West Vancouver Schools recently held a Mental Health and Wellbeing Symposium to explore how we might best support and enhance social-emotional health in the context of schools. In addition to educators, parents and community partners such as Vancouver Coastal Health, Canadian Mental Health Association, and Child and Youth Mental Health came together for a day of learning and thoughtful discussion. But before we started working, we first needed to ground our conversations in the experience and voice of students. In preparing for the symposium, I had the pleasure of interviewing some recently and nearly graduated students about their school experience. They then came and shared these thoughts with all of the participants. Despite attending different schools and having different experiences, six common themes emerged from their stories:
- Homework. There were some very strong words about the type and amount of homework they were assigned. They thought it was reasonable that there should be some homework, but as Lacey said, “I spent 6 hours of scheduled time in school already – it is unfair when school has to become your entire life!” Sometimes it seemed that the only purpose was to make them work harder and longer, not because they needed practice or to understand better. However, when it did make sense, they had no problem with it. Daniel spoke about one math teacher that was flexible with homework – the practice questions were suggested but optional if students felt like they had a good grasp of the concepts. This approach was very much appreciated and was meaningful to him, but it was a not a common practice. Instead the students spoke about feeling the pressure keep up, falling behind, and then being told to try harder. The homework piled up, seemed irrelevant, and got in the way of their passion for learning. They said it was demoralizing.
- Lack of Flexibility and Choice. Despite a recent focus on personalized learning, all three of the students expressed needing more flexibility and choice. They felt constrained in their areas of study, in the ways in which they were allowed to learn, and in the timing and pace of the learning. What saved Kayleigh from quitting was Inglewood’s flexibility in assessment methods, project-based learning, and self-paced scheduling. In the end, she graduated early, enrolled in post-secondary, and is now actually working for the school district as an education assistant. That is the power of choice!
- Expectations. Each of the students talked about the expectations that were placed on them. In addition to the expectation to achieve and the different expectations of eight high school teachers, they also spoke about the expectation to stay positive. Daniel specifically spoke about needing to suppress any expression of negative emotion and be happy. If he wasn’t happy, he felt like it was his fault and there was something wrong with him. This made my heart sink. It made me wonder if our use
of programs like Zones of Regulation is inadvertently giving kids the message that there’s something wrong with them. Zones of Regulation is great for teaching self-awareness, but we don’t want them to think that certain energy levels or emotions are “bad” or undesirable. Lately I’ve been struck by how there seems to be a “happiness bias” and it worries me when I hear teachers asking students to “get in the green zone”. Perhaps this is something I will explore in another blog post.
- A Need to Be Seen. The students spoke about needing to be seen and heard, and to be valued for who they are, not for what they achieve. Often they were asked about their work or lack of it, and not how they were doing. When depression and anxiety made it difficult to hand things in, the concern was often centered on how teachers could help them keep their grades up. Although the students intellectually knew their teachers cared, they didn’t feel it. “They asked about the work and not about you.”
- Relationships and Connections to Teachers. When there was a personal connection with their teachers, they then felt seen and heard. Each spoke about a teacher who took the time to get to know them, learned about what was going on in their lives, and made them feel safe to be themselves. When the students were in these classes, they felt no judgement; they knew that these teachers would not get frustrated with them when things at home interfered with homework, when depression or anxiety zapped all their energy, or when they were just too overwhelmed. They thrived with these teachers because they felt known as a person, and that’s what made the difference.
- Community. According to these students the best classrooms were ones where they had a feeling of belonging. They talked about wanting positive environments that ensure everyone is included. The specific strategies they identified were: teacher assigned pairs and groups, daily check-in circles that gave opportunities to let others know what kind of day they were having, and teacher assigned seating. Interestingly, these were not just mentioned as elementary strategies – the students wanted them in their high school classes too.
What blew me away was how much the kids had to say and how directly they expressed their thoughts. It could have been intimidating to speak in front of 100 adults, yet they openly and boldly told us how we could make schools better. It is amazing what we can learn from our students if we just make space and take the time to listen.