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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8

Giving Teens a Place at the Table

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Involving teens in data-driven student-wellness improvement shows promise for one district.

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Social-emotional learning
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A troubling development in recent years has been a dramatic spike in mental health concerns among children and teenagers. The National Institute of Mental Health (2017) estimates that 3 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. The problem of students suffering from anxiety or depression, self-injurious behavior, and even suicide has become all too commonplace, and while schools try to help, their mental health resources are often strained.
Compounding the problem is that the possible solutions to teens' mental health often come from the wrong place. Well-intentioned adults make their best guesses about what might help, but they often forget to directly include the students themselves in developing solutions. Adult perceptions are clouded by the way we hope students experience our schools, missing, at times, the hard truths of our teens' day-to-day experiences, both inside and outside of school.

Working with Teens and Data

One of the ways that districts have tried to quantify and track student perceptions is through the use of school culture surveys, which typically ask students about a wide range of topics, such as school engagement, homework habits, bullying, and questions related to their mental health. In my former district, the Upper Canada District School Board in rural Eastern Ontario, we collected this data for several years without a clear plan about what to do with it. My fellow principals and I found some of the data was positive (students' perception that there were caring adults in their schools) and some of it quite concerning (the same trends we see in North America regarding increasing reports of anxiety and depression).
A handful of our secondary principals began inviting students to review this data and make suggestions about how school could be improved (Hardie, 2015). The district administration was impressed with the creative and targeted solutions the teenagers came up with when asked their opinions. We wondered: Could this concept of including students directly in school-improvement planning and data analysis, as part of a team with school administration and staff, be used to drive student-wellness improvements?
In 2016, we launched a pilot to find out. The results, as often occurs when we bring teens into these kinds of discussions, were both enlightening and empowering.

"What Do You Think?"

We knew we wanted to involve as many students as possible in the project. We decided to create at each of the participating secondary schools teams made up of a school administrator, a staff member, and five or six students who, in some way, represented a microcosm of the school. For example, some schools invited a student from each grade, with a balance of gender, race, and sexual orientation. The teams were deliberately made up of more students than staff because it was important to have the students lead the discussion.
The groups from each participating school then came together in a central location, meeting once in the fall and once again in the spring. They were taken through a guided tour of the district data and asked to look at their own school's data in comparison. For example, I would show the school teams the district's culture data around the number of students reporting increased levels of anxiety, and then ask the students and staff to compare these results to their own school's numbers.
The teams were then asked why they thought the data looked the way it did. For example, one trend many schools noted was that female students reported substantial jumps in anxiety levels between 8th and 10th grades. Why did the students think that was? Each team member was given time to talk without interruption, ensuring that everyone at the table had an equal voice.
Students were also asked to respond on sticky notes to questions about the factors at their school that positively and negatively impacted students' mental health and wellness. The individual school teams then came together into one large group, and their responses were charted on a wall, giving all groups an opportunity to see what other students were thinking and talking about and to note the trends in students' answers. Students from many schools shared both common negative factors (social media, homework, financial pressure, relationship issues) and positive factors (friends, caring staff, exercise, music, organizational skills), providing the basis for ongoing conversation and collaboration between schools.
Adults expressed surprise, and occasional dismay, about things that were going on in their school that they hadn't been aware of. For example, we discovered that there were areas of the school that students would avoid because of concerns about bullying, and that the cumulative stress of home, school, and work was causing students significant issues, far more serious than we realized. On a positive note, this naturally led to questions like, "What do you think we could do to improve this?"

Improvement by Students, for Students

After the initial meeting that included a data tour and sharing, the school teams were challenged to develop a plan that would improve student wellness. When we met again as a whole group, the students had come up with some great ideas to ease student anxiety and stress. At Rockland District High School, for example, where data had shown above-average anxiety for both boys and girls, students planned to create community spaces for both introverts and extroverts—a quiet, relaxing space for introverts and a game room for extroverts. Students at Perth and District Collegiate Institute had already started to take action by bringing in a therapy dog, providing cookies to students after exams, establishing an assignment calendar to ensure that teachers weren't making multiple assignments due on the same day, and introducing "mindful minutes" at the start of classes to help students focus. Carleton Place High School introduced a Random Acts of Kindness Week to challenge students to think about how they were treating their peers.
Other schools had planned or were planning projects such as offering more lunchtime clubs, purchasing additional equipment for their yards, organizing sessions on mindfulness with experts in the field, and promoting free help lines that students could call or text. One school even did a staff appreciation project where they posted appreciative messages in the staff room and served coffee and tea to teachers in their classrooms. Their rationale was that a happy and relaxed staff would also make for happier and more relaxed students. What was most striking was how varied the solutions were, even though each were still clearly connected to the data and solving similar issues.
In addition to hearing about the solutions, the groups looked deeper into some of the positive factors that the teens had identified on their sticky notes. For example, the students indicated that having caring adults in the building was the most positive factor for their mental health and well-being (perhaps surprisingly, even more important than their friends). We, as administrators, wanted to know exactly what the students meant by a caring adult. What traits did they think these adults possessed? To determine this, we asked the students two very specific questions to help us understand what they meant: What do caring adults do? and What do caring adults say?
The good news is that, according to the students' responses, being a caring adult doesn't require extensive training. It simply means being supportive, asking them how they are doing, having faith in them, and treating them with respect. The information generated through this exercise was then used by many administrators and system leaders in staff development sessions. As a high school principal at the time, I brought the students' answers to my staff and said, "If we want to ensure that students know we're caring adults, these are the kinds of things they are looking for. What are some simple steps we can commit to at the school to ensure that students know we care?" We agreed that simple gestures like greeting students at the door and asking them about their lives outside of school were easy ways to let them know we cared.
Finally, these teens helped school staff reshape the following year's culture survey. We asked them to write a few questions they might like to see on the survey and then vote on their favorites from fellow students. We then selected the most important questions to include in the following year's survey. In this way, our schools were able to reinforce, once again, the importance of teen voices and leadership in the direction we were taking.
The students on the school teams found the pilot project empowering. All of them said that they would recommend participating in the work to a friend. "I enjoyed the opportunity to been seen as an equal in front of teachers and principals," said one participant, while another noted the satisfaction of seeing results. "I am happy to know that not only are you listening to what we have to say, but you are doing something with it."

From Pilot to Practice

In the second year of the work, all of the high schools in the district were asked to participate in the team-based forums. Now, in the third year, data-driven, wellness-focused school improvement is part of the district's annual plans, and student-wellness goals are given equal billing with academic goals. The schools regularly meet with their project teams, bring in additional students and staff as others move on, and continue to look at how to reduce causes of stress and increase students' sense of belonging, while also giving them more tools to manage their well-being. This work, along with mathematics and literacy improvement, is one of the three pillars of school improvement planning.
The district has also started to see a small change as part of these efforts: After year-over-year increases in reported anxiety and depression, the indicators have plateaued, raising hopes that continued efforts will eventually lead to a decreased number of students reporting these concerns. While these efforts have not resulted in a miraculous change in student anxiety and depression levels, they have changed the discussion around student wellness and how we can improve it. Addressing student mental health without student voice is no longer seen as feasible in our district.

Take Time to Listen

Students need to be at the table when we are talking about school improvement and climate. Not including them is like a car dealership struggling to figure out why they are not selling more cars without talking to potential customers. It just doesn't make sense.
Students are the only ones who really understand their experiences at school, and the ways that those experiences affect them, both positively and negatively. Taking time to listen respectfully, ask clarifying questions, and then involve them in school-improvement planning is the only way that schools are likely to make progress on the most important issues.
The process the Upper Canada District School Board adopted is not a panacea. However, it has proven that teens have valuable insights to share, that school-climate plans are better and more effective when driven by students, and that there is no way that we will create a truly inclusive and safe school for all students without student voice and action at the core.

Guiding Questions

➛ What opportunities do teens have at your school to voice their opinions for change?

➛ How do you think your district could be better at including students in certain decisions about the school?

➛ In the article, the district focused on student well-being and mental health as a focus area. What is one topic or challenge in your school students can help solve?

References

Hardie, E. (2015). When students drive improvement. Educational Leadership, 72(9), 92–96.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved from www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml

Eric Hardie is a superintendent of instruction at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board in Eastern Ontario. With more than two decades of experience in education, Hardie is a former elementary and secondary school teacher and principal. He holds a degree in English from Western University, a Bachelor of Education from Mount Allison University, and a Master of International Education (School Leadership). Hardie has provided professional development and training in experiential learning, working with both teachers and school leaders, and has previously published articles in ASCD's Educational Leadership.

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