Teachers should be mental health first responders

When it comes to physical ailments and injuries, schools are covered. Every classroom has first aid kits. Teachers can deal with all manner of minor problems. Most schools have nurses. Most towns have EMT and paramedics, and ER’s if needed. But the vast majority of what happens to kids physically can be handled by the classroom teacher. And much is done to prevent such things from happening in the first place. An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. 

But we’re not as well covered when it comes to minor mental and emotional problems and issues, which often play out behaviorally. Imagine if we gave kids consequences for getting injured or sick instead of helping them in some way. Or sent them to the dean instead of the nurse. And kicked them out of school instead of sending them to the ER. Sounds pretty ridiculous, but that’s the equivalent of what we do with kids who struggle mentally and emotionally and sometimes act out because of it. 

Where we really fall short more often than not is at the classroom level. We usually (but not always in days of budget cuts) have counselors, even social workers and psychologists. But too often the mental and emotional issues underlying behavior don’t get identified, let alone addressed at the classroom level, and often even get exacerbated in some way. The focus is largely on behavior because that is what can have the most obvious impact on a classroom, and the ability of a teacher to do his/her job. Behavior gets seen as a problem rather than the symptom of mental and emotional struggles it really is. 

And the vast majority of teachers use the only tools they have, consequences, to try to eradicate the symptom rather than identify and address the underlying cause. Too often they do it in anger, which only makes things worse. Many teachable moments get missed because of this, moments that counselors and social workers don’t ever have, even if a student is referred to them. And if things escalate, as they often do, and a student gets sent to a dean or AP, dispensing consequences too often trumps any efforts to intervene in a positive, helpful way. 

This plays out much too often in every school across the nation. In medicine, there’s a first do no harm rule – if you can’t make it better, at least don’t make it worse. Unfortunately, this rule gets broken in schools every day. We not only miss chances to make things better at the classroom level, but end up exacerbating the underlying mental and emotional issues by relying solely on behavioral management. And despite a new appreciation for the value of Social and Emotional Learning, little is really done in practice in the way of prevention. 

This is not new. It’s always been this way, and continues to be. And it’s unlikely to change with so much focus, effort and energy being directed at raising test scores. What people keep missing is that if we helped kids get in better places mentally and emotionally, it’s the best thing we could do to raise scores. Kids have to be in the right mental and emotional places to learn, be taught, and do well on tests. Too many simply aren’t, and we don’t do enough to help them get there. Never have, and still don’t. 

Meanwhile, teachers struggle with their own mental health because they were never given “tools” to manage it while in college preparing to be in the classroom. 

This is why I’ve always advocated for making teachers the equivalent of mental health first responders. The “tools” we could give them would not only help them mentally and emotionally, but put them in a much better place to help their students learn to help themselves. I’m not talking about making them social workers or therapists. Just first responders. Better yet, mental health instructors. An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. 

To read about four "tools" I think all new and current teachers should be given for their own mental health, and to be more effective with student, please visit my Teacher ESP - Effectiveness and Stress Prevention website at: 


To read about all ten "tools" I believe we should give all students, starting early in age appropriate ways, please visit my Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life website at:


To read about the "Tool Time" approach I developed and have successfully used with troubled and troublesome students, and juvenile inmates, go to: