This past September, the staff at Riverside identified two key focus areas for the school. Upon reflection of our vision, and working from our strengths, we felt that our identity is in a large part based on our desire to innovate and our obligation to care for one another. While it is one thing to identify areas of focus, it is another to develop common understanding, school wide strategies, and plans for implementation.
My intent in this blog is to highlight the start of our journey as we work towards further developing a caring and compassionate community. Although there are many things we do in schools to build belonging, connectedness, and relationships, we tend not to be as explicit about developing mental health or social and emotional well-being. Yet, many of the challenges we deal with in secondary schools related to bullying, substance use, or chronic absenteeism connect in some way with concerns around mental health or social and emotional well-being (SEL). For this reason, our staff have made mental health and SEL the topics for our initial discussions toward achieving a caring and compassionate community.
On May 17th, our staff engaged in a professional day organized by our pro-d committee that targeted our goal of building a caring and compassionate community. The probing questions for the day were:
1. What do we understand about mental illnesses/health?
2. How does mental health impact student learning?
3. How do we support students with mental illnesses?
4. How do we promote positive mental health for our students and ourselves?
We started the day with a powerful presentation by Elizabeth Bancroft, one of our teachers and three of our students who shared their speeches from our recent Spoken Word Festival. The student speeches eloquently identified the struggles with mental health issues such as cutting and suicide. They reminded us of the day-to-day struggles that some of our students experience. We admire the courage and resiliency of our students; the belief that perseverance will bring them better days ahead, yet we can’t help but wonder if there is anything more we could do to assist them through the most difficult times. As educators, we feel compelled to support our students, care for them, and help them see the possibilities that may exist down the road. However, mental illness has the potential to interfere with a child and family’s hopes and dreams, sometimes with very little warning. With statistics indicating that 1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness, there is a very real possibility that our children or their friends will experience some very difficult personal struggles.
Building a caring and compassionate community means that we create opportunities for students and staff to talk about mental health. Specifically, we should be able to speak openly about mental illness, the challenges associated with these illnesses, how to respond when someone is experiencing a mental illness, and what we can do to improve our mental health. We talk about living a balanced life, but we do little to model or teach this to our children. Our children occupy their minds with so many thoughts that they want to share, yet they worry about being judged for these thoughts or feelings. They don’t want to disappoint or scare us. Being effective at helping children understand mental health means that we become better at listening to what they are saying…and what is not being said. Our children can tell us a lot by their silence and non-verbal cues.
Creating a culture of trust and openness in which students are willing to share their thoughts and feelings takes time. While I would like to believe that by the very nature of our position as educators, children should automatically trust us, I know that this is not the case. Youth are cautious when it comes to relationships with adults. They want to trust us, but they need to know that we are trust “worthy”. In order to build a culture of care and compassion, we must value and create a trusting school environment that is:
- Well managed
The rich discussions and conversations that we have with children can only happen once students believe that the environment allows them to expose their vulnerabilities, without persecution or judgement. Once our actions are reflected in the environment we seek to create, students will begin to accept the guidance, coaching, and teaching necessary for them to look within. What does it mean for a child to look within, to better understand themselves within the context of a group or community? How do our children develop effective and healthy preventative and responsive systems to deal with stress?
In a recent workshop with Miriam Miller, a researcher at UBC working with the Social and Emotional Learning Framework (Visit http://casel.org/ for more information), she discussed the importance of teaching students to be competent in the areas of:
- Self management
- Self awareness
- Responsible decision-making (social responsibility)
- Relationship skills
- Social awareness
She indicated that when social and emotional learning is taught explicitly in schools, we see improvements to social emotional skills, improved attitudes about self, peers, and school, improved classroom behaviour, and 11% gains in achievement. Furthermore, there is a decrease in conduct issues, aggressive behaviour, and emotional distress (anxiety and depression). There is signficant benefit in working with our children to be proficient within the SEL framework, both to students and the culture of schools.
In order for us to understand the social and emotional health of our school, we have started to gather data from our grade 9 students in conjunction with Miriam Miller to look at factors such as sense of belonging, relationships, collective efficacy, pro-social behaviours, social responsibility, and bullying. This data will assist us with the conversations and actions to better support the well-being of our students. Moreover, the health and well-being of our students is reflected in the health and well-being of our schools and communities. I am looking forward to the results of this study as they will be helpful in determining our next steps in achieving our goal of building a caring and compassionate community.