Teachers and Student Health
Teaching can be a challenging and stressful profession which most teachers are aware of before they start their career. What can take some by surprise is the level of involvement they have with a student’s life outside the classroom. Many students will spend more time each day with a teacher than with one or both of their parents. A teacher will often be the first person to notice when a student has a problem, be it social, educational or a health matter. They may also be the first person a student turns to for help.
The First Step
Teachers are somewhat limited in how they can help a child they believe is suffering from a mental or physical health issue. Each state has laws and guidelines in place for how a teacher must handle a student’s health concerns. Unlike school nurses who are updated on these laws and guidelines regularly, a teacher may not know the ins and outs. The first step a teacher should take is to talk in confidence with the school nurse. The school nurse should then be able to advise what next steps a teacher can take.
What to Look Out For
The term “student health” covers a myriad of things:
- Common ailments – Colds, stomach bugs, allergies and infections are very common in school-age children, especially very young children. Unfortunately, many parents will send their child to school when they are sick with one of these illnesses. It may be because the child didn’t have symptoms in the morning or didn’t complain about feeling unwell. A lot of parents will also not believe that their child is ill or may simply have no other childcare option but to send the child to school. In cases like this, a teacher should arrange for someone to take the child home. It is not good for the student’s health, the teacher or the child’s classmates for a sick child to be present in the classroom. Teachers may face resistance from parents but it is the teacher’s responsibility to protect the health of everyone present, including the sick child.
- Mental and emotional illnesses – Many people will first present with signs of a mental or emotional illness during childhood. This can be a difficult area for parents and teachers to deal with. A lot of parents do not understand the extent of their child’s illness and believe that in time they will grow out of it. On the flipside, some children are grossly over-diagnosed and do not receive the correct treatment which can often exacerbate symptoms. Teachers may be the first to suspect a variety of mental illnesses in children including autism, intellectual disabilities, ADHD, Tourette’s, obsessive- compulsive disorders, anxiety and depression. If a teacher thinks a student’s health is affected by one of these conditions, they should speak with the school nurse to see if a diagnosis has already been made. The next step should be to speak with the parent(s) and see how the student can be helped.
- Bullying – About a quarter of all children are bullied. Bullying happens in all grades but the act itself will often go unseen. Bullying can take place on school grounds, outside of school and online or via cell phones. Teachers are often quicker to notice bullying when it has a physical manifestation. All teachers should make sure that their school has a school-wide anti-bullying policy with resources available for victims of bullying. Children who are bullied often feel powerless and they need teachers to help them stand up for their equal rights.
- Eating disorders– Male and female students suffer from eating disorders. The disorder may stem from a psychological issue or it may arise if a student is an athlete trying to maintain or reach a certain physique. This is a very sensitive issue to broach with a student. However, saying nothing is the worst thing a teacher can do. Any teacher that suspects a student has an eating disorder should start a conversation with the student and help them recover. Teachers can find more help on the topic here.
- Sexual health – Sexual health covers everything from menstruation to safe sex and pregnancy as well as sexual identity and sexual violence. Older children may think they are equipped with the emotional tools to handle their own sexual health but they are not. 20% of high school girls have reported incidences of sexual violence. There is also an increasing number of students dealing with physical and psychological issues associated with sexual or gender identification. A teacher may not want to approach a student about these concerns but a teacher can make it known that they are available to discuss any issues a student may have.
- Abuse – Many teachers will encounter a student whose health has been affected by physical, emotional or sexual abuse by a parent or other adult. This is possibly the most difficult and sensitive area of a student’s health for a teacher to help with. All states have requirements for the mandatory reporting of abuse. Before a teacher reports, they should speak with the child and then the school administration or nurse. Once information has been gathered, a teacher can make a report, which can be anonymous. Again, saying nothing may be the worst thing a teacher can do.
We encourage all teachers to make it known that they are available for confidential discussions about a student’s health. Teachers may be surprised by how many students consider their teachers the only person they can truly confide in.
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