Where is Eric?
“Has anyone seen Eric?”* This had become an increasingly common question after recess or lunchtime. Once again, his classroom teacher called the office and asked the principal to look for him. This time Eric was just outside the exit to the yard sitting against the wall with his head buried in his arms. He was not “causing trouble” and didn’t think this was a joke. He had not meant to worry anyone and was not playing a trick on his teacher. The reality is that Eric has severe anxiety and the thought of going back into his classroom that day was just too much for him. The principal invited Eric back into the school and was able to get him into class where he was greeted with compassion and given the space he needed to centre himself. This had not always been the response he received for his behaviour, but now that we knew more about Eric’s mental health challenges, we had put plans in place to address his needs.
What We See in Our Schools
Eric’s story is not unique. Given the current statistics in Canada on child and youth mental health, all of us have a student like Eric in our school and maybe even in our own classroom. Most experts agree that in Canada, 1 in 5 children and youth experience mental health issues. There may be more. As educators, we know there are students in our classrooms struggling with very real concerns and their well-being is at risk. Mental health challenges can manifest in acting out behaviours or can lead children, like Eric, to become withdrawn.
Mental illness seriously interferes with a child’s academic achievement and their ability to form relationships. In our schools, anxiety, behaviour (ADHD or Conduct Disorder) and mood disorders are the most prevalent and are experienced by some of our most struggling students. As frontline workers, we know that the well-being of many of our students is a concern even when there is no diagnosis of mental illness. As you read this I am sure you are thinking about your own class, about the mental health and well-being of the young people you are tasked with educating and, perhaps like me, you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.
My Own Journey
As my frustrations grew about how I could meet the needs of the students in my classroom, I embarked on a journey of learning and discovery. I spent three years working towards a Masters of Counselling, with a focus on education and pedagogy. I wanted to learn more about what was happening to the children in my classroom and to understand ways I could impact their ability to be present and learn. When I completed my program, I was eager to get back into my classroom and put some strategies into place.
In an ideal world, I would be surrounded by a team of mental health professionals who could support me and my students. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. We are not counsellors, we are educators. In order to do our jobs, we must be able to create healthy learning conditions in our classrooms and schools. So how do we do this when we know that for so many of our students the challenges are grounded in mental health and well-being difficulties? How do we teach Eric when he isn’t even able to walk into the building?
In October 2016, ETFO provincial office put out a call for participants for a project that would partner ETFO with School Mental Health Assist (SMH ASSIST) to build and