Mental Health

6 Ways to Promote Emotional Well-Being in Tweens

Teachers can encourage these students to develop skills that help ease stress and improve their sense of self-confidence.

September 8, 2023
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

In recent years, researchers have documented an increase in children’s mental health problems, and middle school students may be particularly vulnerable. Tweens must negotiate a more complex social and academic system, without the benefit of life experience, while in the throes of puberty, and as their brains continue to develop. Unsurprisingly, that can produce significant emotional discomfort. Teachers may not be trained mental health professionals, but they can help students acquire skills that alleviate stress and boost their well-being. Here are six of my favorites.


At Francis Parker School in Louisville, Kentucky, administrators reimagined study hall, said Zachary Cohen, the middle school director. “We transformed it into ‘WIN,’ or ‘what I need,’ period,” he said. Students go through a goal-setting document and spend the first 10 minutes of class learning a skill like note-taking. After that, they’re free to meet with teachers, collaborate with classmates, or work independently.

“I wanted to empower students to use unstructured time productively,” Cohen said. “One seventh grader wanted to become a better artist, so he’d watch YouTube videos or talk to the art teacher.” Another girl told him, “I just want to re-center.” “She’d walk around the field with her headphones on to recharge her battery,” he said, adding that WIN study halls quell student anxiety “by helping them appreciate that there’s no one right way to do something.” 

Teaching kids how to manage their time can prevent painful self-doubt in middle school and later in life,” noted Lisa Heffernan, the cofounder of Grown & Flown. “A kid may think, ‘I have stress and anxiety,’ when what they have is an inability to manage time because they were brought up in a system that does it for them.” Heffernan suggested that teachers talk through how they handle unwieldy projects by saying, “I would love to do ‘xyz’ this Sunday, but I know what my workload looks like.”


When Joseph Bostic was a middle school math teacher, he set aside time for “math talk.” He’d set up stations where students could discuss math problems and practice talking with peers. As Bostic noted, “Social skills are such a big part of emotional health.” 

To ensure that multilingual learners, students with individualized education programs, and struggling students could connect with classmates, Bostic—now an assistant principal at Northwood High School in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland—would provide a word bank and sentence starter at each station.

Kids with weak interpersonal skills may turn off peers and end up isolated and lonely, so be explicit when teaching social skills strategies, added psychologist Mary Alvord, founder of Resilience Across Borders. “I use the analogy of a ping-pong ball; a conversation is a ping-pong ball that goes back and forth,” she said. 


To help middle school students cope with all the emotional highs and lows that come with their age, teachers can normalize pubescent mood swings. Ask students, “How many of you have had a reaction to an event that doesn’t feel like you?” suggested Cara Natterson, a pediatrician and coauthor of This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained

“In my experience, 100 percent of girls and 95 percent of boys will answer ‘Yes’ to that question by fourth grade,” Natterson said, adding that hormones start circulating “above the neck” years before kids appear to be in puberty. “That changes the way they feel about themselves and react to one another,” she explained.

Middle school students may crave support but lack the skills to ask for it, and teachers can model help-seeking behavior, said Miriam Plotinsky, an instructional specialist in MCPS and author of Lead Like a Teacher. They might say, “I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to find out by using my strategy of resourcefulness.” 

Bostic makes sure that students have multiple ways to ask for help. “I might say, ‘I noticed you were upset the other day, so I’m going to give you some yellow and blue sticky notes. If you put a blue sticky note on your desk, I’ll know you’re doing OK, but if you use a yellow one, I’ll know you’re struggling,’” he explained.  


Knowing how to help others is as protective as asking for help. “Sometimes kids don’t have social proof that they matter,” said Jennifer Breheny Wallace, author of Never Enough. “The research on ‘mattering’ is that it acts like a protective shield—it feeds an unmet need and buffers against anxiety and depression.”

Wallace suggested asking students to consider, “What can I say to myself when I’m feeling low, if I don’t feel like I matter?” They might realize, for instance, they could thank a cafeteria worker or greet younger students as they enter the building. Teachers also can look for “some genuine need in the classroom, whether it’s watering the plants or being a homework buddy,” she said.


To help students practice positive self-talk, have them write encouraging notes to themselves on sticky notes, then post them on an “encouragement” bulletin board.

Students have come up with phrases such as “I did it before, I can do it again” and “No one is perfect.”

Students also can post self-regulation strategies on a “calm-down” bulletin board, such as tensing and relaxing the muscles in their body or taking 30 seconds to visualize themselves somewhere they feel calm and serene.

As Bostic noted, visual reminders can be particularly helpful for students at the start of a new school year, “when teachers don’t know their background or what trauma they might have experienced over the summer.” 


A distracted kid is more likely to miss an instruction or forget to hand something in and wind up feeling overwhelmed. To help students stay focused, prompt them to think about what’s getting in their way, Plotinsky said. “They might say, ‘my phone’ or ‘I had a fight with a friend at lunch,’” she explained. Then, have them brainstorm ways to sustain their focus in class. Plotinsky suggested that students could draw a box and visualize putting their worries inside. A student can also try writing out and shredding their concerns using a manual paper shredder. 

Emphasize that small habits are more powerful than motivation. “Maybe they consistently write down one assignment at the end of each class or practice one new attention strategy,” Plotinsky explained. When middle school students get a handle on the logistical stuff, they’re able to devote more mental energy to other needs, such as making friends. 

Even small steps can produce big changes. As Plotinsky noted, “When people succumb to anxiety, it’s often not one big thing—it’s lots of little things. Just because a teacher’s expertise isn’t social-emotional learning, it doesn’t mean that they can’t do things within their academic framework to help kids feel better.”

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Filed Under

  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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