School Leadership

How Can We Support Student Well-Being and Mental Health in Schools?

Together we can make an impact.

The Good News

 

This summer I spent a lot of time with my cousin who wrote a six-part blog series about collective impact that I followed in August. It got me thinking about how this type of intentional work within schools and within our broader school communities could better support students.

Promoting well-being is a focus in Ontario schools. It includes supporting the whole child: cognitive, emotional, social, and physical well-being. The most challenging area is mental health.

We have access to more experts and resources than in the history of schooling. We have processes in place to support students in crisis and ongoing training for all staff. There is a lot to celebrate. But I think everyone would agree that there is still more work to do. Our kids still need more.

Many adults in a school may be working independently or as a team to support one child. Each person has a different role to play. Imagine the jobs and skill sets of these people:

  • Principal
  • Vice Principal
  • Special Education Resource Teacher
  • Classroom Teacher
  • Guidance Counsellor
  • Student Success Teacher
  • Child and Youth Work
  • Educational Assistant
  • School Board Counsellor
  • Student Retention Counsellors
  • Board Interdisciplinary Team (including a Psychologist and Mental Health Nurse)
  • Special Education Consultant
  • Behaviour Specialist
  • Superintendent
  • ….and we are part of a special Promoting Mentally Healthy Schools project.

In the community we have access to various services and supports:

I’ve worked with each of these agencies and utilized every support available to help kids and they are all amazing.

Schools have access to resources I fantasized about at the beginning of my career. The new Ministry document Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health is fabulous. The much talked-about Health and Physical Education curriculum integrates mental health concepts into all content areas of the Healthy Living strand. Edugains has expanded its resources to include Mental Health resources for teachers. Our board offers staff access to training in Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. From CAMH to TAMI to Stomping Out Stigma student groups, we have hit a much needed tipping point for gaining support in schools.

But despite all the agencies, expert support, and caring parents, kids are still in distress and there is sometimes a feeling of helplessness in schools when trying to support students who struggle with mental health issues.


My Big Question

 

We all want the same thing: healthy whole-hearted children and youth.

I wonder if we’re making an impact. I wonder if we’re missing something. I wonder if there is more we can do. I wonder if we’re trying to do too much too fast. I wonder if we are being intentional enough about the way we are working alone and together. I wonder why sometimes even when a student has access to every support, s/he still suffers every day. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep me up at night.

Is it that more students are struggling or that we’re getting better at noticing? According to an in-depth CBC feature anxiety disorders affect six percent of children and youth. Twenty-two percent of children will be affected by anxiety in their lifetime. The buzz in school staff rooms and on social media is that it feels like more students struggle with anxiety now than in the past and the cases seem much more complex. So it might be both: more students are struggling and more educators are noticing just how complex mental health issues can be.

So my big question is how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being? 


Autonomy AND Collaboration?

 

This is too big a problem to solve alone. Supporting student well-being is a job for the whole village.

What is my role?  I am one person in the village with a specific skill set and knowledge base. We need to better understand the roles of each individual in our village and be clear about what collaboration can look like.

A couple years ago at a high school we tried looking at this with our Student Success Team. On our team were vice principals, guidance counsellors, special education teachers, coop teachers, attendance counsellor, school board counsellor, consultant, and a student success teacher. We met weekly to discuss students who were struggling with academic and socio-emotional issues. Classroom teachers referred names to our team, we collected information, looked for trends, brainstormed supports, and followed-up with the student who needed support. I understood my role as a vice principal but I wanted to know more about the other roles. I wondered if there was overlap or gaps in service.

We created a google-doc and sat around the conference table with our laptops. The headings were something like:

  • Name: Jessica
  • Role: VP
  • Goal: what is the purpose of your job?
  • Meetings: what information do you require at a Student Success Meeting to do your job?
  • Strategies: what strategies do you use to support students?
  • Students: which students do you serve?
  • Successes: what works well?
  • Challenges: what is most challenging?

We went round-robin and filled in the chart with as much detail as possible. Then I synthesized the trends and patterns into this summary document so we could make decisions about next steps: Reflecting on Student Success Meetings.

This thinking was a good start for our team in being more intentional. Where we fell short was on taking the time to really develop a solid plan from here. We had some great ideas and implemented some changes, but we didn’t have metrics. We needed to return to these questions and better monitor our work along the way. We needed to measure what impact our changes made. The second year would have been crucial in consolidating this thinking/learning and maybe the team continued to refine their collective work but I moved to another school.


Collective Impact as a Possible Solution

 

If supporting students with mental health issues in schools is something I can’t do on my own, then how will we work together? How will we ensure efficient service delivery? How can we prevent students from falling through gaps in service?

We rely on the strength of home, school, and community partnerships. We rely on the expertise of others–I think that can be the scary part for us as educators. We like to be in control and to support students well we have to acknowledge our limits in schools and trust our community partners. We have to learn what success looks like and even though our hearts cry out that it looks like happiness for all, that may not be realistic. We live in a complex world with complex problems.

The first step is to develop a clear vision and ensure a common understanding. We need to put all our questions out there even if they fly back at us like boomerangs without answers.

Ontario has a comprehensive strategy called Open Minds, Healthy Minds that includes building resilience through schools. Our board has an amazing leadership team supporting schools. I am blessed to work with a dedicated school staff. This collective work has already started and I feel confident that we will all get better at supporting students in time. We need to persevere.

In my humble opinion here are some other things I think we need to start doing together:

  • Teach parents how to advocate for accommodations and supports for student mental health issues the way parents have learned to advocate for special education needs. We need to help parents navigate the systems. I want to learn more about what parents need.
  • Prioritize meetings with school teams, board teams, community teams, provincial teams, national teams, and/or global teams to strategize how to work together with more intention, to learn from each other, and to check for gaps or overlaps in services. (Perhaps we need collective impact consultants like my cousin to bring teams together. An outside facilitator can help us stretch our thinking, build trusting relationships, and bring more purpose to our work).
  • Communicate better what everyone is doing to support mental health issues in children and youth…and in a simple, efficient way. (Some days I feel I don’t have enough information and others I’m on information overload).
  • Leverage technology to build online learning communities that include stakeholders learning together and problem-solving from various perspectives. I know these must exist but the people I know don’t know where they are. We need to know. I would love a safe, confidential forum to discuss student well-being with other school leaders and experts as need arises.
  • Plan for how to support students in moments of crisis at school and to support students with ongoing mental health issues. (I am learning how to support students in moments of crisis, but I am unclear of my role as an educator when a student demonstrates a mental health issue over time–from months to years.)
  • Learn how to better cope or where to go next when nothing changes when interventions are utilized. How do we know when we’ve done enough? As one doctor told me, mental health issues can be fatal. I struggle with accepting that. I struggle with knowing what to do when a student is receiving treatment but we are not seeing changes at school and years pass–this is why we sometimes feel helpless. We want our support to lead to change and sometimes it doesn’t.

I’m optimistic that in my lifetime we will continue to see more supports for children and youth. I’m optimistic that educators will feel more confident in the role they can play in supporting student well-being. I’m optimistic that if we are more intentional within our schools and communities good things will come. We will reach another tipping point.

Questions are good. Let’s start there. And my question remains: how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being?

The answer lies in our collective commitment to action. Commitment is a promise to do or to give something. Are you committed or just interested? We need people who are going “to do or to give” sitting at the table. What are you willing and able to do or to give? We each have a role in this village.

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