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Great Teaching

Student Mental Health

The College advisory Supporting Students' Mental Health offers direction and advice to members. Here's how many are putting those ideas into action.

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In her Grade 7 class at Valley Park Middle School in Toronto, Susie Barraud, OCT, knows there are many ways to measure how her students are faring. That's why she wanted to talk to one girl who lacked focus and wasn't keeping up with her work. It wasn't just the academics that worried Barraud. Was something wrong?

Barraud had built trust with the student over the school year, so the girl confided. Her father was controlling and overbearing, which had taken a toll. "Her self-esteem was shot, she was sad all the time, and she didn't know where to fit in," says Barraud, who's also curriculum leader for Wellness, Inclusion and Social Justice.

The girl felt better just discussing her feelings. Barraud found another way to help. At times, she sat the girl near two other students who were also dealing with anxiety, and gave them group work. The three students became friends and formed a mutual support society.

"We all carry baggage and can help each other move through it," says Barraud. "The classroom teacher has to build community within the room."

In 2018, the College issued an advisory called Supporting Students' Mental Health. It aims to help members better understand the issues, recognize behaviours of concern, and respond appropriately.

"Kids want to be heard. They don't always need advice, but they do need an outlet."
— Susie Barraud, OCT

What are some Ontario Certified Teachers doing to take the ideas and recommendations in the advisory and bring them to life every day?

It starts with how a teacher frames mental health supports. This isn't just about mental illness. As the advisory notes, optimal mental health is also about having the ability to adapt, cope and manage thoughts, feelings and behaviours. That's mental wellness.

Every student, whether they have a specific mental health challenge or not, needs an encouraging space in which to learn. Providing one matters for learning and for mental health, and teachers are expert in cultivating such spaces.

"Wellness encompasses physical, emotional and cognitive aspects of well-being. When all of those components are addressed in classrooms and schools, you have a nourishing environment," says Sharon Pyke, OCT, superintendent of education — Student Well-Being, Greater Essex County District School Board.

Photo of Susie Barraud, OCT, smiling.
Susie Barraud, OCT

Paying attention to students' mental health isn't an add-on, she says, it's foundational. "School has to be a safe place intellectually and emotionally," says Pyke.

Reflecting on the College advisory, Barraud says teachers can bolster wellness through routine practices. She papers her classroom door with inspirational quotes to set a positive tone. Barraud often talks to the students about their ups and downs to normalize those conversations, and takes a keen interest in their lives outside school. "Get to know the people your students are," she says.

It sounds basic but these efforts add up. Barraud notes the importance of creating a sense of connection and belonging — "an awareness of each other," she says.

Simple things can matter. "How's the weather?" That's how Tom Doherty, OCT, greets each of his students as the day begins. Their answers — sunny, rainy, stormy, cloudy — correspond to how they're feeling.

Doherty teaches kindergarten to Grade 2/3 at St. John School in Red Lake, Ont. (in the northwest region of the province), which is part of the Kenora Catholic District School Board. Having the children become mood meteorologists makes them more aware of their emotions, and more comfortable talking about them in plain language. That also helps Doherty decide when he needs to lend a hand.

He understands that the way children deal with success, failure, school and life revolves greatly around their mental health. "I'm focused on the whole of the student," says Doherty.

Everyday interactions take a different flavour when you view them as a chance to enhance wellness too. Lindsay Drozdz, OCT, puts a mental health lens on things like being visible and approachable between classes, waving and smiling at students, and asking how their day is going.

"Students need a sense that they're wanted. Just having a caring adult is critical," says Drozdz, a student success teacher at Essex District High School, about a 20-minute drive from Windsor.

That feeling of care can come across in many ways. What if a student says they blanked on a test? Pyke says it's important to validate emotions. So don't solve problems for them, don't say they probably did better than they think, and don't tell them it's OK because the test doesn't count for much.

Instead, acknowledge that they're upset. This communicates that you empathize with what they're experiencing, without trying to talk them out of the feeling. Then ask why they think they blanked, and discuss ways to avoid that in the future.

"That can build important skills like resilience," says Pyke. "It's not just an opportunity to learn, but also a mental wellness moment."

Photo of Hafiz Printer, OCT, smiling.
Hafiz Printer, OCT
Students might tell themselves, "I can't do this." Printer's solution: add the word "yet" to those statements. Changing that language can shift a student's mindset.
— Hafiz Printer, OCT

Hafiz Printer, OCT, keeps an eye on how his students perceive themselves. He says some who struggle become self-critical. They might tell themselves, "I'm not good enough" or "I can't do this." Printer's solution: add the word "yet" to those statements. Just changing that language can shift a student's mindset, says Printer, who teaches Grades 7–12 with the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board Canada.

He's mindful of the small things that can support the classroom function and also mental health. For instance, Printer says that when students have a chance to lead some of their learning, it builds confidence and offers them more voice and choice.

Tesa Fiddler, OCT, says even something as benign as letting students pick their seats can have a mental health benefit, by helping them to self-regulate. "It gives them agency in their learning, and responsibility. Students feel more in control," says Fiddler, co-ordinator of Indigenous education at the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board.

Mental health literacy can be woven into the curriculum too. For instance, Barraud used the J.K. Rowling book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to help her class explore themes of depression and anxiety. She started the lessons before the COVID-19 outbreak, then continued online, at the very time her students were facing the stress of lockdown and disruption.

This was all based on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: A Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy (CBT) Novel Study, developed by Dr. Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, and Donaleen Hawes, psychologist and superintendent of education for the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario.

Rowling has described her own clinical depression, and said the Dementor characters in The Prisoner of Azkaban can be a metaphor for her experiences. In the book, Harry faced psychological distress, and feelings of despair and isolation. Anyone can, any time. Barraud wanted her students to see how Harry dealt with and overcame those challenges.

"The kids love it — wow, Harry had these cognitive distortions," says Barraud. "It becomes relatable. They realize they're not alone. It's a platform to let kids write about what they feel."

If you're not feeling healthy, in every way, it's harder for learning to happen, says David Benay, OCT, a health and physical education teacher in Orléans, Ont.

At École élémentaire publique Jeanne-Sauvé, Benay teaches the children about mindful movement (such as doing a live action version of the Mastermind board game). On long walks, he asks them to get in touch with their senses — the feel of grass, the sounds of birds. Or he'll let them organize games and choose their activities. Together, it all helps the students to focus, be in the moment, hone leadership and self-regulate.

Benay says we used to think that classroom lessons improved us above the shoulders, and the gym below the shoulders. Not so. "You can't separate the head from the body. Both learning environments need to take care of the entire body," he says.

Beyond day-to-day learning, other aspects of the school environment can promote mental wellness.

Photo of Lindsay Drozdz, OCT, smiling.
Lindsay Drozdz, OCT

At Drozdz's school, classes painted rocks for World Kindness Day (the school's courtyard was filled with more than 500), giving teachers a chance to talk about what kindness looks like and why it's important. Drozdz also points to intramural sports that build school spirit and assemblies that have themes surrounding compassion or resilience.

What do these events have in common? "Many just appear to be fun, but their value, in creating a safe and inclusive community, goes a long way to support mental health," says Drozdz.

Sometimes, students need more explicit support. As the College advisory states, teachers should ask themselves what they're doing to create a caring environment in which students feel valued, engaged and respected. That's part of it. What also matters is knowing enough about mental health to remove stigmas, detect issues, and either help directly or draw on the right school, board and community resources.

Drodz watches for changes that could be signs of concern, like drops in grades or attendance, high-risk behaviours, angry outbursts, or lack of motivation.
— Lindsay Drozdz, OCT

Drozdz holds community circles in her class, using a ball as a talking piece. Every student can respond or pass on every prompt. She chooses prompts that support mental health, even if it's just to ask what's one thing that's going well or not going well. Depending on their answers, Drozdz notes which students she wants to touch base with privately.

"If a positive and trusting climate is established, students feel more comfortable sharing," Drozdz says.

She, too, shares with students if she's had a stressful week (while still maintaining healthy boundaries). As a result, "Students feel relief," says Drozdz. "They learn they aren't alone."

Drozdz watches for changes that could be signs of concern, like drops in grades or attendance, high-risk behaviours, angry outbursts, or lack of motivation. And she's aware of the guidance, social work and mental health professionals who can intervene. That's critical when students might be in crisis (e.g., self-harming, suicidal thoughts).

The College advisory underscores a teacher's primary job. "It's looking after a student's holistic well-being. Students can't learn if they don't have their basic needs met. Part of that is love and security," says Fiddler.

Teachers have a unique vantage point, reminds Barraud. She says school is the very place that's a hotbed of emotions, as students grapple with learning demands, peer pressure and their social and physical development. It's also where students might reveal much about the issues they're facing, in what they say or how they act. Know your student "and when something seems off," says Barraud.

Know your own capabilities too. Educators aren't mental health experts, but don't have to be to support their students. They just have to be nurturing teaching professionals.

"Kids want to be heard, so we have to become better listeners," adds Barraud. "They don't always need advice, but they do need an outlet. You don't need a psychology degree to let students know that they matter."

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