In this article, we highlight Stanford classrooms as a key site for fostering well-being. We offer recommendations from the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and Well-Being at Stanford to prepare you to promote flourishing and address mental health challenges.
Classroom communities are a key site to encourage mental health and well-being
All of us play a crucial role in supporting the mental health and well-being of the Stanford community. Whether we are faculty, student leaders, staff, family, or any other member of this community, we can all be intentional about our words and actions (what we say and do) to help others towards well-being.
Within this broader goal, those who work with students in classrooms can build healthy and sustainable learning communities that help students flourish, and respond to students’ distress with care, warmth, and additional resources.
What does it mean to flourish?
Flourishing is a term that encompasses all the things that make up positive mental health and well-being (MHWB), such as feeling, being, and functioning well. Oppositely, to be languishing is for mental health and well-being to be suffering.
Languishing (low MHWB) is the opposite of flourishing (high MHWB).
Note, this does not speak to the presence or absence of mental illness. You can be in deep languishing without having a mental illness. Conversely, you can be flourishing while managing a diagnosed mental illness. Our goal is to help students flourish.
Layers of care
Multiple layers of care impact our community's well-being: self-care, community care, and professional care.
The innermost layer consists of self-care, which includes actions within your sphere of influence. While we often think about self-care strategies or ways that we as individuals work to improve our MHWB, sustainable well-being requires more.
The next layer is community care, including support and resources from your community. Community care includes our connection to, and support within, a larger group and is essential for our mental health. The classroom is a key site of community care.
The outermost layer is professional care, including support and resourcing from professional services. Many of us will find that we need extra, specialized support for our mental health. Professional care should be a normalized part of our care network, assuming that we’ll move in and out of these care services throughout our lives. The classroom is also a key site to connect students with professional care.
Build a community of care in your classroom
Building a strong community within your classroom supports students as people, as well as their learning. Helping students flourish is a quarter-long task. During the term, we invite you to consider these strategies to help make your classroom a site of community care.
Establish clear structures and norms for your students
Ask students what support they might need to balance both their MHWB and academic success. From these needs, you can co-create community norms that foster connection and build an environment of warmth and care. This resource from Stanford Teaching Commons provides strategies for setting classroom norms and commitments.
Use personal sharing and reflection, levity, and humor to provide space for students to bring their whole selves into the classroom. This can help avoid feeling that time is scarce, and give students relief from stressors.
Check in frequently as you move through the quarter about how structures and norms are working and adjust as needed.
Reach out to students as individuals
Use daily check-ins during class or exit tickets to formalize frequent communication with students. In large classes, work as a teaching team to monitor students by section. One option is to require students to attend office hours at least once during the quarter so you can check in with them one-on-one. Explain the purpose of office hours to illuminate hidden curriculum, and/or consider rebranding them as “open conversation hours” to make them more approachable.
If you notice that a student has been absent several classes in a row without contacting you, reach out via email. You are signaling to the student that you noticed their absence in your classroom. Use a warm and caring tone to indicate that your priority is their well-being and that this is not a punitive email. By reaching out, you are indicating that they are an important member of your classroom community, and their absence is noted.
Acknowledge challenges to well-being
Global events like conflicts, pandemics, or election cycles, as well as Stanford events like midterms, student deaths, or campus social movements, may pose challenges to students’ well-being. Acknowledging this signals to students that you see them as full individuals. You don’t need to say the “perfect” thing; saying something is better than saying nothing.
Consider offering additional accommodations (extensions, alternative forms of participation, etc.) to support students who are negatively impacted. If a full group conversation feels daunting, you can help students process their emotional responses through pair/small-group conversations or individual writing activities. For further discussion of how to navigate student deaths, see this resource.
Make a plan to address students’ well-being
Before you start teaching, consider the landscape of professional care options at Stanford. This will empower you to connect students to further resources.
Familiarize yourself with campus mental health resources
Mental health goes beyond counseling. Consider other campus resources, such as:
- virtual study halls
- learning accommodations
- learner variability support
- well-being coaches
- academic coaches
- Hume Center writing tutors
- academic advising
- FLI opportunity fund.
Keep go-to resources for certain situations handy, and make note of any resources that you, your peers, or your students have found helpful so you can continue to rely on them.
Develop a plan to deal with urgent situations and crises
The Red Folder outlines Stanford’s recommended strategy for how to respond when you’re concerned about a student’s well-being. Take some time to review it before the quarter begins. It may also be helpful to be aware of the various student support services.
For undergraduate students, if you’re concerned about a student’s academic performance, a good initial point of contact is VPUE Academic Advising. Contact them at 650.723.2426 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also refer students in need to the Dean of Students using this student of concern form. In more urgent situations in which you’re concerned for the student’s safety, you can contact the Resident Directors at 650.504.8022 or by emailing email@example.com.
For graduate and professional students, the best first point of contact is the Graduate Life Office (GLO). For urgent situations, contact 650.723.7288 for the on-call dean, pager ID #25085. For less urgent situations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t worry about contacting the perfect office on your first try. The student support offices will be able to redirect you to the right place, so when in doubt, just reach out to any office.
Prioritize your own mental health and well-being
Instructor and TA burnout is a problem that has worsened in recent years. Practice self-care and, if necessary, seek professional help. Being open about your well-being with students can destigmatize mental health issues and increase feelings of belonging and safety.
Set boundaries on your time and energy. Within the academy, women, non-binary people, and people of color are more likely to engage in care work, which is unrewarded and undervalued. While being caring can help form strong relationships with students. You don’t need to be a therapist! Use the resources provided in this module to connect students with people who are professionally trained.
Evidence-based teaching strategies designed to improve student participation and build equity in the classroom—such as student-centered design, active learning, and alternative grading approaches—can reduce the amount of time you spend preparing for class or grading assignments.
- Start with some self-reflection following the guidelines provided in this slide deck on elements of flourishing.
- Stanford Teaching Commons provides numerous resources on teaching that can help you build a community of care in your classroom. Particularly relevant are these articles on inclusive teaching practices and working with a teaching team.
- Active Minds, a non-profit organization focused on mental health education, has a helpful resource for faculty on how to create a culture of care in the classroom.
- This well-being toolkit provides a menu of strategies to support your own MHWB.
Center for Teaching and Learning. “Responding to Student Deaths.” Stanford Teaching Commons, 9 Sept. 2022, https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/news/responding-student-deaths.
---. “Ten Strategies for Promoting Student Flourishing.” Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning, 1 Nov. 2022, https://docs.google.com/document/u/1/d/1dUoLaeycPzBMjc7bGugX9FrpmpItqOR5HUj4KnVxvn8/edit.
Coleman, Max E. “Mental Health in the College Classroom: Best Practices for Instructors.” Teaching Sociology, Feb. 2022, p. 0092055X221080433. SAGE Journals, https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X221080433.
Stanford Student Affairs. Mental Health Resources at Stanford. https://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/mental-health-resources-stanford. Accessed 30 May 2023.
---. Red Folder. https://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/redfolder. Accessed 30 May 2023.