What’s your biggest fear? A 15 to 30-minute classroom check-in for mental health

A few years before the pandemic, an undergraduate student mentioned the upcoming Halloween weekend and randomly mentioned that vampires were their biggest fear. Everyone laughed. But that comment rubbed up against so many other things I’d been hearing and reading: real fears and stresses that students were facing.  

In response, I developed a classroom mental health check-in that begins by simply asking, “What’s your greatest worry or biggest fear?” Each semester, I ask my students to respond anonymously using blank 3x5 index cards or via Poll Everywhere. I regularly received serious and funny responses when I first did this exercise. Along with concerns about grades, family, and the future, students wrote, “I’m afraid of spiders!” “Being eaten by a shark.” “Vampires!” But in the past few years, I have received almost no funny responses. All are deep concerns: “Never being enough.” “Not being successful after college.” “Balancing my life.” “The future.” “Failure.”

I then share the anonymous responses. When students see what their classmates wrote, there is always a collective but quiet acknowledgment in the room. You can feel it.

Though I have 40+ years of life experience with students, I could not answer these fears. So I divide them up into small groups and assign one of the fear responses. Here’s their prompt: “What would you tell a friend who shared these worries with you?”

Each time I do this experiment, my students provide peer advice that is strengthening and encouraging, and hopeful. They have a remarkable ability to empathize and help each other. They have the answers. (And I point that out to create a metacognitive moment.) 

The critical piece: Do not stop the conversation here. After students share, follow up with the reflective learning piece: “Why did we do this exercise?”

Using this reflective “why” question, in every instance, my students immediately respond: “It showed us that we’re not alone.” “We’re not the only ones worried about stuff.” “We can talk with friends and share our troubles.” Having them say and hear that reflection matters. It solidifies the lesson in real-time.

The Closing: Now, finish the exercise by restating that it is wonderful they realize they have each other to lean on. And encourage them to do so. Then have them write down (or use Think/Pair/Share), “What brings you comfort?” “What brings you hope or joy?” My students often respond: “Family.” “Talking with friends about my worries.” “My dog.” “Music.” “My faith.”

Summarize and emphasize their “comfort” responses. This is medicine. Then give them a final homework assignment: 

“Acknowledge your concerns and worries. They are legitimate. Find someone to talk with when you need. But then, invest time reflecting on those beautiful things that bring comfort. Life is good. You are not alone. We’ll get through all this together.”

Showing our students that we care is the first step in teaching. I have made great connections with classrooms using this activity. I have had individual students thank me for reminding them that they’re not “the only ones” experiencing these worries. I hope you will give this experiment a try. 

Note: You can also use this approach when mentoring or talking with a stressed or struggling friend or colleague. Ask them, “What would you say to a friend who was facing ________ issue?” (If they catch on to your trick, you may have to prod them a little. “Really, what would you tell a friend!?”) Then smile, acknowledge their worry/fear and response, and reiterate that they can get through whatever it is. Encouragement, with acknowledgment, is a powerful tool. 

About the author: 

Brian Raison, PhD, Drake Institute Affiliate and Associate Professor, OSU Dept. of Extension. 

He has served OSU for over 25 years using non-formal teaching to reach audiences statewide through the federally funded Land Grant “Extension” program established in 1914. https://extension.osu.edu/ Since 2016, he has also taught graduate courses in CFAES Agricultural Communication, Education, and Leadership (ACEL), and undergraduate sections in the Second Year Transformational Experience Program (STEP).