George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mental Health

Meeting Students’ Needs for Emotional Support

A new survey finds that a large percentage of students don’t feel that they have an adult to turn to at school when they’re troubled.

April 9, 2024
PhotoAlto / Alamy

Only 55 percent of elementary school students (grades three through five), 42 percent of middle school students, and 40 percent of high school students in the United States have an adult at school they can talk to when they feel upset or stressed, according to a survey of more than 200,000 students across 20 different states. At every age, students benefit from a hand to hold, an ear to listen, and a heart to understand them.

Emotional support seeking is a call for help with regulating one’s emotions. Think about 9-year-old Elena, who asks for a hug to feel less sad after falling down during recess. Or 15-year-old Erik, who emails his teacher about his anxiety before a test. Emotional support seeking is helpful when sources of support are reliable and useful. It provides care, encouragement, reassurance, companionship, and information.

Emotional support seeking can be unhelpful, however, when others are unwilling, unavailable, or not skilled enough to support. Imagine Elena, who does not receive a hug because her teacher is busy managing her class. Or Erik, who does not receive any reply or, worse, receives a response that says, “Just get over it.” As an educator, what can you do when your students seek emotional support?

Bolstering students’ mental Health

Research on emotional support recommends listening to your students without judgment and acknowledging their emotions (“This is tough. It makes total sense that you feel hurt and upset”). By not ignoring (“You’ll feel better tomorrow”), dismissing (“It’s not a big deal”), or criticizing (“You’re overreacting”) students, you validate and normalize their experiences and emotions, which in turn builds empathy and rapport.

Research on empathy shows that telling your students that you know exactly what they are going through frequently backfires. This is because walking a mile in the shoes of another is just not possible, and it shifts the focus from the student to yourself. It’s more helpful to say, “It is hard for me to totally understand what you are going through, but I can see that it’s upsetting you.”

You can also discuss options (like using different emotion regulation strategies) and next steps, which may include seeking appropriate professional help from counselors, psychologists, or social workers at school or in the community. Research finds that providing unsolicited advice (“What you should do is…”) is often not helpful to or appreciated by students and makes it less likely that they will seek support from you in the future.

However, many students, particularly those with less social support and poorer mental health, are reluctant to seek emotional support from an adult at school. This may be due to mental health stigma (“I will be judged by others”), cultural beliefs/norms about mental health (“I just need to toughen up”), or lack of relationships (“I’m not close to anyone”). So what can you do to increase emotional support seeking among students?

Encouraging Students to Open Up

Studies reveal that encouraging students to explore and express their feelings is key for many of them who have learned to bottle up or mask their emotions in a society where we pretend to be OK even when we are not. You can be a role model by sharing how your own emotions affect the way you think or act (modeling recognition of emotions) and what strategies you use to manage your emotions (modeling response to emotions). This normalizes sharing and talking about one’s emotions and reduces stigma surrounding mental health.

And, if you sense that your students are struggling with their emotions, you can offer support by expressing your care and concern (“I’ve noticed a change in your appearance (or behavior or mood). Do you want to talk about it?”) or desire and availability to help (“I would like to support you. I’m here anytime you need me”). As opening up and talking about emotions often make one feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, students may not open up until they are sure that you genuinely care.

You can see if your students are ready and willing to talk to any adult, whether it be at home, at school, or in the community, by asking these questions:

  • “Have you talked to anyone about what’s bothering you?”
  • “Do you want to talk to somebody about this?”
  • “Whom can you talk to about this?”
  • “When do you plan to talk to them about this?”

Asking these questions helps ensure that an action plan can be put in place.

Quality Over Quantity

Research demonstrates that emotional-support-network size is usually small (about two to 10 people). So what matters for students is to know that there are one or two adults at school who care about them and whom they can turn to. Schools can create a mentorship program that pairs staff (such as teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, resource officers) with students. This enables students to know that there is an adult at school whom they can turn to and who would like to see them.

Studies show that students who participate in school-based mentoring programs see improvements in academic, emotional, and psychosocial outcomes, particularly when staff employ targeted approaches matched to the needs of their students.

By better understanding and supporting their emotions, students will feel more connected to school, and this can have enduring protective effects on their learning and well-being that persist into adulthood.

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Filed Under

  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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