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School District 51 turns its focus to students' mental health

Grand Forks Gazette - 2/19/2020

Now more than six months into her job as School District 51's Director of Learning, Anna Lautard had begun narrowing her focus beyond A's, B's and C's to hone in on students' well-being and mental health.

"It's a shift in our thinking," Lautard said in an interview last November, "from what we expect schools to be like and what they are now."

For schools across SD 51, that shift has meant that sometimes books and lessons need to be put away in lieu of snacks and the occasional pillow for a rest. Understanding that more than one third of children living in the West Boundary live in households below the standard Canadian low-income measure and that many more across the region have to take long bus rides to school, the district relies on extra-classroom programs and resources to satisfy students' basic needs before trying to move on to curriculum materials.

Lautard, a former teacher and school principal in the district, said that without addressing simple things like food and sleep, students won't be attentive to the lessons in the classroom.

"I've had 11-year-old kids who might have different kinds of needs, that go and they sleep for 25 minutes, just because that's what they need. We can't begin to learn until we have those [needs satisfied]," Lautard said.

"You can't get there if you're hungry. You can't get there if you're cold."

To help, Breakfast Club of Canada (BCC), a national non-profit, currently supports one breakfast program in Grand Forks and has two other schools in the district on its waitlist for funding.

"Every time we [put out the call], we see that we get more and more schools that are asking how they can get involved with the program," said Danelle Kvalheim, coordinator for BCC. "So there's definitely lots of demand out there. We estimate that about one in four students in Canada are going to school hungry."

Breakfast programs in the Boundary are open to all students at a school (there are others not funded by BCC) and are used as a way of offering another occasion to foster cohesion and acceptance, while trying to cut away any stigma for those who may feel self-conscious about using the service.

"We want to make sure that every student feels welcome to attend that program," said Kvalheim of the BCC model. "And that it's not stigmatized – it's a welcome space for all the students to connect together and have something nutritious."

"It becomes a social activity that really unites kids," said Lautard of the Boundary programs.

Breakfast programs also offer a step towards equity in the district. Where a third of kids in the West Boundary live in households below the low-income measure, offering them the same chance at good daytime nutrition is a start to levelling out the potential of entire cohorts of students.

"There's a cycle when you have poverty," Lautard said. "The number of kids that actually leave and go on to college or – it could be really depressing if we're not intentional with our actions."

According to a 2018 report from the McCreary Centre Society, 10 per cent of students across the four Kootenay Boundary school districts (SDs 8, 10, 20 and 51) got their breakfasts from a school-based meal program. That same report noted another dramatic trend in students' well-being: a decline in students' mental health.

According to the survey, 71 per cent of adolescents surveyed reported have "good" or "excellent" mental health – down from 83 per cent in 2013. Likewise, one quarter of respondents reported having either an anxiety disorder or having experienced panic attacks, a 14 per cent increase from 2013.

In an early year report to the school district 51, Boundary Central Secondary School (BCSS) said that "mental health issues are pervasive at BCSS," going on to note that more than a third of the school's students were "receiving some sort of counselling (more could use it but won't engage)."

According to a 2018 SD 51 survey of high school students, one quarter of the population reported dealing with anxiety, and nearly one in five students reported having feelings of depression – fully 10 per cent more than in 2013.

With such feelings apparently climbing, the importance for comfortable spaces to share becomes evermore paramount. Hearing from adults around them that they're supported and believed in can have a big impact on well-being. That's where there's a bright spot in the feedback the district has received from students. In 2018, 77 per cent of Boundary students reported feeling that there was an "adult in community who really cares about them." That's 12 per cent higher than the provincial average, and ten per cent higher than was reported locally in 2013.

Lautard, who has taught at the elementary and secondary levels, noted how she's seen school communities come together around students too.

"We have kids coming in that are quite vulnerable," she said of some Kindergarteners, "but by the time they get up to [grades] 4 and 7, and by the time they graduate, our communities have worked enough together to help those kids and support them."

That's the goal, at least – to rally around the children who may not have the same stability or supports or opportunities as others – to catch them and boost them up early on. Modelling respect, tolerance, patience and self-acceptance appear core to a teacher's job now.

The challenges students face aren't necessarily anything new – the Grand Forks Secondary production of The Outsiders revolved around a character lifted out of the 1960s whose difficult personal life proved to be an immense hurdle challenging him on his way to flourishing in his academic pursuits – but they are perhaps being better recognized now, by staff and students alike.

Tina Tew has been working with youth dealing with mental health and substance issues for more than 10 years. The executive director of Freedom Quest, a West Kootenay-based organization that focuses programming for youth and families impacted by substance use, says that students she meets in elementary schools show that they have the understanding and now also the vocabulary to talk through what they or their peers may be facing.

"They have a pretty good sense of what's going on," she said of late-elementary students she's spoken with. "They address stress, family conflict [and] trauma [in our school discussions]. These are the words that they already know how to use, […] which I was very impressed by," Tew said.

Tew's colleague, Holly Hume, is the lone full-time Freedom Quest counsellor in the Boundary, though she is supported by a concurrent disorders clinician who covers an area that stretches from Nakusp to Bridesville. Hume is now bringing those same conversations to Boundary students to discuss what lies behind youth substance use, which, as Tew puts it, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Freedom Quest's school presentations, which target from Grade 5 and up, run through things like personal mental health and coping strategies for stress, anxiety and depression, while also pairing such underlying factors with the risks about substance use.

Where classic school programs such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) may focus more on the "just say 'No'" approach, Hume and Tew are exploring the under-the-surface influences with students, to help all understand why someone might resort to substances as a coping mechanism.

"When you look at some kids who are vulnerable," Lautard explained, "they tend to have behaviour that is risky […]. You tend to engage in riskier behaviour to help self-soothe.

"I think sometimes what happens is adults poo-poo what kids say, because it doesn't ring true to them, rather than saying, 'It's not about that – it doesn't matter if it's right or wrong – it matters that they feel it.'"

 
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