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Student Mental Health: Is School Driving Kids Crazy?

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

In 2011, the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, conducted a Student and Parent Census that yielded vital information in the area of mental health. Through survey questions about students' emotional well-being, it was confirmed that mental health is a top priority for elementary and secondary students.

TDSB's census established that:

  • 73% of students between Grades 9-12 worried about their future and 59% of students in Grades 7-8 reported worrying about their future

  • Over a third of Grade 9 -12 students reported that they were under a lot of stress (38%) and also reported they were nervous or anxious (34%) 'often' or 'all of the time'

  • The majority of students reported that they worried about their school work 'all the time' or 'often' - Grades 9-12 students (71%) and Grades 7-8 students (64%)

TDSB's Survey of 210 elementary and secondary schools and 900+ school staff revealed that:

  • 97% of respondents reported that student emotional well-being is very/extremely important to academic achievement in their school

  • Respondents indicated that Anxiety (44%) and Depression (41%) were their primary concerns

  • Staff reported that a stronger, more coordinated approach to mental health is needed to better serve our students

Across the country, and around the world, student mental health is now ‘top of mind’ for educators. The typical response is to hire more school counsellors, psychologists and social workers to treat the symptoms, while doubling down on prescribed, age-based curricula and developing new assessments tests (Independent Review of Assessment and Reporting in Ontario). Is it possible that school might, to use the colloquial, be driving some kids crazy?

Students are genuinely worried about their future, and most don't understand how what they are expected to learn relates to it. As a result, student engagement plunges from 80% or more in K-3 to 40% or less in Grades 11 and 12. They aren't emotionally engaged because school is not about them or issues they care deeply about, like their dreams and their future, and 'real world' issues like great work aligned with sense of purpose, climate change, inequality, injustice, poverty, cultural diversity, positive relationships (EI), truth and reconciliation, and how they can make a difference personally.

Can we measure and reliably predict future success or assess happiness, confidence, hope, inspiration, optimism, creativity, innovation, empathy, mental health, resilience (grit), or lifelong thirst for knowledge?

Updating traditional curriculum, assessment, and reporting procedures simply updates the parameters defining the cages we keep students, teachers and administrators in. They all need more freedom from arbitrary cages and prescribed, age-based curricula. Only then can personalized, experiential, project-based, community-based, and work-based learning anchored to individual students’ curiosity, strengths, and dreams blossom. See: To Ignite Adolescent Brains School Must be ABOUT THEM.

As important as assessing students’ readiness for more education is, assessing their readiness for life beyond school – life-readiness - is far more important. Yet, once students depart high school most drop off K-12 educators’ radar screens. Many graduates, let alone dropouts, soon realize they’re not as ready as they were led to believe. As a society we pay a steep price, in human and economic terms, for failing adequately to prepare students to transition from school to success.

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