One Teacher’s Genius Strategy for Addressing Students’ Mental Health

Nearly one in five school-aged kids in the United States have struggled with a mental health disorder and countless more may be suffering silently.

Post-It Notes and poster board may seem like nothing more than standard school supplies but in Erin Castillo’s hands they are a powerful mental health tool that’s not just changing the lives of her students but helping kids all over the world.

Here’s the way it works: About once a week—depending on how things are feeling in her class—the California special education high school teacher hangs up the “mental health check-in board.” The board instructs students to write their name on the back of a sticky note and then stick it next to one of six colored hearts. The hearts are labeled “I’m great,” “I’m OK,” “I’m meh,” “I’m struggling,” “I’m struggling and need a check-in,” and “I’m in a dark place,” and allow the students a quick way to describe and share their feelings before class starts. Please pay attention to the 13 suicide warning signs that are easy to miss.

Then, during independent study time, she checks in one-on-one with students about their sticky notes. Some kids just need some positive encouragement or a listening ear but for those who are more upset or dealing with a serious issue, she says she has a variety of options ready and waiting to help them, including peer counselors and a school psychologist they can see that very day. Knowing that not only is someone really listening but that they can get immediate help to feel better has been revolutionary for the students.

She got the idea for the board after a couple of weeks where many of her students kept telling her they were having a bad week. While she was grateful they were sharing, she needed more information to help them—and the board was born. “I didn’t want to miss any student that might be struggling and this was a way to easily survey how everyone was feeling,” she says.

Castillo implemented her idea in March of 2019 and decided to share it, posting a picture of her check-in board on her Instagram page. It quickly went viral, garnering thousands of likes, shares, and comments. It hit a nerve because it turns out that lots of teachers have been struggling with understanding how their students feel and lots of students have been struggling with feelings they don’t know how to put into words.

“There are so many kids in school with mental health issues and those issues can affect their ability to learn and function in the classroom,” she says.

Her students love it too and she says she’s seen many positive changes because of it. One thing that’s surprised her is how the students have started using the board to help each other and to ask for help from their friends. “I remember watching one student take their friend by the hand and bring them to the board to show them where they were putting their sticky note, so that their friend would understand how they were feeling,” she says. “It was this beautiful moment and I’ve seen a lot of friendships become deeper and stronger.”

Another bonus is discovering how kids who seemed fine or even “too cool” to be bothered with school are really feeling. The board encouraged them to open up about things they’d been keeping inside, and is particularly helpful for kids who might not know how to put their feelings into words, she says, adding that she put in weeks of work before introducing the chart teaching the students how to name and categorize their feelings.

“For a lot of kids, asking for help and being vulnerable is really hard,” she says. “But this chart tells them ‘You matter, your feelings are important, and you have every right to feel this way.’” Which, as anyone who remembers the tumultuous years of high school can understand, is one of the most loving and empowering things you can say to a teen. Incorporating these tiny ways to encourage your kids every day helps too.