Mental Health Trumps Academics Every Time

Thursday 07 May 2020

'Relationships before Rigor. Grace before Grades. Patience before Programs. Love before Lessons' Dr Brad Johnson

How mental health affects learning

We all know stress affects the way we process and retain information. We forget details, can’t think clearly and often find ourselves making mistakes that we normally wouldn't. In the same way, learning is affected by our stress levels and our mental state: anxiety and worry can affect our working memory and our ability to retain information long enough to make meaningful connections. Without prioritising mental health and well-being we can never expect that quality learning can take place.

Research shows that positive feelings not only promote concentration but also productivity and curiosity. The opposite can be said about negative feelings. By adding academic pressure to a student who is already in a state of anxiety, stress or depression, we are compounding the problem. It takes so much more energy to overcome the effects of mental health which in turn causes more stress and worry. It is times like this that we need to take a step back, prioritise well-being and then approach the situation again once the balance has been restored.

Meaningful learning won’t happen until we are in the right frame of mind.

How does this play out in the classroom?

At Living Faith, the well-being of students is of utmost importance. On a day to day basis, teachers prioritise student well-being, knowing that without restoring emotional balance there is no point pushing curriculum. Despite planning set lessons in advance the art of teaching is to adapt and be flexible to the needs of the students as they arise. If a child is not engaging with their learning at school, we take time out - however long it needs to be - to restore calm before returning to the classroom.

If a student comes into the classroom after a lunch break distressed that they had a fight with their best friend, it can be safe to say that their mind is not going to be effectively concentrating on the afternoon lesson content. Teachers help their students work through their emotions and bring them back down to calm before even attempting to engage them in learning. There is no point pushing a student who is having a tantrum, grieving, depressed or anxious into learning; it will only lead to frustration and more stress for all involved. It is important to return students' brains to a place of calm and stability. This may take minutes, hours or days for some depending on the level of distress.

Taking time out not only helps facilitate emotional regulation but it also provides the student with coping strategies so that they will be better equipped to deal with similar situations as they occur again. By prioritising well-being teachers and their students also build positive and trusting relationships. A student-centred approach to learning must take into consideration the needs of the whole child. We run a number of pastoral care programs and work closely with students to help build resilience and coping strategies. Pastoral care needs to come first in order to facilitate quality learning.

Crisis recovery

In crisis situations, our well-being baseline may be relatively higher than normal, which means that our emotions can quickly become heightened. During times such as this, it is even more essential to focus on mental health and well-being first and foremost.

During times of crisis, we encourage families to focus on the mental well-being of their family before even commencing the academic program. Teachers are experts in identifying students' academic needs and will meet their students wherever they are when things return to normal. Of utmost importance is that we continue to prioritise the important things, some of which are mentioned in the opening quote by Dr Brad Johnson: Relationships, Grace, Patience and Love.

Learning is a lifelong business and not a race. Taking time out in the short term to build well-being can have longer-term positive effects on learning.

- Bianca Ravi, Director of Learning