They might not say anything, but Erin Castillo can tell when a student is having a bad day. And she wants to help, without pressuring them. So last year she put a chart on the wall, encouraging students to write their name on a Post-it and stick it on the category that best sums up how they are feeling that day. Choices range from “I’m great” to “I’m having a hard time and wouldn’t mind a check-in” to “I’m in a really dark place.”
Castillo teaches English to students with mild to moderate disabilities at John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont. She also teaches a peer counseling class and has a degree in psychology, so incorporating mental health into the school day comes naturally.
The chart is a way to check in with students who are having difficulties and refer those in crisis to counselors and mental health professionals. Students are asked to trust one another and not to invade each other’s privacy. And surprisingly, they comply. The chart is located by the front door before an entryway, and it’s difficult for students to see who’s posting while sitting at their desks.
“It’s made it so much easier for kids to talk to me. For students, it can be daunting to share emotions and ask someone for help. But now it’s not so scary.”
— Erin Castillo, Fremont Unified District Teachers Association
Suggestions to help students cope with different situations.
“I always worried that perhaps I was missing the signs that students were struggling. So, putting up a chart seemed the best option to find out.”
To her, it was a small gesture to show students that she cares, and a way to create a safe space for them. She was shocked when it went viral in a big way. After putting up the chart, she posted it on her Instagram page. Soon she was trending, going from 10,000 to 33,000 followers.
“I had no idea it had gone viral,” says Castillo, a member of the Fremont Unified District Teachers Association. “When the TV show Insider reached out to me with an interview request on April Fool’s Day, I thought it was a joke and that I was being punked.”
It was no joke. Since then, she has also been featured on Good Morning America and CBS News, which sent a camera crew to the school and filmed an entire day. Facebook flew her out to speak at its Safety Summit about how to do online check-ins with groups. She has inspired teachers around the world — educators as far away as New Zealand and South Africa have modeled charts on the one she created. While the accolades have been exciting, the biggest reward is helping her students, who struggle with self-esteem and have been the target of bullying.
“It has worked really well,” she shares. “It’s made it so much easier for kids to talk to me. For students, it can be scary and daunting to share emotions and ask someone to help them. But now it’s not so scary. We talk about what depression means and look it up in the dictionary. I have had kids come up to me and ask to hug me, which is unexpected in high school. The school psychologist has worked with a couple of kids I have referred, and so have counselors.”
Students say that it has been a lifesaver and inspired them to try harder in school.
Student Simone Dawkins places her Post-it on the mental health check-in chart.
“I like the chart and felt it was a way to share my feelings with Mrs. Castillo without other students knowing I was asking for help,” says Virginia Morfin. “When I asked for help, she made me feel important and cared about.”
Simone Dawkins says she felt a little nervous at first sharing that being bullied had put her in a “dark place.” Castillo sent her to talk with the counselor, who helped her cope and feel better. “I feel empowered,” says Dawkins, who carries a fluffy toy to comfort her. “It makes such a difference to know that on your darkest day, people care about you and love you.”
Daniel Ferguson-Morales shares that posting how he was feeling on the chart also made it easier to open up to fellow students.
While educators around the globe have created their own posters, Castillo offers a free one at teacherspayteachers.com.
“I don’t want to charge anyone for something that helps students,” explains Castillo. “Just to know that other teachers are sharing this — and helping students — fills me with joy.”