Mental health in the hallowed halls.

Here’s a snippet from casual conversations playing out in school hallways everywhere.
Pick the lines you’ve heard or have used before.

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Photo Credit:
WFIU Public Radio

“How are you? How’s it going? What’s up? How’s it?”

“Good. Great. All good here. Meh. No worries. Busy. So busy. Cool. Not too bad. OK. Could be worse.”

What would you do if someone answered honestly saying; “Not good. I’m being bullied by a group of students. I don’t like my body. My parents are divorcing. No one likes me. I feel alone and sad all of the time”? Would you pull out the motivational clichés and tell the person to toughen up? Would you walk away saying, “hope you’re OK?” and “things will be better with time” or would you inquire further? Would you feel comfortable finding out the truth? Do you have enough emotional energy in the tank to make a difference?

Regardless of years of experience, many new teachers feel uncomfortable, even under-equipped when facing mental health issues in the classroom After all, we’ve been taught pedagogy, not psychology, in teacher’s college. That’s not completely true. We did learn about Maszlow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but that was so long ago, it was only a small series of lessons/readings, and  besides we have lessons to deliver.

In this post I want to share a side of education that Maslowdoes not get enough attention. I’m talking about mental health in schools.

Understanding and supporting students with mental health issues is as important in our classrooms as the curriculum we are instructing.

What keeps educators awake at night are the the same daily problems being encountered in classrooms around the world. I am a witness to how mental health issues are scarring education. There is a recurring generational amnesia in the hallways of educational institutions and it’s time we do more about it.

That may not seem like a light and lively subject for conversation, but discussion in all of these areas is crucial as it pertains to making our classrooms safe and inclusive learning spaces. How are you dealing with issues like this in your classroom? Here are a few ideas that have helped in my learning space.

In my classroom we have worked hard to develop a safe space for all learners. This means that we all try to support each other when times get tough. We try to use the idea of Ohana (family) where no one is alone or forgotten. We have instituted Mindfulness Moments as brain breaks. Students need time to consolidate their learning, and to be still/quiet for a few minutes. This little break in the action calms the mind, reduces anxiety and teaches students a valuable de-stressing skill.

In my classroom, there is always a little something to eat. It is amazing how a granola bar, a juice box, and some crackers can help a student who has not had enough to eat to start the day. During tests, quizzes or quests, as we call them, we have “test crackers”.  They’re tasty, crunchy, and important to helping students relax during assessment tasks. I have found that when a student has something to eat, albeit very small, they are more relaxed and perform better.*

In a follow up post I share some thoughts about mental health issues as they relate directly to educators. You’d be surprised how similar they are to those our students face. Or maybe not?

I need a granola bar.

* Maybe I’ve found a thesis to test for my M Ed?

Safe and Accepting Schools in today’s Social/Political Climate

All teachers are familiar with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s initiative for teaching inclusion;

A safe, inclusive and accepting school environment is a necessary condition for student success. Students cannot be expected to reach their potential in an environment where they feel insecure and intimidated. We are committed to providing all students with the supports they need to learn, grow and achieve.
Building a positive and inclusive school climate requires a focused effort on developing healthy and respectful relationships throughout the whole school and surrounding community, among and between students and adults. “

We respect this philosophy and we would not deny our students the full application of this mandate. And yet, for all the anti-bullying lessons, resources, activities; for all the lessons and discussions on civics and character education within our schools, I cannot help but feel as if I am complicit in perpetuating a myth that grown-ups know how to behave properly – when in fact, outside of our schools, our society is anything but civil, respectful, and devoid of bullies. For examples of intolerance and disrespect, we need look no further than the relentless doses of hysteria, stereotyping and racism in our newspapers and in our laws. The media is rife with stories pitting Us against Them, creating fear about Others, and discrimination based on clothing, skin colour, or mother tongue. Meanwhile in stark contrast in our classrooms, we are reading books such as “Children like Me”, promoting diversity and trying our best to ensure that our students learn about community and how Social Justice applies to everyone in our society.

Feeling overwhelmed by the latest news stories, I have been thinking about young students who, on the way to school, or once within its confines, may be unexpected targets of the divisive environment where ignorance, scapegoating, blaming, shaming, guilt by virtue of association, and racial profiling may have trickled down. Our anti-bullying initiatives may be only a Bandaid solution to circumstances of inconceivable scope and which are completely out of our control. Children who are subjected to this intolerance have to navigate through the quagmire with little or no grasp on the realities and myths that may be associated with their lives, and as in many cases of intimidation, because it is insidious nature, teachers may have no clue what these children have to endure. As visible minorities, or as minorities suspected of an affiliation, no matter how remote, children risk being targets of ignorance and vitriol from other children or adults in the community. Sadly, we have so many brutal historical examples of just this type of situation. Therefore, it is essential that, we as teachers, remember to be aware and have empathy to help all of our students feel secure and free from intimidation so that they can learn, grow and achieve, even when we may not fully understand the greater issues that they may be dealing with – politically, religiously or culturally.

And, without a doubt, the world has always been so. Danger from bigotry and intolerance existed long before the implementation of the Safe and Accepting Schools Act in Ontario. We can only hope that the effort we put into promoting diversity and ensuring students are educated within a safe and accepting school environment will eventually make the myth of a society of respectful, civic-minded people a reality. In the meantime, it is worthwhile to make sure that our students know we are an ally they can depend on for help should they need it.

Promoting Prosocial Behaviour

Most students, if asked, know not to bully or know not to litter. Yet, you may see those same students exhibiting behaviours that contradict what they know.

Prosocial behaviour is behaviour that uses positive words or actions to benefit others. Rather than a desire for personal gain, students are prompted to act this was by empathy, responsibility to others, or moral values. Much of the responsibility to teach this behaviour is falling on schools and teachers.

To promote prosocial behaviour, consider some of the following:

  • Encourage a caring school community that includes everyone from teachers to caretakers and lunch room supervisors.
  • Implement a positive discipline approach that includes clear expectations, discussions, and modelling.
  • Initiate school-wide programs such as “learning buddies” that match up older and younger students to work together in a variety of activities (computer lab, shared reading, picking up litter, community walks).
  • Integrate value or character education to learning in all classrooms
For more information on creating a caring community in your classroom or school that promotes prosocial behaviours, see the Principles and Practices of Responsive Classroom at http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/principles-and-practices-responsive-classroom.

Building Skyscrapers

This year my Grade 6 students have demonstrated a deep interest in looking at a few social justice issues that they feel have a direct impact on their lives.  The most important issue has been bullying (at school, the home, and in society as a whole).  I have described how we have focused on exploring this issue in a previous blog where I explained how we, as a class, brought to light aspects of bullying including: what it is, why people do it, who it affects, how it affects them, and ways to deal with it in our classrooms, schools, and communities.

It came as no surprise to me that a group of my students (and a few Me to We Club members) decided to create an anti-bullying club in our school.  As the club members came together to discuss their purpose, the plan, and how each student would be involved, I sat back in awe at how big their hearts were and how creative their minds became as they began to put together an anti-bullying awareness video to both educate the students at the school and reassure them that the club was there to support them.  The whole process came to demonstrate what can be possible when a topic or issue is dissected through inquiry-based learning and students are given the opportunity to dive, head first, into an ocean of experiences that allow them to question, research, share ideas and opinions, look at different perspectives, decide where they stand on an issue, and how they plan to become involved.

After an intense few weeks, the group decided that they would like to first raise awareness through a video they would create.  They then decided that students needed to know who they were in order to seek them out for support outside at recess if they needed someone to talk to or play with.  They also realized that in most cases, the students involved in bullying behaviour (whether it be the bully, the victim, or the bystander) needed to become educated and so they would spend time with those students reading, talking, role-playing, etc. to help them learn about how their actions (or lack thereof) were impacting those involved.

The project is on-going and I couldn’t be more proud of what the students have accomplished so far.  They decided to name the anti-bulling club “We Build Skyscrapers” (the title comes from the Demi Lovato song “Skyscraper”).  The reasoning was that although skyscrapers can seem fragile and many are made of glass, they always stand tall and are built to withstand extreme conditions.  The analogy is that the Skyscrapers Club is there to help build up students to stand tall and proud of who they are by not being afraid and learning to overcome negative situations.  I thought it was brilliant and the school and parent community completely agreed.

If you’d like to see the “Skyscrapers” video, which I strongly recommend you do, follow the link below.

http://schoolweb.tdsb.on.ca/burrowshall/Students/MetoWeClub/WeBuildSkyscrapers.aspx

Social, Popular, Empathetic and Strong Leaders – Today’s Bullies?

Back in October, I read an article in the Globe and Mail by Anthony Volk entitled “Why Bullies Do What They Do.” In brief, it was a very succinct yet comprehensive synopsis of the causes and (proposed) solutions to bullying. At the time, something about it stuck with me and I came back to it when in need of something to blog about during the crazy month of December. Interestingly, there were distinct echoes of Carmen’s grade 6 Bullying Task Force around the ideas of choosing behaviours and belief systems. In identifying the main reasons for bullying, Volk reduces them to just three.
– to get resources (ex. lunch money)
– to get dating partners
– to get social power to be used in getting resources, dates or favours

 

As indicated by voluminous research, Volk describes the typical bully as someone who has “average or greater social skills, popularity, leadership, cognitive empathy and physical or mental health.” Upon reflecting about this statement, I vacillated between two contradictory trains of thought. On one hand, I found myself thinking that these were pretty basic goals for someone with a wide range of attributes and that given that, they would have been able to achieve social power through less basic means. On the other, I would have assumed (or rather hoped) that above average social skills and cognitive empathy would have prevented bullying in the first place.

 

Perhaps what struck me most about the article and the most recent publicised cases of bullying was something I took for granted but hadn’t really consciously considered. It would seem that the classic profiles of bully and victim are blurred and that the anonymity of social media has emboldened and perhaps intensified cases of bullying. The root of it would seem to be the need to exercise power (even in the most basic ways) over someone else. Some people would argue that such a need is innate and an undeniable part of human nature and as such, bullying is much more difficult to tackle in a lasting, meaningful way.