The Art of Growing Up

Future educators prepare to recognize mental distress in their students.

Friday, March 29, 2019

by Brittany Baronski '19

In a time when K-12 schools can feel very industrial — almost like a factory; where kids are taught to focus on the core, foundational subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic — teachers and parents can forget about the art of growing up. They forget about the emotions of the children.

The Youth Mental Health First Aid Initiative seeks to flip that way of teaching. Founded in Australia in 2001, the initiative is an eight-hour course that is designed to teach parents, teachers, family members and peers how to identify signs of a mental health crisis in an adolescent.

Frank Bernt, Ph.D., professor and chair of teacher education at Saint Joseph’s, first experienced the course when he invited one of its instructors to speak at the University. The topic was so popular that Bernt’s students suggested that he make the certification a requirement.

“It’s like physical first aid,” Bernt explained. “Anyone and everyone should know how to do it – they should know how to keep the person safe until help arrives.”

Jennifer Rodgers ’18, who took the certification while studying at SJU and now teaches at a school where trauma is prevalent in students’ lives, says that the training taught her how to create lessons to accommodate these learners.

“Part of being a teacher is recognizing that every student brings experiences into the classroom,” she says. “What this mental health first aid training looks to do is set future teachers up to recognize when a student needs help because their mental health may not be in a place where they can learn at the level that is expected of their age group.”

The idea is to get teachers trained in order to notice if something is wrong with a child – not so they can assume the role of a therapist, but to sit with the person in need and keep them safe until they can get the help they need.

“One of the most important things that this training teaches is that educators are there to recognize when a student should be referred to counseling or other organizations,” Rodgers says. “It helps teachers understand how to help students within the classroom as well so that they are not losing their chance to learn.”

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