Not every activity we tried was successful. Many of our occasional teacher colleagues had to make adaptations in order for the activities to work. There can be a certain level of risk associated with trying new things and the relationship between the students and teacher is important in taking the risk. There were wonderful moments of insight and reflection for both the students and the educators. Many of us felt empowered and grounded in the use of a resource that had real science behind it. There was also a sense that these activities were not interrupting learning as some pre-packaged programs do. Instead, they were making learning possible, while reducing levels of stress felt by both the educators and the students.
We were learning to slow things down and notice when it was time to take a break in order to continue being effective. The use of activities designed to support relationship building and emotion identification was fun and students wanted more of them. “Emotion Charades,” where students randomly select an emotion card from a basket and act it out for others to guess, was an activity everyone enjoyed and was often requested.
In a few short weeks, we had begun to notice subtle differences. I was getting to know my students better and had a clearer picture of their strengths and needs in terms of their well-being. Our relationships were improving and I could tell that with this increased trust there was more risk-taking and resilience from all of us. Children were using some of the new strategies such as “5 Finger Breathing,” where students trace along their hand, up and down each finger, breathing in as they move up, and exhaling as they move down, both in and out of the classroom to reduce anxiety and improve focus. There was also an increased sense of self-advocacy.
As I reflected on the pilot and how the use of the resource impacted my colleagues, our students and myself I realized that this was going to change lives. This resource had allowed us to engage in important conversations, challenge our own practices and frame our daily work in the context of well-being. Knowing that we had a shared understanding of some of the key strategies and activities to help reduce the stress of our students and ourselves brought a sense of relief and excitement. We acknowledged that this was the beginning of a great tool and were encouraged by the small gains we had made to continue to make space for everyday mental health practices in our classrooms.
The Work Continues
While this very exciting resource is still in development, I think it is important to note that there are some very useful materials already available to educators from ETFO, SMH ASSIST and the Ministry of Education. For example, ETFO members may participate in ETFO workshops (Programming for Students with Special Needs in the Regular Classroom), visit the ETFO website and explore the Well-Being, Mental Health and Disabilities page or view the Well-Being and Mental Health webcast. The SMH ASSIST website (smh-assist.ca) has a lot of information that is directly connected to student mental health and well-being. There is a very easy to follow tutorial on “Creating Mentally Healthy Classrooms,” as well as two new modules that explore anxiety and attention. The website also includes useful checklists, fact sheets and materials to share with parents and colleagues. The Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health and Well-being and the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework