Mental health

In order to study, a child needs to feel safe and well in the classroom. However, if their state of mind is affected by strong feelings such as worry, anxiety, fear and sadness, their cognitive functions (perception, memory, attention, thinking) and the realisation of their abilities are impaired. Relationships with teachers and peers, as well as classroom climate, are important factors for a caring, understanding and supportive environment that promotes learning. These factors affect how the child is feeling, their learning motivation and performance and are overall connected to their good mental health and enjoyment of school.

In order to create an atmosphere that facilitates learning and a safe learning environment that supports the mental health of all parties, think about the following questions: What am I doing to create trust between myself and the students? What techniques and methods do I use to effectively manage the classroom? How do I react to misbehaviour? Do I react to bullying and if so, how?

How can I create trust between a student and the class?

In his book Classroom Behaviour, Bill Rogers notes that it is important to think about building a functioning relationship with the entire class as well as individual students at the beginning of the school year. Remembering and using students’ names, friendly greeting of groups and individuals and remembering students’ individual traits are signs that express the teacher’s desire to develop a positive relationship. Being friendly with misbehaving students, greeting them without receiving a response and starting the day with a clean slate without holding a grudge due to prior issues are attitudinal aspects that children will soon recognise and respond to positively. If a student knows that someone cares about them as an individual with their own needs, concerns and feelings, they will appreciate and recognise the teacher’s discipline because they will understand that the teacher cares about them.

A trusting relationship can be nurtured and maintained if the teacher notices and reacts to the student’s concern. However, minimising the situation damages the relationship. Saying things like ‘Why worry about such a minor thing?’ or ‘You’ll get over it!’ signal to the student that their feeling or thought is not valuable enough. Instead of stifling the student’s situation or minimising or ignoring how it makes them feel, reflect upon the situation, express your understanding and offer support.

Examples of noticing and supporting students’ feelings:

  • Negative: ‘Why are you getting upset about such a minor thing? Now pull yourself together and let’s begin the class.’
  • Positive: ‘I see that you’re not feeling well right now. I understand if it’s harder for you to work today, but let’s try to start the class together and I’ll help you as soon as I see that you’re having a hard time understanding.’
  • Negative: ‘There’s no need to cry about spilling the paint. You’re a big boy already and boys don’t cry about such things.’
  • Positive: ‘I know that your pictures are important to you and you’re sad when something goes wrong. We can fix the mistake when the picture has dried.’
  • Negative: ‘Quick, start working on the solution! Otherwise you won’t finish by the end of class.’
  • Positive: ‘I understand that it seems at first that there are too many tasks on this page, but let’s start solving them together and soon you’ll see that they’re all done.’
  • Negative: ‘Why do you get angry when you don’t get the correct answer the first time? Now calm down and think about it some more.’
  • Positive: ‘I understand that it’s very important for you to get the task right the first time and that you’re disappointed when you see you’ve got the answer wrong instead. When we’re doing the next task and you’re not sure whether your answer is correct, please raise your hand and you can tell me your answer before you write it down.’

If you notice that your students are worried/tired/excited, it is worth letting them know and reflecting it. Ask them what has happened. Taking the time to listen is a sign that you care and wish them well.

Examples of noticing the mood of the class:

  • When children rush to the window to see the first snow and their thoughts jump to winter activities, you can accept their excitement and say, for example: ‘I understand that you want to go outside to play in the snow. You still have 45 minutes of work to do and then you can go out. I believe we can be patient together.’ This helps to create a better foundation to continue the lesson. A negative example would be to express irritation and saying things like: ‘Now, what is going on? Get back to your desks, quickly! You are wasting time.’
  • If something has happened between students that requires more extensive intervention, you should let them know as well and explain a specific plan or intervention measure. You could say: ‘What happened at recess was really upsetting and it seems to have caused a lot of confusion. Let’s talk more about this situation with those involved after class because it definitely needs more attention. But for now, I want us all to think about the lesson and begin.’ At this point, you can do some mindfulness exercises.

It is important to think about attitudes towards different students, which may affect the teacher’s tone of voice, body language and self-expression when interacting with them. It irritates students when you bring up old things, rebuke them and accuse them without investigating further and getting to the bottom of the issue. It is important for children to be able to come to class with the knowledge and certainty that the past will not be brought up again and that the teacher’s negative attitude towards them does not interfere with learning and teaching. Otherwise, the student will continue to misbehave, as is expected of them. Despite previous incidents, it is important to signal to the child through equal treatment that you have faith in their development.

In order to support teacher-student relationships as well as students’ self-esteem, it is important to highlight success and provide feedback. Adults (both parents and teachers) often tend to describe and point out inappropriate behaviour and actions. We express and describe the occurrence of expected behaviour less frequently. Positive reinforcement of certain behaviour increases the likelihood that it will be repeated.

  • Negative: ‘Stop interrupting!’
  • Negative: ‘You’re disrupting the class again!’
  • Positive: ‘I’m pleased you had the patience to listen for 10 minutes while looking at me and concentrating.’
  • Positive: ‘Thank you, Karl, for holding up your hand and waiting patiently! That made me very happy.’

From the point of view of student self-esteem, it is important to think about the wording of feedback. Generalisations and linking failure to students’ personal shortcomings does not support them. Instead, they intensify their negative attitude towards themselves, which in turn damages their motivation, attitude in life and mood. Giving positive feedback and explicitly describing progress lets children know that their personal efforts are paying off, allows them to recognise successes and progress and supports their self-esteem and feeling of self-worth. The teacher’s positive attitude towards children and caring about them significantly supports students who do not experience such an attitude at home.

  • Negative: ‘You’ve got everything incorrect here!’
  • Positive: ‘I see that there are a lot of mistakes here. It seems that we need to take some time to go over this topic again and see where these mistakes come from.’
  • Negative: ‘Once again you’ve not finished your tasks.’
  • Positive: ‘Finishing this many tasks has been difficult for you’ or ‘It seems that you need more time to complete these tasks.’
  • Negative: ‘You’re very slow, so you’ll probably have to stay here after class to finish this test.’
  • Positive: ‘It’s really good to see that you made an effort during dictation to remember the rules, and you managed to use the rules we learned yesterday.’

After giving instructions to the class or explaining a new part, encourage students to request help and ask additional questions. Although children may seem like they are listening and thinking along, some children can be very easily distracted, which causes them to miss part of the instruction or the explanation of a new part. Therefore, encourage children to ask questions if they need to or to let you know if they do not understand something. Encourage them by repeatedly telling them to signal with their hand if they wish to ask something. If there is a shy, anxious or insecure student in your class who does not signal their need for help, take the initiative to instruct and offer them help. For example, after giving instructions to the class, go to the student and give them additional instructions.

In order for students not to develop a fear of incorrect answers and making mistakes, they need to be allowed to be wrong, and you need to avoid making them compete with each other and comparing them.

  • Negative example: After completing workbook exercises, the teacher says, ‘Raise your hand if you got the answers correct.’ Doing so highlights the student who did not get the answers wrong, while causing the one who did to feel uncomfortable or another unpleasant emotion.


Chapter III of the book Suhtlemine probleemsete õpilastega by Heiki Krips provides a comprehensive overview of communication with students.

How can you foster positive relationships between students?

Student relationships and fostering them are important for many reasons – they affect a child’s psychosocial development and academic success. Hymel et al (2005) have said that early exclusion is primarily associated with later academic difficulties, internalised problems (loneliness, depression, low self-esteem) and externalised problems (behaviour issues, criminality). Exclusion deprives children of positive socialisation experiences that help obtain relevant social skills, thus increasing the risk of becoming a victim of bullying or a member of antisocial groups (as cited in Kikas, 2010: 71).

The guidance material* ‘Erinevate õppijate toetamine õpetaja ja tugispetsialisti koostöös’ prepared by specialists of Rajaleidja aka Bathfinder (a nationwide network offering learning-related counselling services to students and schools) highlights the following techniques for the promotion of positive student relationships:

  • Swap desk mates, draw pairs or practise working in different groups so that children could easily make new connections.
  • Give students opportunities to give each other good feedback on a regular basis. Play a game where each child can praise someone and be praised by someone else. Written praise allows the student to remember it later. If giving praise is difficult for children, you should guide them, for example, by suggesting the first half of the sentence or by asking them to base their feedback on class rules.
  • Hold morning or welcome meetings where children can listen to and share with each other.
  • Be creative together. For example, you can make a joint collage of the children’s dreams for the future, write a class song, film a music video or create fantasy stories (eg if our class was an animal, it would be…).
  • As a form master, organise discussion groups to handle concerns and conflicts, focusing on the feelings and thoughts of the parties and actively seeking solutions. If necessary, you can include a support specialist.
  • Create a class mood detector, noise detector, learning eagerness scale, etc. Discuss specific problems together (eg there is too much noise or not enough help). Rate the severity of the problem on a 10-point scale (everyone can rate) and record the average score. Agree on rules or ways for everyone to contribute to the solution. Repeat the rating process later. It is important to work together and share the responsibility.
  • Decorate the classroom together, design the walls and highlight joint achievements.

Problems and issues concerning the entire class should be discussed with the class. Rules and limits imposed by an adult may increase resistance and do not allow the class as a whole to set goals together. Students need to understand the purpose of an agreement or rule and how it benefits the class. In the event of a conflict, avoid resolving the situation by force and instead apply conflict resolution principles satisfactory to all parties, which are based on mutual listening, expressing wishes or opinions and finding a solution acceptable to both parties.

In their book Teacher Effectiveness Training (2006), the authors Thomas Gordon and Noel Burch present a six-step model:

  1. defining the problem and needs
  2. generating potential solutions
  3. evaluating each solution
  4. choosing a solution acceptable to both parties (teacher and class)
  5. later evaluation of the solutions


The application of the methodology is described in more detail in chapter 8 of the book.

The relevance of different opinions and everyone’s right to their own should be constantly reminded and repeated. Hearing each other out and listening to other opinions without criticism needs to be practised and repeated daily. This requires specific guidelines.

  • Example: If a group discussion takes place after reading a story, you should say the following before the discussion: ‘Everyone can say what they thought about the story and how it made them feel. No feeling or opinion is wrong. Remember that we do not interrupt others while they are speaking. We do not judge whether their thought or feeling is bad or wrong.’

Every time you assign group work, it is necessary to remind and talk about how one should act when doing group work and how it should be done to produce the desired results. With group work, it is not enough to simply hand out instructions. It helps to reiterate the specific framework so that no group member feels excluded or scorned.

*Guidance material ‘Erinevate õppijate toetamine õpetaja ja tugispetsialisti koostöös’  (in Estonian language) prepared by specialists of Rajaleidja.

Which techniques should you apply to manage behaviour and the class effectively?

The purpose of effective classroom management and conscious behaviour management is to promote proactive and consistent action in order to prevent behavioural problems and successfully handle inappropriate behaviour.

Behaviour management techniques can be applied better if the form master prepares a behaviour agreement at the beginning of the new school year, which entails jointly discussing and formulating the rights, obligations and rules that a particular class considers important and which subject teachers can rely on to ensure order in class (for more information about the preparation of a behaviour agreement, see chapter II of Classroom Behaviour by Bill Rogers). If it takes a lot of time for a teacher to start the class or if there are other factors that disrupt the lesson, it helps to try the ‘Peaceful workplace for all – support measures for the maintenance of peace in school stages II and III’ method and address the concerns of the class. The method entails establishing one or two positively worded goals based on undesirable behaviour, on which subject teachers provide immediate feedback to children. The method is described in the article** ‘Kuidas saavutada tunnis töörahu?’ in Õpetajate Leht of 4 October 2019.

Despite the student’s age and school stage, we cannot set expectations on their self-regulation skills and impeccable self-control. We cannot assume that the student will always behave appropriately to the situation and every day, or even that they do so automatically. The vast majority of students are able to do this, but due to the students’ varying levels of social skills, emotional state, mood or other factors that affect their performance in the classroom, adults need to provide a clear expectation and framework for the upcoming activity. This supports the struggling child as well as the class as a whole.

  • Example: ‘You will succeed at independent work if you work quietly and raise your hand if you need help.’ 

Forbidding is negative in nature, has a criticising undertone and does not make it clear to the student what they should do instead. It is more effective to describe what you saw, express your feelings and give specific instructions. When it comes to conscious behaviour management, it is important to remember that all the social skills that students have to express in class – raising their hand, waiting their turn, sitting for a certain period of time, thinking quietly, using calming techniques in the event of a strong emotion – are skills that require regular and daily attention. If adults fail to systematically issue descriptive and supportive instructions about expected behaviour, they cannot expect that behaviour.

  • Examples of describing the situation: ‘I see that you’re playing with your pencils.’; ‘You’re chatting with your desk mate right now.’; ‘You were looking out the window instead of completing your work.’
  • An example of expressing feelings: ‘I’m worried that if you keep chatting you won’t hear the explanation of the example task.’
  • Examples of issuing instructions: ‘Look at me and listen,’; ‘Look, this is where we’re at. Continue your work.’



Questions like ‘Why are you interrupting others?’ or ‘Why are you throwing things?’ do not help change problematic behaviour. Often, the student does not know why they did something (eg throwing a pencil high in the air, which then landed on their friend’s head) and questions like these make them feel guilty or ashamed. In addition, ‘why’ questions may incite blame and criticism either towards the student or the teacher. In a situation where a student does something inappropriate, you should apply the techniques of assertive behaviour (see the previous section) and thereby guide the student back to the expected activity.

When analysing and planning class management, pay attention to whether students get an overview and sequence of activities of the upcoming lesson, and in the first school stage even of the entire day. When starting the day, the primary school teacher could attach the day’s agenda on the wall and remove the appropriate markers from the agenda as the lessons progress. As part of the lesson, it is helpful and necessary to write the sequence of upcoming activities on the board clearly, concisely and one activity under the other. Once a certain activity is done, the keywords can be erased from the board. A fixed set of activities and timetable supports all students, helps reduce anxiety and change over to another activity.

It is not recommended to dissect and discuss the behavioural problems of a misbehaving student in front of the entire class. You should let the student(s) know that the situation has been noticed, describe the incident to the parties and give specific guidelines. The description and guidelines must be specific but non-judgemental. Avoid disparaging and criticising the parties in front of the group – this will intensify defiance and misbehaviour.

  • Example: ‘It really bothers me that I can’t explain the new part to the class and it disturbs me when you interrupt loudly. You’ll be able to speak during the upcoming work in pairs. If you don’t agree with this, please stay after class so we can discuss your behaviour in more detail.’ 

**Article ‘Kuidas saavutada tunnis töörahu’ (in Estonian language) in Õpetajate Leht of 4 October 2019.

How should you respond to bullying?

Teachers must react and intervene at the slightest instance of bullying. Even in the case of seemingly playful jabbing, adults must pay attention to the wellbeing of those involved. By tolerating situations where the parties do not actually feel well, the games may become crueller. Therefore, constant intervention can signal to students that their wellbeing at school is important and paid attention to every day.