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Mental Health in Schools: Response Based Therapy for Teachers

Mental Health in schools is now in the forefront of everyone's minds, and Response Based therapy lends itself well to use in classrooms! School counselors are strapped, and although teachers should not take on the role of school counselor, employing some of these strategies can help create a mentally healthy school and can help teachers navigate the day to day mental health concerns that arise! It employs many of the strategies found in both Solution-Focused and Narrative Therapy, and puts an emphasis on strengths-based language through a client centered approach.

Response-Based Therapeutic language completely changed how I refer to diagnoses, client-presented concerns, and overall changed how I communicate with students.

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be used as an alternative to proper treatment administered by a trained, registered professional mental health practitioner. The strategies offered in this article are meant to be used by educators in a supportive context to provide tools to decrease anxiety provoking situations in a school setting.

What is Response Based Therapy?

Response-Based Therapy was first created in response to working with both victims and perpetrators of violence and focuses on engaging clients in the process of uncovering their active resistance to violence. Though resistance often has a negative connotation within many psychological theories, as I’ve mentioned in previous podcasts and blog posts, one of the founders of Response Based Therapy, Allan Wade, clarifies, “I intend…to convey the view that resistance to violence and oppression is both a symptom of health and health-inducing. I do not intend to imply the existence of ‘unhealthy’ or ‘maladaptive resistance’” (p. 23-24).

Furthermore, Response Based practice is rooted in social justice and human rights, and uses microanalysis of interactions. As Coates and Wade explain, "with this kind of analysis, a therapist or other professional can see that a client's response is not a function of imputed unobservable psychological traits, or other theoretical constructs, but a response to the questions that were asked, the information that was taken up, and the ideas that were acknowledged and, perhaps most important, the interpersonal tone or definition of relationships developed in the conversation."

Essentially what this highlights is that every interaction, regardless of how seemingly inconsequential, shapes someone’s individual responses to both that situation and other situations in different contexts. Response-Based Therapy negates the concept that behaviours and personality traits are pathological constructs, rather they are social constructs. (Remember all the times I said “diagnoses are problematic for *insert-one-of-many-reasons-here*? Yeah… This is a founding principle of Response-Based Therapy!

How does this apply to school?

SOOOO many ways! First of all, you don’t need to have an in-depth understanding of mental health diagnoses, in fact, it’s almost better not to!

It encourages you to consider every students' experience as shaping their responses, and gives you as an educator tools to understand mental health as being one experience in response to external stimuli. And if the stimuli is external, guess what? We can change it! It can allow you to micro-analyze your own interactions with students and make different choices to decrease students’ experiences of anxiety and depression in school!

Response Based Strategies for Classrooms

Because Response Based practice is less widely researched than other therapeutic modalities, there’s limited research supporting its use with children and youth. However, speaking from experience, some subtle Response Based shifts in language can make all the difference!


I know I mentioned this above, but it warrants its own section with a bit more of an explanation.

How can you micro-analyze social interactions in school? Basically, pay attention, listen closely when students talk to you, and identify the contextual factors contributing to their experiences of anxiety.

A student has test anxiety? Ask them questions about it! When did this start? What are they truly worried about? Where have they been able to complete tests previously?

Then acknowledge their resistance! How is their anxiety a response to something? What are they resisting? (Remember, Response Based resistance is a positive!) By avoiding their tests they’re likely resisting how their parents may react to a “bad” grade, or they’re resisting disappointing you as their teacher, or they’re resisting their fear of failure. All of this makes sense and is not pathological - it’s normal! The stakes just feel much higher for these students, so unpack the stakes!

See responses, not deficits

We are often faced with IEP's at the start of the year, and of course, I am 100% in favour of reading your IEP's and supporting your differently abled students!

BUT I am also encouraging you to consider diagnoses as responses to contextual situations built up over time. For instance, Response Based practice posits that because everyone responds differently due to various social, cultural, and societal factors, there's no real way to predict how someone should act. In other words, how can we identify what's abnormal functioning (mental health diagnoses) when we haven't factored in the whole person's lived experience?

Check out the Jimmy Kimmel Halloween candy prank... See the many ways someone can respond?! How can we decide which is the "normal" response and decide then which is "abnormal"?!

Consider your use of language

Reassess how you speak to and about students. This goes for not only our day-to-day conversations, but also the bigger issues that arise, such as both verbal and physical violence (bullying).

In day-to-day conversations, consider changing your language from “you have anxiety” to “you experience anxiety.” This takes it out of the pathological, problematizing language to normalizing it as a response to the external stimuli. Its no longer just because of their diagnosis, it is now a rational response that anyone would experience in these circumstances!

Response Based Practice, since rooted in trauma therapy, provides a framework from which to address violence at school.

For example, oftentimes when students disclose that another student is hurting them, physically or emotionally, we are quick to enter into a conflict resolution scenario, which can sometimes involve a forced apology from the perpetrator. This is problematic, as it doesn’t allow the perpetrator to truly understand the issues with their behaviour, nor does it validate the victim. A better approach would be to ask the perpetrator questions about their actions, and tease out the choices they made. It’s important in these situations to not let them scapegoat their behaviours with “it was an accident” or better yet “I was just mad/sad/frustrated/etc.”

In every situation, a perpetrator has made specific choices to behave the way they have. It’s not about blaming them, but about helping them find accountability. For instance, rather than letting them off the hook with “I was mad. I didn’t know it would hurt them.” Asking them if they’d make the same choices around the teacher? Or would they say/do the same thing to their best friend? Their parents?

If it’s physical violence you’re addressing, tease out when (no one around, etc.), who (someone they felt safe to assault - smaller than them, alone, etc.), and finally, how (did they hit them once and stop? If so, this means they knew what they were doing was hurtful. Did they hit them in a non-visible place? This demonstrates forethought). These are important steps and conversations to have to ensure that perpetrators take accountability for their actions. You can easily tailor your language, questions and approach for various ages, acknowledging the choices that individuals make, which allows them to make different choices later on.

In terms of working with a victim - validate, validate, validate! Their experience and understanding of violent interactions is always rational and reasonable. Understand how they sought to resist the violence! For instance, did they scream? Did they stay quiet so as not to further agitate the bully, thus protecting themselves? By sheer virtue of telling you they are resisting future torment!


Response Based strategies are one of the best ways to develop meaningful, supportive, and trusting relationships with students! It provides the skills necessary to fully understand responses to context, which helps to validate youth’s lived experiences and understand mental health as a response! This will also help you see your work through a social justice and human rights lens, and that truly is the work we do as educators!

Stay tuned for the next blog post that will dive further into Response Based language! In order to keep this brief and digestible, I skimmed the surface of true language analysis, but I promise you, it is well worth further exploration! If not for your teaching practice, for your own analytical understanding of privilege and how it colours media, news, and our own responses!

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About Response Based Ideas. (n.d.) Centre for Response-Based Practice. Retrieved on Oct.18, 2020 from

Coates, L., Todd, N., & Wade, A. (2003). Shifting terms: An interactional and discursive view

of violence and resistance. Canadian Review of Social Policy, 52(1), 116-122.

Coates, L., & Wade, A. (2004). Telling it like it isn’t: Obscuring perpetrator responsibility for violent crime. Discourse and Society, 15(5), 499-526.

Coates, L., & Wade, A. (2007). Language and violence: Analysis of four discursive operations.

Journal of Family Violence, 22, 511-522.

Microanalysis. (n.d.) Centre for Response-Based Practice. Retrieved on Oct.18, 2020 from


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