What is Well-Being?
According to the discussion document, Ontario’s Well-Being Strategy for Education [i], “well-being is a positive sense of self, spirit and belonging that we feel when our cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs are being met”. It is fundamental to overall student success, and it is a goal of the Ontario Ministry of Education to develop a shared vision of how to best support the well-being of all students [ii].
The Ontario well-being strategy includes four key components, one of which is promoting positive mental health through:
- supporting positive mental health in the classroom for all learners, and
- supporting students with mental health needs or addictions.
What is Mental Health?
Mental health is part of our overall health and includes:
- How we feel, think, and behave
- How we cope with the ups and downs of everyday life
- How we feel about ourselves and our life
- How we see ourselves and our future
- How we manage stress and its impact
- How we manage the negative things that can happen in life
- Self-esteem or confidence
The Continuum of Mental Health
Everyone experiences mental health challenges from time to time. Emotions like sadness, worry, anger, fear, and grief are understandable reactions to negative events in our lives and typically do not last very long. For some people, these challenges may last longer or have a stronger impact on their day-to-day life. One way to think of it is to consider mental health on a continuum.
In the green zone is good mental health in which we feel positive, confident, and we are able to manage our feelings.
The yellow zone reflects stress or distress, which may reflect typical responses to common life stresses, such as a job loss, marital distress, worries about relationships, or school stress. For many of us the situation changes or we develop new coping strategies, and we move back into the ‘green zone.’ Most of us experience periods of time in which we feel we are in the ‘yellow zone’.
The red zone reflects more serious mental health challenges, sometimes referred to as “mental illness”. The symptoms may be more severe, intense, and long-lasting, and significantly interfere with everyday functioning. Often, ‘red zone’ problems are managed best with intervention, which may include therapy or counselling and sometimes medication.
Student Mental Health
Our students may experience periods in each of these zones, and this can affect their ability to learn, their behaviours at school, their social interactions, and their overall well-being. In this module, we will investigate some of the factors that influence student mental health and well-being at each stage, and provide practical strategies to promote well-being and support students experiencing mental health challenges.
Educators’ Role in Student Mental Health
“While educators cannot and should not attempt to diagnose mental health problems, they have an important role in: promoting positive mental health at school; identifying students who may have mental health problems; and connecting those students with appropriate services.” [iii]
Educators have a unique opportunity to support and foster student well-being and resiliency. By seeking to understand a child’s learning strengths, to empathize with their challenges, and to foster the development of lagging skills and opportunities for success, we create an environment for positive well-being.
According to the Ministry of Education document, Supporting Minds [iv], educators play the following key roles in supporting students’ mental health and well-being:
- Creating a positive classroom environment
- Reducing stigma by talking to the class about mental health
- Knowing their students
- Talking about mental health with parents and students
These roles will be explored further in subsequent sections of this module.
Educators are also in a key position to identify and flag concerns around mental health challenges in the school setting, as they spend a considerable amount of time with students. Educators are often able to observe aspects of a student’s behaviour in the school setting, which may not be evident to a caregiver or mental health professional. Observations of certain behaviours can help to provide a profile of how a student is functioning at school.
Educators should record their observations as objectively as possible and attempt to determine if the behaviours are significantly interfering with the student’s ability to function. It is important to share the observations with the family and the school support team or the principal. Remember to frame your input as observations, and not a diagnosis.
If the behaviours are significantly interfering with a student’s ability to function, they may need further support. Once a potential mental health concern has been flagged, educators have an important role in seeking additional support for the student. Thus, it is important to have an understanding of when to be concerned and how to access additional support.
The Hinks-Dellcrest Centre website offers the resource The ABC’s of Mental Health Teacher Resource, which provides descriptions of student behaviours at various age levels, and helps educators identify whether these behaviours may indicate a mental health problem.
[i] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016, p. 3
[ii] Ontario Ministry of Education, n.d.
[iii] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 6
[iv] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013