Healthy minds, healthy classrooms

Local schools are putting mental health at the forefront, and students are more successful for it

Stock photo

For Cheryl Ward, the impact of the pandemic has been multifaceted.

“Like many learning institutions, we saw a surge of students grappling with mental and physical health challenges,” says Ward, the principal of Heritage Academy. “And because our students have learning exceptionalities, that abrupt transition to remote learning and an upheaval of regular routines was a real challenge. Many found that shift difficult to navigate.”

More than four years after the start of the pandemic, Ward says that some students have continued to deal with social-emotional regulation and disruptions in sleep, regular eating patterns and peer relationships. “We knew additional support would benefit our students in need,” says Ward, “so we created avenues for our students and their families to access targeted assistance.” A special needs education and behaviour consultant joined Heritage Academy and is available on site, and the school has also partnered with the Possibilities Clinic, which offers educational testing, evaluations, and social emotional support for students encountering difficulties.

“We also expanded our support network,” says Ward, “by creating new clubs for students where they can receive support in a non-judgmental environment.” The Mindfulness and Safe Spaces Club, and peer support groups allow students to connect and share experiences. Heritage Academy undertook a staff initiative in the fall of 2021 for mental health, and faculty earned certifications in Mental Health First Aid from the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “They learned about mental health challenges and gained valuable resources that are available to students and their families,” says Ward.  

Cheryl Ward. Photo Courtesy Heritage Academy

The pandemic was a challenging period, and in many cases, highlighted disparities for students with learning exceptionalities. “The need to support the academic achievement and emotional well-being of all students is our priority,” Ward says.

At March Academy, student ideas matter. “Mental health and the well-being of our students are priorities at March Academy,” says principal Michael Kennedy. “Having students feel that their voice is heard is key for their sense of belonging and contributing.” Because Heritage Academy is such a small environment, Kennedy says teachers can create daily lessons that fit a child’s learning profile.

“Our teachers can fill in those learning gaps and enrich lessons,” says Kennedy, “and thereby help each student feel confident and proud in their learning.” At March Academy, the transition times during the day are calm and flexible and responsive to the students; there are no school bells. Kennedy says that because students are in such small groups, they get to develop strong connections with their teachers. “Each day, our teachers and students start the day by listening to each other’s news and sharing current events. This encourages a good relationship that is crucial for positive mental health.”

Balancing academic, creative and physical activities is also important at March Academy, and arts, music, and physical education programs allow students to thrive and build confidence. “Our nature study program provides outdoor experiences like gardening, pond study and forest exploration,” says Kennedy. “Nature has a positive impact on wellness and well-being.”

Michael Kennedy. Photo Courtesy March Academy

As Kennedy points out, good mental health is crucial to student success, not just in school, but in their daily lives.

“A child can’t learn effectively if they are constantly under stress,” Kennedy says. “A sense of well-being allows them to learn and to thrive.”

Turnbull School director Gareth Reid says that although the pandemic was stressful for everyone, some of the enhancements and changes made during this period have been kept on at the school, because it was a better way to do things. “One very positive change we made was to add an outdoor recess for our Grade 7 and 8 students,” says Reid. “This allowed them to spend time together outdoors, since interaction was so limited indoors — it was good for their well-being.”

Reid says that lowering stress levels for Turnbull students is important as well. “We want everyone to be successful,” says Reid, “so we again made changes for the Grade 7s and 8s around our science fair and exams.”

Keeping things fun and exciting throughout the year is important for a sense of well-being as well. “Our spirit days and special activity days are good for everyone’s mental health,” says Reid. “They keep not only our students, but our teachers engaged and involved.” Reid says that during the pandemic, many parents and teachers developed a strong bond and good relationships to keep communications open. “That was important for us,” says Reid, “especially during the pandemic. And those relationships are still strong.” The school has regular assemblies — bi-monthly for the primary levels — to celebrate different character traits. And each February, the senior grades hold a special “Caring and Excellence” assembly to recognize accomplishments in academics, athletics, and community.

“Just recently, our teachers completed training in the area of social emotional learning,” says Reid. “At Turnbull, and especially after the pandemic, we understand that creating a positive environment is essential for the mental health, wellness and well-being of both our students and teachers.”