongst students with special education needs, MH-Promotion-at-School-Special-Education-Considerations.pdf (smho-smso.ca)
PARTNER with Students and Caregivers
We need to remember that we should not be planning for students without their input. Take the time with students to not only discuss their education plans but also to identify how they are feeling and coping with both academic and social demands at school. By fostering a collaborative approach with students, you model the importance of self-awareness and problem solving, creating a trusting environment that encourages them to advocate for their needs and find solutions and strategies to thrive at school. Helping students identify their stressors, as well as their coping strategies, strengths, and allies, can be empowering and promote resilience. Furthermore, developing traits such as high intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy, and self-confidence as well as coping strategies to manage academic demands may serve as protective factors for mental health (Visser et al., 2020). To learn more about how to support your students in becoming self-advocates, click here to access the LD@school learning module "Fostering Advocacy for Students with LDs"
Some students will require individualized social-emotional goals on their IEP, to target learning social skills or executive functioning skills to improve functioning. Others may benefit from an individual support plan, or a coping plan, such as this one from SMH-ON, Student Well-Being Plan (smho-smso.ca) When students co-create their plans they will be more likely to benefit from them.
Reach out to caregivers and invite them to share both their concerns and solutions for supporting their child’s learning and mental health. Work collaboratively to find a shared perspective on how to support the student and develop educational support plans. In instances where the student with LDs has an identified mental health problem and already has an intervention plan, work with their parents to discuss what successful strategies might be helpful to reinforce coping at school. If warranted, seek consent to share information with the mental health provider to collaborate on setting up expectations and supports at school. Asking caregivers how they are doing and listening with compassion and empathy can make a huge difference to establishing a good home-school partnership.
In some cases, you may be the one to bring your concerns about the mental health of a student with LDs forward to a caregiver. This conversation can be a delicate one. Rather than formulating your opinion about a student’s struggles, simply communicate your observations and concern for the student’s well-being. You may say something like, “I have noticed that Arun does not seem himself. He has been withdrawn, doesn’t seem to be hanging around his friends at school, and has not been turning in assignments. I am concerned about how he is doing and hope we can come up with some ideas that might help.” Talking with Parents and Families about Mental Health (smho-smso.ca) provides more tips on creating safe and supportive conversations with families.
PARTNER with School Mental Health Professionals
As an educator, you are not alone; there are school mental health professionals, such as School Social Workers and Psychologists, who have training in assessment and intervention of significant mental health problems as well as crisis intervention and are a part of your student support team. Some students with LDs may require some more targeted support to flourish. Seek consultation with your school mental health professionals to discuss in general what you are observing and possible support strategies. Professional staff can confirm whether a formal referral is required.
School Mental Health Professionals may provide a range of student support services such as:
- Support during parent meetings to help explain mental health concerns and possible resources
- Crisis intervention and management
- Consultation for student coping and safety plans
- Student assessment, counselling, and psychotherapy for early intervention of mental health problems
Early diagnosis and interventions act as protective factors against worsening mental health conditions; educators have an important role to play in making timely referrals for mental health support. Knowing the pathway and who to turn to at your school to access mental health help for a student you are concerned about can make all the difference.
School Mental Health Ontario has created some tools to help you record the circle of supports and contacts within your local school board.
As an educator, you may be the one to notice and identify a concern for an individual student with LDs, or a student who is receiving treatment may be in your class. You are an integral part of the student’s circle of support. Students with LDs will benefit from your ongoing work to create a mentally healthy classroom, your collaboration with the support team, and the individualized support you provide in class.
Büber, A., Başay, Ö., & Şenol, H. (2020). The prevalence and comorbidity rates of specific learning disorder among primary school children in Turkey. Nordic journal of psychiatry, 74(6), 453-460.
Daley, S. G., & Rappolt-Schlichtmann, G. (2018). Stigma consciousness among adolescents with learning disabilities: Considering individual experiences of being stereotyped. Learning Disability Quarterly, 41(4), 200-212.
Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2006). Student-Teacher Relationships.
Milligan, K., Phillips, M., & Morgan, A. S. (2016). Tailoring Social Competence Interventions for Children with Learning Disabilities. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(3), 856-869.
Visser, L., Kalmar, J., Linkersdörfer, J., Görgen, R., Rothe, J., Hasselhorn, M., & Schulte-Körne, G. (2020). Comorbidities between specific learning disorders and psychopathology in elementary school children in Germany. Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 292.
Zeleke, S. (2004). Self‐concepts of students with learning disabilities and their normally achieving peers: a review. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 19(2), 145-170.
About the Author:
Dr. Deanna Swift is an Implementation Coach and the lead for the Special Education and Mental Health portfolio for School Mental Health Ontario. She is a school and child clinical psychologist with 25 years of clinical experience in hospital, private practice, and school board settings. Deanna is currently on secondment from the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board where she serves as the Executive Officer of Mental Health and clinical manager of the school social work, psychology, and speech-language professionals.