Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing: Instructional Strategies

As instructors and teaching assistants you often have direct communication with students and, therefore, you have the potential to help students feel connected and supported in their learning environment.  You may also be in a position to notice signs that a student is struggling or is in distress (e.g., not submitting assignments). This tip sheet provides instructional strategies for supporting student wellbeing. Many of the strategies in this tip sheet can be considered good pedagogical practices that enhance the learning environment for all students. Select which strategies align with your course context, intended learning outcomes, and your teaching style and know that even one small change can make a big difference.

Instructional Strategies

  • Create a positive and respectful environment. Explicitly communicate your intent to create an inclusive, accepting, and welcoming learning environment for all students. When teaching and addressing your students, try to use inclusive language (e.g., not making assumptions about your students’ background and life experiences). When students ask questions, listen and convey that you value their input. In general, model how you expect everyone to act in your courses.
  • Foster positive relationships with students. You can increase your approachability and social presence by using humour, addressing students by their names, and personalizing examples used in class. You can also invite students to drop by your office hours just to say hello to make office hours more informal. 
  • Build community among students. You can implement small group activities (see this CTE tipsheet for sample activities) online, in your classes, or in tutorials, so students have the opportunity to meet and get to know each other. You can also encourage students to form their own study groups or partners. Be mindful that some students may be hesitant to verbally engage in group activities. In these cases, you can encourage them to participate by listening actively. Further, students who are uncomfortable discussing a specific topic may not need to participate.  
  • Foster a sense of belonging. Some students, especially in times of stress, may question whether they belong in their program or university environment in general. Emphasize that stressful academic experiences are normal, temporary, and can eventually be overcome. Avoid saying things like “This is easy” and “This is pretty straightforward”. Remember that what you find easy as a Teaching Assistant or instructor might be challenging for many undergraduates. 
  • Foster a growth mindset. Help your students see that their intelligence and abilities are malleable and changeable with effort, and that failures are opportunities for learning. You can talk about your own challenges and failures as an undergraduate student as well as provide low-risk, low-stakes opportunities for students to fail (and learn from these failures) in your classes.
  • Give thoughtful and balanced feedback.  When giving verbal and written feedback on assignments and assessments, strike a balance between positive feedback (things you can celebrate with them) and constructive feedback (opportunities where they can improve).  Include some positive comments in your overall remarks to increase their motivation. Choose your words carefully – what you say matters a lot to students.  For further guidance, see the CTE teaching tip sheet Receiving and Giving Effective Feedback.

Supporting Students

As an instructor or Teaching Assistant, you can provide information to assist a student in accessing help, but you should not take on the role of a counsellor or try to diagnose the student. 

Campus Wellness and the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health recommend following three steps when responding to students in need of support (a more detailed description of each step can be found in the embedded hyperlinks):

  1. Recognize the indicators of mental illness.
  2. Respond to the student in a way that is appropriate to the situation at hand and the existing relationship you have with the student.
  3. Refer the student to the appropriate resources so that they can access the services available.

On-Campus and Community Support Services

Campus Wellness has created several resources to increase awareness of mental health supports available on campus. One of these resources that may be particularly useful is a guide for how faculty and staff can support students in distress.

Self Care

As an instructor or graduate student, you are balancing many responsibilities, and it’s important to take care of your own mental health.

For graduate students

  • As a graduate student, you can also seek support through the resources listed in On-Campus and Community Support Services section above.
  • Reach out to the course instructor or a mentor (e.g., your Department Graduate Chair or your colleagues) to talk about the conversation (maintaining confidentiality unless it’s an issue where personal information needs to be shared).

For instructors

Talking about mental health with students can be difficult and emotionally draining.

  • Reach out to a mentor (e.g., your Department Chair or your colleagues) to talk about the conversation (maintaining confidentiality unless it’s an issue where personal information needs to be shared).
  • Seek support services if you need them; consider it as a debrief about your talk with the student (health professionals have them all the time). See the university’s Employee & Family Assistance Program for more details.

Resources

Centre for Teaching Excellence. (2017). A Manual for Teaching Assistants: Section 7: Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing

Centre for Teaching Excellence. (2018). Accessibility in Teaching resource page

Council of Ontario Universities. (2017). Teaching Students with Mental Health Disabilities.

Simon Fraser University. (n.d.). Well-being in Learning Environments

University of British Columbia. (2016). Teaching Practices that Promote Student Wellbeing: A Tool for Educators

VanderLind, R. (2017). Effects of Mental Health on Student Learning. Learning Assistance Review. 22(2): 39-58.

CTE Tips Sheets

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing: Instructional Strategies. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.