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Mental health promotion (tier 1)

A multi-tiered system of mental health support begins with promoting a positive school culture and climate and prioritizing mental health promotion for every student. Most of the mental health work in schools is at tier 1.

Why this is important

  • Although previously thought of as two separate domains, it is now understood that mental health and school success are interrelated. When educators enhance mental health in the classroom, they also enhance academic growth.
  • Prioritizing efforts to promote mental health helps to create a safe and supportive school environment that enhances student well-being.
  • Supporting mental health learning at school helps students to build mental health literacy and coping skills.
  • School-based mental health interventions, delivered universally, can reduce students’ experiences of mental health problems. Embedding programming into daily practice appears to yield the highest benefit.
  • In the #HearNowON: Student Voices on Mental Health survey and forums launched by School Mental Health Ontario and Wisdom2Action in 2021, secondary school students across Ontario shared that students want to learn about mental health at school, and they want the learning to start in younger grades.
  • Emphasis on mental health promotion can increase students’ well-being and reduce the need for more costly and time‐intensive interventions.
  • Mental health promotion is an essential component of a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention.

Assess your school

Use the Leading Mentally Healthy Schools Reflection Tool to reflect on and assess your school’s stage of implementation with the five elements of tier 1: welcome, include, understand, promote, partner. Do the activity with your school’s mental health team or other committee that is responsible for mental health leadership at your school. The results can help you decide what to prioritize as part of the school improvement planning process. A similar tool is available for classroom reflection: Mentally Healthy Classroom Reflection Tool.


How students and their parents/caregivers are invited into both the physical and social school and learning environments affects their mental health. The social environment includes the behaviours and interaction among the people (staff, students, and parents/caregivers). School administrators have a critical role in creating welcoming environments where students feel cared for, valued, and experience a sense of belonging. The ways that students are greeted, the images they see, the language used all contribute to their sense of belonging and wellness.

  • Commit to fostering your cultural humility. Start with knowing yourself and understanding how you show up to students and parents/caregivers.
  • Lead with a positive mindset and set the tone for the school community by demonstrating empathy, kindness, and respect.
  • Convey value to every student by greeting or positively acknowledging them and their parents/caregivers.
  • Strive to understand the lived realities of students. It may be that you’re not from the community in which you’re working.
  • Co-create learning spaces with students and parents/caregivers that value diversity.
  • Notice how staff members speak about students and families and correct when necessary.

Resources to support welcome


A student’s positive experience of the school environment can contribute to their sense of belonging and overall mental health and well-being. A sense of belonging comes from being fully seen, acknowledged, and supported.  

When school administrators create affirming learning environments by identifying and removing barriers and sending positive messages that students can bring their whole selves into all school spaces, students know that their identities will be welcomed, celebrated, and supported. Students should never have to leave parts of their identities at the door or change themselves to fit in.

Pay close attention to the school climate and culture to support the mental health and well-being of every student. Students who experience racism and discrimination are less likely to feel connected to their school and more likely to experience poor mental health outcomes. Systemic racism that is embedded in Canadian systems, including the education system, means that Black and Indigenous students experience barriers to academic achievement, which can ultimately limit their potential for leading a successful and mentally healthy life.

  • Use welcoming language that promotes inclusivity, respect, and empathy. This includes providing information in different languages, using gender-inclusive language, and avoiding any language that may be discriminatory or offensive. (For example, as a staff, do you regularly review classroom materials and resources to ensure they are anti-racist and anti-oppressive?)
  • Create welcoming spaces within the school. Intentionally seek out and remove barriers to physical spaces and learning environments. (For example, can all students access the school stage to perform or present during events?)
  • Celebrate diversity and promote cultural awareness through events and activities that highlight the different backgrounds and experiences with students and their parents/caregivers.
  • Create opportunities for students and parents/caregivers to engage in open and honest dialogue.
  • Encourage educators to use learning materials to build identity and shared understanding by selecting resources that reflect the diverse composition of Canada in all classrooms, regardless of whether this diversity is reflected in that particular classroom.
  • Use microaffirmations, small and subtle acts that acknowledge and communicate support, inclusion, and worth of marginalized individuals.
  • Create and communicate clear policies and guidelines that promote a safe and inclusive environment for every student, staff member, and parent/caregiver.
  • Work with students to establish shared expectations of the school and learning environments. Lean into what students need to feel comfortable.
  • Identify and understand any barriers to creating mentally healthy learning environments. You can’t address issues of belonging or inclusion without an accurate understanding of the problem. Recognize that inequities aren’t always obvious – but this doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
    • Examine policies, procedures, traditions, and the school culture from a lens of equity and reconciliation.
    • Listen to and believe those who have experienced exclusion, and ensure that solutions eliminate discriminatory, oppressive, and exclusionary practices.
    • Cultivate a culture in which pointing out and challenging inequities and exclusionary practices is celebrated and appreciated.
  • Be creative about fostering positive relationships (e.g., team-building activities, community engagements, events that bring families into schools).
  • Keep equity at the forefront when planning any new initiative or program for the school. Design to meet the needs of the students and parents/caregivers who are most marginalized to ensure you meet the needs of every student.
  • Consider the students and parents/caregivers you haven’t been able to connect with. What are the barriers and how can you address them? For example, consider when you schedule meetings. Who is not attending these meetings? Consider what the barrier(s) might be. Is there another way to meet with parents/caregivers or another way to engage them in their child’s education?
  • Consider power dynamics and think about ways to minimize them as you strive to work alongside (rather than lead) students and parents/caregivers. For example, observe who does most of the talking during meetings. Who sets the agenda? Consider how you can create space for students and parents/caregivers to share and direct the conversation.
  • Identify and deal with incidents of racism and all other forms of oppression and bullying (e.g., body-image bullying) swiftly, and support those affected generously.
  • Offer the opportunity to create affinity groups to foster a sense of belonging and community among students. Affinity groups are voluntary gatherings of students who share a common background or characteristic – for example, a group for Black students.

Resources to support include


By investing time and effort in understanding students and fostering an environment that is inclusive and welcoming, we provide a solid foundation for learning. To understand in a mentally healthy school means all staff have knowledge of mental health that is in keeping with their role, all staff appreciate the mental health needs and preferences of the students and families they serve, and mental health literacy for students is contextualized to include and value the perspectives and strengths of students and families served.

  • Build your mental health literacy. Consider taking the school administrator version of MH LIT or take part in activities hosted by your principals’ association such as podcasts and social media chats.
  • Create opportunities for learning about mental health among school staff, including building in dedicated job-embedded professional development time when possible. As a school mental health leadership team, consider some of the offerings from your board’s mental health leadership team, adapting slides and resources for your staff team.
  • Staff one-off presentations from guest speakers are less likely to have a sustained impact than “just-in-time” offerings delivered by school board staff members who understand school routines, pressures, and priorities. Such workshops prioritize small-group learning and application, to allow for differentiation and authentic application in the school and classroom.
  • Don’t restrict learning about mental health literacy to staff meetings. These business/operational meetings are typically not ideal for covering mental health content, unless the school mental health leadership team explicitly arranges for a mental health series to take place in this setting.
  • Mental health may be a difficult topic for some staff members. Follow an adult-learning model that appreciates the need for differentiation and support. Create opportunities for staff to seek support outside of the learning to avoid personal self-disclosure.
  • Prioritize building strong relationships with students by taking the time to get to know them and their unique needs and backgrounds. Encourage educators to do the same prior to mental health learning in the classroom.
  • As a school team, work to adapt offerings on mental health literacy to promote a positive and affirming learning experience for every student. Work with educators to assist with contextualizing the content for the students you serve.

Resources to support understand


Schools are an excellent place to promote student wellness each day. At school, students can learn a range of strategies for identifying and managing emotions, coping with stress, and navigating relationships positively. They can also contribute to a positive classroom environment by sharing strategies that work for them. Over time, each student can develop a toolkit of strategies and supports that they carry with them, throughout their school career and beyond.  

When students have accurate and current information about mental health, they gain a sense of agency for their own well-being and are better equipped to help themselves or a peer when concerns about mental health arise. In addition, knowledgeable young people can be ambassadors for stigma reduction as they normalize the experience of mental health distress and help-seeking.

Young people have many wonderful ideas for promoting wellness at school, and there are many ways to engage young people and to encourage their leadership in this area. School administrators set the tone and can demonstrate commitment by modelling strategies that promote mental health throughout the school and by supporting educators to embed the strategies in their classroom pedagogy.

  • Prioritize mental health promotion in the school curriculum, integrating mental health education into all subjects and classroom activities.
  • Together with the school team, plan activities around the school calendar and school day. For example, transition points in the day are a good opportunity for a grounding or breathing exercise. Activities that focus on relationship building and classroom commitments fit naturally at the start of the year or semester. Stress-management and coping activities, while helpful all the time, can be revisited during exam or test times.
  • Create space for mental health promotion and deeper learning for parents/caregivers. For example, include mental health information on the school website, on display boards, in newsletters/communications, and on school council meeting agendas.
  • Remind the school team about all the activities they currently do at school that promote mental health; for example, daily physical activity or movement breaks, outdoor learning, and service projects are good for mental health. Mental health promotion isn’t an add-on but is part of school life.
  • Students are key stakeholders in mental health promotion. They have unique experiences that should inform initiatives on mental health learning to ensure that it reflects their lived realities. Create space for student leadership, voice, and agency through the establishment of mental health clubs and initiatives, supported by caring adults.
  • Follow processes for decision-support related to mental health initiatives and awareness activities in schools and classrooms, such as speakers, mental health surveys, and peer-support strategies.
  • Regularly evaluate and assess the effectiveness of initiatives to promote mental health, adjusting as needed to ensure that every student has the support they need to thrive.

Resources to support promote

Take the guesswork out of mental health promotion and literacy planning for your classroom with Wayfinder

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Most students have a range of natural supports and protective influences in their lives – at home, at school, and in their communities. When school administrators partner with parents/caregivers and community, the strength of these natural supports can be optimized.  

Partnerships create opportunities for shared dialogue and learning about culture, faith, language, and experiences. Frequent communication with parents and caregivers strengthens this important relationship and can enhance comfort with the school environment among parents and caregivers who may have experienced harm within the education system.

In addition, there are several natural partners in the mental health space. In many communities, for example, public health nurses and local Canadian Mental Health Association partners offer support in the area of mental health promotion and literacy and play an important role in supporting families’ mental health literacy as well. Similarly, there are many local cultural, faith, special education, and identity-based partners who can bring specific knowledge and perspectives to assist with staff learning and delivery of initiatives related to mental health promotion and literacy. Schools are not alone when it comes to advancing student mental wellness, and school administrators can access a range of helpful supports in their communities.

  • Provide opportunities for students and parents/caregivers to get involved in school activities and events. Observe who is attending school events/meetings and who is not. Be curious to understand the barriers or needs of those not attending.
  • Create opportunities for shared dialogue and learning between schools and communities to promote understanding and collaboration. Invite community partners to promote their services at staff meetings, school or student council meetings, and school open houses.
  • Consider connecting with parents/caregivers and community in locations other than school, in different languages, and at various times during the day. Promote community information fairs.
  • Get to know the programming and supports available through community organizations that are relevant for student mental health and wellness. Consider whether they complement and support the efforts underway in the school.

Resources to support partner

Make informed decisions at tier 1 to promote mental health

As a school administrator, you make decisions about which information and materials to use at school. There are many initiatives related to mental health promotion and literacy marketed to school administrators and educators – from guest speakers and apps to lesson plans and programs.  

While some of these resources are evidence-informed, identity-affirming, easy to implement, and aligned with your board’s strategy, others are not grounded in anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices, are misaligned with Ontario’s strategy, or are impractical and costly to implement or scale, and in some cases are even harmful.

All new initiatives and programs to promote mental health should be systematically considered before being approved as school-worthy. Initiatives should be part of a comprehensive plan. When in doubt, consult your mental health leader.

Resources to support decision making

Considerations for working with community partners

It’s common for partners like public health or child and youth mental health organizations to approach schools and school districts with initiatives, speakers, or programming focused on mental health promotion. Many of these efforts can be an excellent complement to the school mental health and addictions plan. Ensuring alignment with the board’s mental health and addictions strategy, and relevant partnership protocols, is an important step. Before entering into arrangements for the provision of supports related to mental health promotion or literacy with an external partner, like public health or a cultural/faith organization, review PPM 149  and your board’s procedure regarding external partnerships and partnership agreements to ensure that protocols are followed.

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