Checking In: Student Well-being Requires Proactive Teachers

A close up shot of a little boy at school who looks distant and upset.

Educators across the United States have a new way to monitor the emotional well-being of students thanks to a simple classroom method invented by a high school teacher in California. 

Erin Castillo

Erin Castillo, a special education and peer-counseling instructor at John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont, posted a chart in her classroom last spring listing different emotional categories. She then gave her students sticky notes and told them they could write their names on the back of the paper and place it in whatever category fit their mood that day. 

The anonymous, nonverbal nature of the chart gave Castillo’s students a discreet way of letting her know when they were stressed. It also gave them a range of emotions to choose from, rather than just stating if they were happy or sad. The categories include: 

  • I’m great
  • I’m okay
  • I’m meh 
  • I’m struggling
  • I’m having a tough time and wouldn’t mind a check-in
  • I’m not doing great
This mental health check-in chart for students went viral in 2019 after high school educator Erin Castillo shared a picture of it on Facebook. It allows students to discreetly notify teachers about their mood.

After Castillo uploaded a photo of the chart to social media, the post garnered over 250,000 shares on Facebook along with a lot of praise and some criticism. One Facebook user suggested giving printable motivational quotes to students who are not doing well. Another user disapproved of the chart, saying it took time away from teaching and that not every educator is prepared to handle students’ mental health issues.

“We don’t do it every day,” Castillo says of the exercise. “I do it once a week or once every other week, but I always have the post-its and stuff available.”

Sometimes students use the check-in chart on their own, without the participation of the entire class, she adds. “I actually really like that because it’s not forced. That’s when they feel comfortable coming in and saying they need help,” Castillo says. “It’s a cool communication tool that they enjoy using rather than it being like a chore or something that they feel like they have to do every day.”

Castillo’s students are used to seeing her pull classmates aside to check on them. Because she shares her classroom with a peer educator, she has the flexibility to walk students out of the class to talk about how things are going. They may have a quick chat outside. Or, if she is short on time, she will let a student know that a school counselor will be checking in, she says. 

In addition, Castillo offers students mood tracker booklets where they can record how they are feeling. “We do that every day right when they walk in the door, and they don’t have to share those with anyone,” Castillo explains. “It’s just for themselves.”

At the end of each month, students analyze the tracker, look for trends, and reflect on factors that contributed to their emotional well-being.

Classroom techniques that give students the time and ability to check in with their feelings are especially important in light of the large number of young people in need of mental health support. According to 2015 research from the Child Mind Institute, 60 percent of children with diagnosable depression do not receive treatment. When it comes to anxiety disorders, eight in 10 go untreated. 

While some may assume this problem primarily affects young people in overburdened public schools with exorbitantly high student-to-counselor ratios, independent schools are not immune.

Rosemary Baggish, founder of the consulting service Mental Health in Independent School Communities (MHISC), says she was inspired to create her organization because she saw a disparity in how independent schools were handling students’ emotional well-being. As a developer and director of therapeutic school programs at the Yale Psychiatric Institute as well as a former educator, she saw “children with mental health issues being disciplined rather than being cared for,” Baggish says. “That is completely against the ethos of independent schools because they really do care about their kids.”

In 2007, Baggish and clinical psychologist Peter H. Wells developed the Independent School Health Check (ISHC), a computer-based student survey that analyzes risks, behaviors, and emotions. Among the survey questions on ISHC, Baggish believes one of the most important is “Do you have an adult to talk to on a regular basis?”

Based on a survey analysis of 102 independent schools, more than 20,000 students — approximately one in four — answered “no.”

“These are kids that are sometimes called privileged, and they have a lot of people caring for them, and they still feel they do not have an adult to talk to,” Baggish says. Whenever she visits schools, she always emphasizes the importance of letting students know that educators and staff care about them and that there are adults at school whom they can turn to when struggling. 

“We feel that being encouraged to ask for help and having someone to go to is the most important protective factor that an adolescent student can have when he or she is in high school,” Baggish explains, adding that learning how to ask for help is a skill students carry with them to college and the workplace.

She warns, however, that teachers should not try to play the role of school counselors. Baggish says she has a grievance with educators who assume a student is depressed because they are unkempt, unmotivated, or not acting like their usual self. Instead, teachers should consider whether a student’s behavior can be attributed to other issues, and schools should have mental health professionals with whom they can consult on potential psychiatric issues. 

Castillo says being a mental health champion in the classroom begins with building community and modeling expectations. For example, if she is having an “off day,” she tells her students how she is feeling and lets them know it’s not their fault. She also lets them know what she is doing to improve her mood.

“At the end of the day, this kind of becomes our job,” she says. “We have to do what’s best for our students and educate ourselves on mental health practices, too.”

Mariah Stewart is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS.