Child and Youth Wellness: A time for grace
We are very happy to be back in-person with our students this week. There have been so many wonderful moments already and we want to acknowledge the tremendous efforts everyone has made despite challenging circumstances over the past few weeks. We are excited to move forward (tentatively) with our big June plans (details to come in a few weeks)!
We had a great group discussion at Assembly today with our students that I wanted to share with our greater community.
My question to our students: In your opinion, do you feel you have experienced more ‘big feelings' in the past month than what is usual for you. There was a resounding and emphatic ‘yes’ by almost all. Then, I asked students if they could label or identify and share how they felt OR if they had an explanation for ‘why’ they were experiencing these ‘big feelings’. They had time to reflect but most didn’t really have an answer or just weren’t sure. (Normally we would have a lot of hands go up). Since September, we have worked really hard with our students to get to a point where they can identify ‘anxiety’, ’sadness’, ‘fear’, ‘frustration’ etc. and we have built a large vocabulary for emotional literacy with our students. The fact that they currently are having trouble labelling these feelings is a telling sign that students are feeling just as lost as many adults are right now.
Regardless of how much or how little you feel the pandemic has impacted your family directly, we can all agree it has had at least an indirect impact on every single one of us. A rollercoaster of restrictions, changes, uncertainty, hope, fear, depression, isolation, hope, media bombardment, more changes, more concerns, more disruptions… simply is not how any healthy human thrives. Even for those of us who typically seek a life that offers change, new experiences and purposeful challenge, we only do well when we have a certain degree of choice or some control over the direction that change is heading. Therefore, it is no surprise that no-one is at their optimal or personal best right now, and that many have actually been at their personal worst at some point this year. School-aged children are no exception and are experiencing all the emotions that adults are: the anger, grief, fear, sadness, frustration or, more often, just a general malaise. Whether we (children and adults) have ‘big feelings’ due to things outside of our control, or just a ‘blah feeling’ that we just can’t put our finger on, it’s natural to look for somewhere to lay blame or to seek to find meaning behind our uncomfortable feelings.
In a school/student context this can be an increase in venting and complaints surrounding friendships/relationship issues, or it might be more frequently stated that 'school is too hard’ or 'too boring’. It might be a reluctance to go to school or to get out of bed in the morning, or you may find that they completely withdraw from conversation entirely. Alternatively, school might be ok but you may find that some behaviours are more challenging at home right now. While there is always some element of truth to the concerns a child expresses (and in a typical year it's always worth thoroughly investigating), it's important to know that all of these thoughts, feelings and behaviours will be amplified and exaggerated this year and that they will be harder to address when we are not feeling our best.
I also asked the students at Assembly: how can we (adults/staff/teachers) help?! The direction of the conversation (again by the overwhelming majority of students from Kindergarten through to the oldest Div 2s) was that sometimes we just want adults to ‘listen’ not ‘fix’. They expressed that sometimes they just want to vent, complain, cry, be angry, be upset, and/or be alone in a safe space (at home and at school) without an adult making it a 'big deal" or trying to "take over to fix it" (these are their words, not mine). What followed was a lively discussion amongst all students, along the lines of “yeah that’s how I feel too”, as if a ‘lightbulb’ had just turned on for everyone which seemed to spread a genuine feeling of hope and connection through this shared experience and understanding of one another.
I think the narrative that keeps telling us that ‘children/teens are resilient’ and therefore are or soon will be ‘fine’ is misguided. (Resilience was even our own school topic a couple of weeks ago)! However, being resilient doesn’t mean we always bounce back easily or quickly nor does it mean children don’t experience a full range of human emotion in their own way.
From the Minister of Education today:
"Today, Alberta’s government announced the Child and Youth Well-being review. An expert panel, co-chaired by MLA Matt Jones and Minister of Children Services, Rebecca Schulz, will work to understand the psychological, social, educational and physical impacts of the pandemic on children and youth under the age of 19.
Preliminary research, including from the Hospital for Sick Kids, shows a majority of children and youth experienced harm to their mental health during the first wave of the pandemic. This impact is also reflected in the feedback that I’ve received from education partners, including my Minister’s Youth Council, throughout this year.
Through engagement such as town halls and surveys, the panel will hear and learn from children and youth, parents, guardians and caregivers, researchers, educators, health care and mental health professionals, and other subject matter experts. The panel will then provide government with a summary of impacts in fall of 2021 and is comprised of the following members:
Dr. Kelly Schwartz, Associate Professor, School and Applied Child Psychology, in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary.
Dr. Marcie Perdue, Associate Superintendent of Student Services, Chinook's Edge School Division.
Dr. Jennifer Turner, Superintendent of Schools, Fort McMurray Public School Division.
Carole Carifelle-Brzezicki, AHS Director of Indigenous Health, North.
Dana Fulwiler, Assistant Instructor in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania and Sessional Instructor in the B.Ed program at the University of Calgary.
Nancy Mannix, Chair of the Palix Foundation.
Albertans are invited to share their thoughts and ideas with the panel through a survey at alberta.ca/child-and-youth-well-being-review.aspx until July 31.”
Back to our Changemaker Team and the psychologists we connect with:
So what do we do as parents, as teachers and as the other adults in our children’s lives? 1) Know that under every tricky behaviour (avoidance, defiance, hyperactivity, withdrawal, outbursts, ‘being lazy’, tears, anxiety) is just masking a deeper feeling that they are trying to understand and process in their own way and on their own time. This is normal for all children, but it will be amplified, exaggerated and more frequent right now. Maybe until things return to ‘normal’, we just try to 'ride the wave' and offer more grace, space and unconditional love (even when it’s tough). 2) Know that for every venting session, complaint or list of negative interactions in school or at home, there were likely just as many (if not more) positive moments in their day that they don’t have the energy to share right now (possibly because of all the other big feelings going on that they don’t understand). They might need to unpack the heavy items in their metaphorical ‘backpacks’ first so that they have room and energy to move on and embrace the next day. Maybe until things return to ‘normal’, we just have to ride the wave and listen compassionately and quietly rather than try to ‘fix’ things (knowing that a lot of what is happening actually can’t be fixed right now). 3) Check in with yourself. Are you truly at your best? Are you at your normal levels of productivity, creativity, motivation and balance right now? Are you more anxious, more quick to anger, easily triggered, finding yourself taking a strong stand or engaged in debates more often, just feeling tired and blah or worse? The research says you most certainly aren’t alone with any one (or all) of those feelings right now! While it’s really important to recognize that your mood and seemingly private adult discussions can directly affect the humans you care for and care about, don’t be afraid to be open with your children and students about your own feelings and normalize them during a time that is anything but normal. This is a time to offer everyone, including yourself more grace (a wider net of understanding/empathy, tolerance and forgiveness).
4) Offer more time for unstructured play. Children often process their thoughts and emotions best through imaginative free-play (especially outdoors and in nature).
I truly believe that there is hope on the horizon (in some form or another) and that we will soon turn the corner in every way. I also believe that the next school year will be so full of positive energy and enthusiasm that we won’t know what to do with it all! We just need more time to get there.
Finally, for those who are current students and families, please don’t hesitate to e-mail or speak with our staff at any time if your child is struggling in any way. We always appreciate a heads up after a hard weekend, a hard night, a hard morning or any incident at school that we weren’t entirely aware of or if we have made a mistake on our end (because we are also doing an imperfect version of our best in a challenging time). We can’t ‘fix’ everything but we certainly are a team who strives to support our students wherever they are at on their social, emotional or academic journey even if that changes dramatically from one day to the next. Don’t be afraid to reach out!
As always, we are incredibly grateful for your continued support and for your shared commitment, collaboration and contributions to this community of young Changemakers and for all who care for and work with children and youth.
Head of School