The flexible classroom: Helping students with mental health challenges to thrive

08.05.13 | Learning on the EDge | 11 Comments

By Jessica Minahan

About 10% of the school population — 9 to 13 million children — struggle with mental health challenges, some of the most challenging students that educators face. In our inclusive classrooms, teachers are becoming skilled at working with children who exhibit learning, physical, and cognitive disabilities, as well as those on the autism spectrum while students with mental health challenges continue to mystify and frustrate.

Many students with mental health challenges have difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors, often becoming inflexible and oppositional, disengaged or disruptive. Classroom culture is often not supportive of these students, who have difficulty with expectations that are reasonable for most of the class. Traditionally in classrooms, we’ve emphasized and rewarded consistent and regulated behavior and performance — the exact skills lacked by many with mental health challenges.

Students with anxiety or other mental health challenges may demonstrate inconsistent performance and behavior, which may fluctuate with their emotional state. As the student’s anxiety and mood fluctuates, so does his ability to attend, behave appropriately, and do schoolwork. This potentially causes them to go from writing a two-page essay in the morning to struggling with a coherent sentence in the afternoon, from being appropriate during a spelling quiz one moment to crying over an easier assignment the next. Teachers are left not knowing what to expect. Typical classroom expectations are inflexible and don’t account for a student’s varying ability to achieve them at any given moment. Inflexible cultures can produce anxiety in those unable to meet expectations.

How can we change classrooms to better accommodate students with mental health challenges?
How can we change classroom culture to better accommodate these students? By making the classroom more flexible: “reading” the student and reacting accordingly while emphasizing skill building. Although this flexible classroom model has mainly been used in self-contained special education, it’s a universal design that benefits all students, not just those with mental health challenges.

Most students with mental health challenges exhibit small behavior changes (wiggling in their seats, speaking loudly, or putting their heads down) before they become overwhelmed, act inappropriately, or stop working. Responding at the first sign of dysregulation “catches” them while they’re still rational and accessible to intervention. This response doesn’t need to be more than a check-in, asking how the student is doing or suggesting that he use a calming strategy. Because regulation in a more flexible classroom culture can be as important as work production, expectations may need to be adjusted accordingly. For example, in math, the expectation may change from producing a fact sheet to remaining seated and calm.

In his book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough describes learning regulation skills as essential for all students. This can be achieved by taking brief moments throughout the day to teach and review techniques for staying calm, persisting with a difficult task, and identifying emotions and stressors. In the flexible classroom, demonstration and practice of self-regulation skills, instead of perfect behavior and production, can become the emphasis and expectation. It gives those students with mental health challenges essential strategies to cope with difficult situations they’ll face in the future.

Students with mental health challenges are increasingly present in our classrooms. A flexible classroom culture that’s proactive and supportive can prevent them from becoming disruptive, disengaged, and work avoidant, while leaving the teacher more available for teaching. A more flexible classroom culture is universally beneficial, teaching every student skills for success.


About Jessica Minahan

JESSICA MINAHAN ( is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator in the Newton, Mass., public school system and coauthor with Nancy Rappaport of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Student.  Her last Kappan article, coauthored with Nancy Rappaport, was “ ‘I didn’t mean to . . .’: Practical suggestions for understanding and teaching students with sexualized behavior, Phi Delta Kappan, February 2013 (Vol. 94, No. 5), pp. 21-26.

Comments on The flexible classroom: Helping students with mental health challenges to thrive

  1. Susan Doherty says:

    I totally agree that our classrooms are designed for students with regulated behavior. A moment of dysregulation can be a great teachable moment not only for the student but his classmates.

  2. Robben Wainer says:

    It is a fact the students who stand out in higher ed courses often need accommodation for a mental disorder that is very much like implementing a special needs intervention.

  3. […] ways to cope with stress and anxiety would also benefit students. Having a counselor come in once a quarter to […]

  4. Susan Evans says:

    I have a long professional history of working with children and adults in the mental health field as a nurse. i have just started volunteering with a local grammar school and realize how many of the five year old have mental health issues that are apparent in the classroom.. I realize that the job of teacher is a very difficult one and sorely underpaid. i really want to help the teacher to deal with the difficult children. I am hoping that the book THE BEHAVIOR CODE will be helpful to me. I have ordered it from my public library.

  5. Donna Allen says:

    I am a student at Ashford University online, your information has been wonderful in my essay paper. I really do thank you for being reliable magazine. Thank you, and yes of course I am making sure you get all of the credit.

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  6. Isabel Meruelo says:

    I agree with what the author was writing about however, it is very easy to explain what is a flexible classroom, but it is another thing to have to implement those ideas into a classroom setting.

  7. Lazara Daniel-Ribalta says:

    I like the idea of a flexible classroom. However my question would be: How do you implement flexible classroom when you have to attend to other students that would have to deal with the same kind of behavior issues?

  8. Griselys Gonzalez says:

    I enjoyed the paper. I will try to implement flexible classroom idea this year, playing close attention to students behaviors and responses.

  9. David Brooks says:

    Since “10% of our school population suffers with mental health challenges,” it is essential that we as educations develop strategies to utilize in the classroom that help the students manage their behavior. Educators must be mindful of subtle changes in students’ behavior to help prevent or deescalate inappropriate behavior.

  10. Katia Garcia says:

    There are students in my classroom that exhibits inappropriate behaviors and I as the teacher try to prevent the behavior from escalating by acknowledging certain indicative signal exhibited by the students.

  11. Elvira Stamos says:

    This articles offers teachers a tool that allows us to be proactive with our students; when teachers become aware of certain behavior characteristics exhibited by our students, we can intervene and defused the escalation of inappropriate behavior.

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