Mornings at New Denver’s Lucerne School look much like any other across the country. Staff greet the students and offer a kind word. Some kids play outside, some may go off the library or other activities.
But some of the older students take part in a bit more unusual first-thing-in-the-morning school activity – stretching, deep breathing, and mindfully meditating.
Lucerne’s two-year-old Healthy Start program is just one program at School District #10 designed to address the growing issue of mental health of children.
“If you’re not feeling calm, alert, and ready, then it’s hard to do that learning,” says Peter Dubinsky, SD 10’s assistant superintendent. “You can see students who are having difficulty paying attention, or connecting to the learning, or having difficulty having positive peer relationships. So that’s how we’ve seen anxiety manifested.”
Some school administrators reporting at October’s school board meeting noted an uptick in students being sent to the office for misbehaving, and a bus driver complained about kids acting out so badly that a principal was asked to do a ride-along to restore discipline.
“We know that there continue to be concerns with challenging behaviour, both at school and online – often behaviour is a sign that students are not coping well and may be struggling with well-being,” says Taylor. “Both the school district and schools continue to address these issues with a variety of interventions.”
It’s not just SD 10, of course. Researchers worldwide have noted more children suffering from ‘stress contagion’ – picking up the social cues of parents, adults and friends, and acting out on them. Then there’s the ‘great sleep recession’: students over the last 20 years have reported getting less, and poorer, sleep. More students are reporting loneliness, disconnection, and a lack of trust in adults and authority figures.
“It’s a complex issue, and there’s no one reason why,” says Dubinsky. “Social media is one aspect, and COVID has increased everyone’s anxiety and stress level. Evidence from countries across the world is showing that the pandemic is having an impact on everyone’s mental health.”
“What we’ve noticed since the pandemic is families have lost their jobs,” adds Terry Taylor, SD 10’s superintendent. “We were providing meals to 40% of their families because they were unable to provide meals at home. That impact on the family unit has a significant impact on kids.”
There’s also the daily pressures of growing up and the teenage years. There’s the expectation, competition and financial pressures to get into post-secondary education. That stress and lack of sleep is causing rising rates of obesity, which just adds to the strain.
Mental health interventions
SD 10, as a rural district, actually has a few things going in its favour. With COVID-19 mostly non-existent in the area, the district was able to re-open earlier than many other parts of the province, and finish the last school year with some normality.
“There was some concern throughout the province that the loss in time would affect student return to school around their anxiety and well-being,” says Dubinsky. “We have not seen that in SD 10.
“We’re social animals, we crave social interaction and school is such a social place for kids and adults,” he adds. “I think that’s why we haven’t seen a huge crisis in behaviour coming back, because kids are getting what they missed and adults are happy to be back with students. So that is a kind of self-regulating factor to getting back to ‘normal.’”
And with its small, insular schools, province-wide surveys have shown SD 10 has students that feel more connected and have a strong sense of belonging at school than other regions – and connectedness has been shown to relate to higher levels of well-being and also school success.
“If two or more adults care about them, and students know that, their ability to perform academically, as well as their well-being, their resilience, not only in school but also later in life is in hand,” says Taylor.
“We’ve seen in this district a real commitment, on part of the entire school, to connect with kids. The beauty of a small district is we know every student, we know their story,” says Dubinksy. “Adults have made a collective commitment to ensure students feel cared for, that they belong.”
And each school has multiple initiatives to build on that, ranging from intramural sports to theme days, special events, student leadership development, classroom activities, etc.
“It’s a whole school and community approach to the connection the kids have,” says Dubinsky. “So it’s not just in one classroom, or one specific strategy. It’s a philosophy, a collective application that means we really listen and have real conversations, and then programming and instructional activities that meet those needs.”
Another pillar in SD 10’s strategy is developing outdoor learning. Just being outside can be a calming and connecting influence.
“It deepens kids’ ability to self-regulate, to be calmer and have more space,” says Taylor. It was such a success at Nakusp Elementary that outdoor classrooms are now being planned for Burton, New Denver and Nakusp Secondary.
So while COVID and the spring quarantine put pressure on everyone, it’s been a little easier – or at least different – in SD 10.
“It’s the power of a small school district where every student is known,” says Taylor.
‘SEL’-ing mental health
Still, schools can’t rely on a couple of positive existing conditions.
All school counsellors have been provided training in ‘mental health literacy,’ and passing on that information to teachers. K-7 teachers have taken training in EASE – a program geared to help younger students gain skills in managing anxiety and in positive mental health.
But mental health can’t be a program, a targeted initiative, or activities with beginning and end points, say SD 10’s administrators. Research has shown it has to be sweeping, system-wide… a foundation for other learning. The ultimate goal is to provide students with something called ‘SEL’ – Social-Emotional Learning.
“SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions,” notes a provincial report.
SEL can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people, and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities, it adds.
“Developing those emotional literacy skills, and self-regulation, self-awareness, allows those kids to be a bit more in tune,” says Dubinsky. “When SEL has been embedded into the curriculum, when the learning environments are safe and caring for students, when there’s explicit teaching of these skills, there’s an 11% increase in academic achievement, which is significant.”
In October, the Province released a further, system-wide approach to mental health called the Mental Health In Schools strategy. Its goal is to be proactive and catch problems before they start, says a descriptor sent to administrators.
“Previous efforts have focused on services oriented to those in acute crisis who require intervention; these services will always be needed,” the ministry told districts. “However, the intentional shift towards building resiliency early will reduce the pressure on acute care services, decrease costs and provide better experiences for children and families.”
The MHIS strategy also talks about incorporating physical health and Indigenous learning as part of its strategy for promoting health. SD 10 will receive an extra $57,000 from the ministry this year to support its mental health initiatives, says Taylor.
And it’s not only students that are the focus of the MHIS strategy. It starts at the top.
“Research confirms stress experienced by school administrators can negatively impact school staff,” a document on MHIS states. “Teacher stress has been directly linked to increased student stress levels, spilling over from the teacher to the student and impacting social adjustment and student performance.”
So a fair amount of effort is also going to make teachers and administrators happier and healthier in their jobs as well.
Concerns about children’s mental health have taken decades to build up, so aren’t going away anytime soon. Now, many districts include ‘student well-being’ as one of their performance objectives and accountability goals. SD 10 has thrice-yearly sessions where teachers and administrators discuss student well-being as a central topic.
“Five years ago this was not on the radar the same way it is now,” says Taylor. “But we recognize more and more, through the research that well-being is intricately connected to student academic success and achievement.”
John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice