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Classroom environment affects children’s mental health

Journal of Health and Social Behavior,
March 2010

Classroom environment affects children’s mental health

First-grade classrooms with poor environments - inadequate material resources and teachers who feel disrespected by colleagues - have been linked to a higher number of mental health problems in students.

Sociologists and other researchers spend a lot of time looking at work environments and how they are linked to the mental health of adults, but pay less attention to the relationship between childrens' well-being and their 'work' environments - namely their schools and more specifically their classrooms.

The study was based on interviews with the parents and teachers of about 10,700 first-graders in the United States. The areas considered in the study included attentiveness, fighting, anxiety and sadness, and the formation of friendships. The material resources ranged from basics such as paper, pencils, and heat to child-friendly furnishings, computers, musical instruments, and art supplies. The researchers found that students in classrooms with fewer resources, in terms of inadequate teaching materials and teachers who didn't feel supported by colleagues, were more likely to experienced worse mental health across all four measures.

The study doesn't prove that classrooms that face more challenges directly cause mental health problems in children. However, being in a classroom with a lack of resources might adversely impact children's mental health because children are frustrated or disheartened by their surroundings. Teachers also may be more discouraged or harsh when they can't teach properly due to the fact that they are missing key elements. For teachers to get the support and encouragement that they need from colleagues, including the principal, is likely important for whether the teachers are able to create a classroom climate that helps children thrive. If teachers are feeling stressed out because they aren't getting what they need from their colleagues that stress may carry over to the children.

The study shows that schools and teachers play important roles in children's mental health. Parents care a lot about their children's mental health - their emotional and behavioural well-being - but we as a society don't tend to focus on that as an important educational outcome nearly as much as we talk about and think about academic outcomes. Policy-makers typically measure school quality and teacher effectiveness in terms of academic outcomes such as test scores. But this study demonstrates that schools and teachers also impact children's mental health, making it a barometer that deserves more attention. Although the above study only looked at students in first grade, the researchers suspect the findings would be similar in higher grades.

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