Mental Health and Student Wellness Ed Camp
Correlations between mental health, behaviour and student learning have been well documented and readily accepted. These issues can seriously affect a student’s ability to reach his or her potential; therefore, addressing student wellness remains a top priority for educators at Fish Creek School. During a recent Professional Development Day, teachers and educational assistants had an opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise using our FCS Ed. Camp model. Educators were engaged in discussions around zones of regulation, breathing exercises and apps to support in self-regulation, and the importance of physical activity through movement breaks. In addition, teachers reflected on the structure of transition times in their classroom and were exposed to literature that could be used to initiate conversations related to mental health and student wellness. As this represents an area of need for our students, mental health issues and strategies to support learners within the classroom will remain a focus for our educators.
Supporting Student Mental Health Needs
The topic of support for student mental health needs has been a noteworthy topic of late. We also know that health needs such as anxiety are something that many of our students live with and are expected to manage every day at school. While we are educators, and not mental health professionals, we do attempt to create the best possible environment where all students feel safe and secure, and we know that starts with an empathetic, caring teacher. Our teachers at Fish Creek School are fortunate to have regular in-service professional development from our friends at Alberta Health Services, and we know that this is an area for continued growth. We are very proud of the work our staff does on a daily basis, but we are always looking to grow in this regard.
Two of our teachers, Paula McAuley and Janice Murphy, do their part to provide an extra something special for many of our students with anxiety. As Mrs. McAuley explains:
Throughout my teaching career, I have been interested in the emotional and social needs of the students I teach. Working with many specialists and therapists has provided me with the information and tools to support students who may be experiencing difficulties socially or emotionally. I was fortunate enough to witness the important work at another school where a student was supported by a weekly lunchtime meeting with a specialist teacher. This made me wonder if I could support the students of Fish Creek School in a similar way.
It began with talking to teachers in Grades 4 and 5 about students who may benefit from a weekly meeting with a teacher to talk about social issues, anxieties or feelings they may be having. With parental support, I began meeting with a group of students who all communicated how happy they were to have this opportunity and more importantly be part of a group where they felt safe and included. Each week we eat lunch together while we discuss any concerns then we participate in a fun group activity to build confidence and self-esteem.
This year, Mrs. Murphy and I lead the group together and the number of students attending continues to grow. Moving forward, a new group designed for students in other grades is being established, to ensure we meet the needs of everyone at Fish Creek School.
The entire staff at Fish Creek have received much professional development with regard with student mental health. This work has included an into to the Trauma Brain by our Mental Health Therapist. This extended into an introduction to Zones of Regulation via our Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapist. As a staff we regularly discuss programming for students experiencing mental health concerns. Our School Resource Team also checks in regularly with our teachers to ensure all needs are being met appropriately.
Student Calming Space
Mrs. McAuley and Mrs. Murphy work regularly with an Alberta Health Services Mental Health Therapist to discuss ideas and topics for the lunch group. From an observation at another school with a regulation space and ongoing discussions with their school Mental Health Therapist, Mrs. McAuley broached the idea of creating a similar space to support Fish Creek students. To start the process, Morrison Homes donated a range of furniture and accessories through the help from one of our parent council members. From there, Mrs. McAuley and Mrs. Murphy worked with our Therapist in design, and thanks for another generous (anonymous) financial donation our Student Calming Space was born. The quiet and comfy space was designed with students in mind. Students in our noon hour club were shown the space and know when and how to access it as needed. IN addition, the space is excellent for many other students in the school who just need an alternate space to refocus as they prepare for success in school.
The noon hour club has gained momentum and many other staff have seen the benefit what a little bit extra time can mean for a student. Several other staff have asked to support this group and we anticipate similar, supportive clubs to emerge in the near future.
As great at this endeavor is, we always ask ourselves if it is truly making a difference. We were thankful to receive this parent testimonial as a way of letting us know we’re on the right track:
I remember the day, last school year, when I was reading the Fish Creek News and I read the blurb from Mrs. McAuley about a new initiative that she and our resource teacher were taking on and how they planned to meet with a small group of students, who had been identified by their teachers as having “anxiety issues”.
This blurb hit home for me and I remember emailing Mrs. McAuley right away telling them how great I thought it was that they were looking at offering something like this at Fish Creek.
Mrs. McAuley and I talked over the next few days about what her plans were for this group and what had motivated her to take on this initiative in the first place. The more we chatted to more we connected as moMrs.
You see at first my daughter’s name was not put forward for this group, even though she struggles with anxiety every day. In fact, she has been diagnosed with anxiety by a child psychologist, but she also comes along with the label of having an IPP (due to her anxiety and learning needs).
Originally, this group was meant for the “average student” who might struggle with anxious feelings and not necessarily those who might have more complex needs in this area. I totally understood the reasoning why, after all Mrs. McAuley is not a psychologist herself. However, after she and I chatted about the group, our own experiences, and the type of child my daughter is, she felt that she would possibly benefit from the group.
As mentioned, Mrs. McAuley may not be a psychologist, but what she has to offer these children is more than that. She offers them understanding, comfort, a listening ear and most importantly tools to help them work through anxious feelings.
We are so lucky to have Mrs. McAuley and Mrs. Murphy work with these children on a weekly basis and I do not take that for granted. For my own daughter, they have given her a safe place to talk about how she is doing (which she would never have done before). They have built a relationship of trust, where she knows she has two adults she can go to for guidance when she might be feeling overwhelmed with something. For the first time my daughter (who is now in grade five) has felt part of a group of peers that understands where she is coming from and she doesn’t feel judged. For the first time she has been excited to go to school on the Thursdays they meet because she was looking forward to getting together with Mrs. McAuley, Mrs. Murphy and the rest of the group during the lunch hour. Most days it is a struggle to get her the school on time. For the first time she is using her voice, her words and she is articulating clearly not only how she is struggling, but how the groups is helping her.
I know to some this might not seem monumental, but for me as her mother, I have watched her struggle for years as she has always felt different. She perceives social situations and interactions differently and they cause her to have anxiety and to withdraw. So, to finally see her start to feel a little more comfortable with who she is and to finally see her gain some confidence… well I don’t even think I can put words to how amazing that is. One thing I can put words to is to reinforce how truly grateful I am that someone like Paula had an idea, she acted on it and the school administration supported her. Thank you Paula.
If you feel that your child is suffering with mental health concerns, we encourage you to work with your child’s medical team. In addition, you can always contact your child’s teacher to discuss, or reach out to our school administrative team via Mrs. Janice Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are never alone when managing your child’s mental health.