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Ideas, News & Advice for K-12 educators and administrators to help create safe learning environments.

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Written by Paget Hetherington
on August 06, 2020

As part of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Mental Health Month, we discussed how to support the mental health and well-being of students of color and students who identify as LGBTQ+. While these are two of the largest groups of students who are marginalized, our series on Equity in Student Mental Health would not be complete without also discussing the importance of supporting the mental health and well-being of students with disabilities, who make up approximately 14% of the U.S. student population.

Students with disabilities are more likely to experience mental health challenges due to the daily obstacles and discrimination they face both in and out of the classroom. Nearly 30% of people with learning disabilities experience mental health challenges, and mental health and learning disabilities are tied to higher than average dropout rates. Over 38% of students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) drop out of school, a rate that is five times higher than the national average of 7%.

Support from parents, teachers, and peers is crucial to managing factors of positive mental health such as self-confidence, emotional management, goal-setting, and social skills. Positive mental health is essential to students’ ability to function and learn on a daily basis, which affects their ability to succeed in an academic environment.

With this in mind, it’s important to consider the ways educators, counselors, parents, and classmates can support students with disabilities facing mental health challenges.

Improving Accessibility for Students
When everything around you—from classrooms and transportation to shopping at the store—isn’t designed for you, it’s easy to feel different and frustrated trying to complete everyday tasks. Students with functional limitations, such as physical impairment, deafness, blindness, or other visual and hearing impairments, experience this feeling of difference and the emotional burden that comes with it every single day, including their time spent at school.

One of the best ways to support these students and minimize the emotional trauma that comes with living with a functional limitation is to create assignments, classrooms, and school programs that are accessible to every student. Here are a few ways that teachers can improve accessibility for their students:

  • Create comfortable and functional desk/seating spaces that can accommodate students with physical disabilities. Comfort is the first step to managing mental health challenges.
  • Consider alternative learning areas for students who don’t learn well at a desk all day. Being forced to work in a space that doesn’t fit their needs causes students stress and distractions throughout the day.
  • Be descriptive with your teaching to ensure blind and visually impaired students can conceptualize your lessons. Making active changes to your teaching methods keeps students with disabilities from falling behind, therefore boosting self-confidence in their ability to succeed at school.
  • Add captions and/or transcriptions to online video and voice recordings. These tools offer students with certain disabilities a level of independence with their online learning that is beneficial to their mental well-being.
  • Choose an LMS or other online learning system that allows each student to customize the font size, colors, and layout to fit their personal needs. These seemingly small changes offer students more independence in their online learning and help build self-confidence.
  • Confirm that all apps and online services you utilize offer accessibility features for students with varying disabilities.
  • Offer multiple options for completing assignments, from creative projects and podcasts to writing a paper, and be flexible with students who need different options. Thriving on one’s own strengths is motivating for students and promotes positive mental health through self-confidence.
  • Focus on the importance of the learning process rather than over-assessing students with projects, assignments, and tests. Repeated struggles and failure of assessments leads to lack of self-confidence and significantly increases the likelihood a student will drop out.
  • Don’t isolate students with disabilities just because they have a wheelchair or work at a different pace. Ensuring students all feel like part of your classroom community is crucial to their mental health and well-being.
  • Give students with disabilities space to make mistakes. While many students with disabilities have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) with unique and specific goals, independence is key to promoting mental well-being.
  • Ensure content you create online is compatible with assistive technologies by taking every step you can to remove digital accessibility barriers that students often face online.

Provide Students With Resources
It’s not always possible to directly find solutions and provide support for specific issues that students with disabilities face, but it is possible to connect students with resources that can help guide them in the right direction—keeping in mind that students may still need guidance depending on the accessibility of these resources to their individual capabilities. By giving students methods to independently find support for their mental health challenges, you help them build important self-confidence and motivation skills, which are key to lowering dropout rates.

  • Inspire: App offering virtual connection to a community of others experiencing the same health conditions and diseases.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Advocacy, education, support, and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives.
  • The Mighty: A safe, supportive online community for people facing health challenges and the people who care for them
  • The Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s Online Support Group: Anonymous peer-to-peer online anxiety and depression support group where individuals and their families can connect with other people experiencing anxiety, depression, and related disorders.
  • Mental Health America (MHA): Several interactive tools for individuals to find mental health help for themselves.

Since every student’s disability and experience is different, these are only a few of the ways you can support the mental health of those with disabilities. It’s important to validate the struggles that these students face every day in order to help students feel less isolated and less of a burden. By taking the time to support each student’s experience with disability and build an inclusive and encouraging environment in which they can learn, you can greatly improve the positive mental health of students with disabilities in your school.

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