Why All Teachers Need Training in Mental Health and Social Work

EdSurge Podcast

Why All Teachers Need Training in Mental Health and Social Work

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 25, 2023

Why All Teachers Need Training in Mental Health and Social Work

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

In her first year as a teacher, Stephanie Malia Krauss quickly learned that teaching fifth grade effectively involved a bigger variety of skills than she got in her teacher-prep program. That was driven home the day one of her students walked into the classroom with soot on her uniform because her rental home had burned down the night before and her family was struggling to hold their lives together.

“I recognized that nobody had trained me on how to provide therapeutic or even just human care in a crisis,” she says, noting that such care is essential before effective learning can happen. And when the girl’s family looked to Krauss as an authority on what to do, she realized she didn’t know what resources were available in the community that she could recommend for assistance.

Memories of that moment eventually led her to go back to school for social work, and later to go work on national efforts to help students prepare for the workforce. And those experiences have convinced her there’s a need for a greater amount of “cross-training” for educators — not just in how to deliver instruction, but in how to help students in the many facets of their lives.

“Every single teacher should have some level of first-aid-level understanding of kids' health, social work, and mental health,” she told EdSurge. “Because life happens as learning is happening, and we are the trusted adults in these kids' lives. And we want to do right by them, and the kids are trusting us to know how to take care of them.”

The need for such varied skills has only gotten more pronounced in recent years, she argues, in these times of “political division, racial violence, extreme rhetoric, intensifying storms, mass shootings, economic crises, global pandemics and more.”

EdSurge connected with Krauss to talk about her argument, and about the challenges of talking about the social-emotional needs of children at a time when some politicians have pushed back against the idea. Krauss is the author of a new book, “Whole Child, Whole Life: 10 Ways to Help Kids Live, Learn, and Thrive.”

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: You say in your book that all teachers need to be able to deliver “mental health first aid.” Why, and what do you mean by that?

Stephanie Malia Krauss: We have to recognize that if we're teaching students, or we're an education leader in any adult role in a school, that kids are in our care, and that they spend so much time in our buildings and they're in our classrooms, that life happens while they're there. So not only are they learning and getting through content, but mental health challenges are going to show up while they're in school and during a school year or a semester.

And the reality is that our mental health issues among kids are showing up earlier and more intensely than we've ever seen before [since the pandemic].

There’s a program called Mental Health First Aid that is a free training that you can bring into your school, and young people can be trained in it. They have a high school version.

In the book I also talk about “emotional wound care” — thinking about the fact that kids get their feelings hurt more than they get their bodies hurt at school. And how do we put in actual practices in the same way we think about brain breaks. What are the mechanisms in a school day that allow us to provide emotional wound care?

Some of that is just going one step beyond things like mindfulness, which has picked up traction in the last few years, to stopping and doing a breathing check. How are kids breathing? Can they take a couple deep breaths? Do they know how to manage if their breathing is shallow or too fast because of different emotions that are connected there?

And then there is emotional hygiene. So we have regular hygiene, like brushing your teeth, and having opportunities to work into the day for your social-emotional learning programming … or advisory opportunities for kids to figure out what are the habits that help them to feel good and help them to prevent things from happening and to protect them when bad things are happening and be prepared if something challenging were to arise.

What would you say to a teacher who looks at this and says, this is too overwhelming — that it’s too much to ask?

Absolutely, if done alone. I think that this is about the art and science of taking care of kids, and that all of us who are in any position raising or working with kids need to come together and figure out: How do we collectively share information and share the responsibility of the kids who are in our care? And so it is as much about having the working knowledge and being committed to being a continuous learner ourselves about the nature of childhood, the nature of learning, the nature of health and well-being, and then really being in a position of openness to work with any adult who is connected to the same kids you are connected to, to be sharing information and to be collectively committed to their well-being.

You wrote an op-ed for EdSurge last year noting that social-emotional learning is becoming an issue in America’s culture wars. Do you worry about politicians trying to stop educators taking the advice in your book?

I worry about it. I made a deliberate, arguably political decision when I was writing the book to try to avoid any inflammatory language, particular terms that I have used historically that have become deeply politicized and misunderstood. I don't think I actually used the phrase social-emotional learning one time in the book, but you can research my EdSurge articles or anything else in my history to know that that is something I've been involved with for a very long time. But I made a moral and ethical decision to not dilute any of the science of what young people need to be healthy and whole and to learn and to live wonderful lives. And so I wanted to be able to present the science and the research and the stories and the strategies in a way that was as available to parents, to educators, to coaches and to counselors. So this is this decision to say actually we as the people who are caring for kids have a set of common concerns that we need to grapple with together.

To hear the entire conversation, listen to the episode.

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