Foster compassionate collaboration and care
As a school leader, you have an important role to play in supporting student mental health, but you can’t do it alone. Working together with staff, community partners, parents and families, and students helps to ensure you consider diverse perspectives and that the needs of students remain central to decision-making.
Collaborate with staff
As with any area in education, we are better together! You need staff support to make the shared vision and student mental health goals a reality. Any planning cycle begins with a period of assessment. Consult with staff about needs, strengths, resources, and initiatives as a way to honour historical efforts and gather collective wisdom.
Rely on expertise from school social work and psychology staff when selecting speakers, learning resources, or mental health programming. The decision support tools offer some important considerations to help you in selecting the right speakers and resources. We are fortunate in Ontario school boards to have these experts on hand that can offer research-based consultation that is also rooted in practice experience. When considering investments related to mental health, be sure to consult with a school mental health professional first.
When planning mental health learning, check-in with staff to establish key knowledge needs and use RAISE principles to create meaningful professional development. Work with staff to design and deliver the learning sessions.
Collaborate with parents and families
Leading with compassion, and including parents and caregivers as partners, places a high value on the knowledge and contributions of those who have the most significant influence on a child’s overall wellness. We know parent and family engagement is vital for student success—this is true for mental health promotion, prevention and intervention as well. Here are some ways schools can support parent and family engagement:
- Help parents and families learn about student mental health and partner with parents and families on awareness initiatives.
- Talk with parents and families early when student mental health concerns arise.
- Work together with families to help students who need additional support.
Regular communication helps to build strong relationships and trust. As well, people need to see messages and information more than once for it to make an impact. Here are some suggestions for communicating with families about student mental health:
- Involve your school council in your mental health planning process and help them understand why a systematic approach is important vs. one-off events. You can share the results of your climate survey and school mental health assessment and talk about the action plan you’ve developed.
- Include updates on your school’s mental health plan and activities in your school newsletter and on your website.
- Provide workshops and tip sheets for families that connect to your school’s mental health action plan. Know your community’s needs. Consider offering workshops at locations other than the school (e.g. a faith centre in the community), in different languages and at various times during the day.
- Focus on relationship-building. Parents are often hesitant to contact schools so offer many opportunities for gatherings that welcome families into the school and help them to become comfortable.
- Use face-to-face opportunities to reinforce key messages about student mental health. Here are some ideas:
- set up a booth at open house nights
- include speaking points in other presentations
- provide handouts or key points to educators to share with parents/guardians during parent-teacher interview meetings
- Make sure your families know they can contact the school and educators if they’re concerned about their child, and share contact information for community resources. Encourage educators to let their families know how they can reach them and how they will communicate with them through the year (beyond notes in the agenda).
- If you have a school with multiple languages/cultures, use your settlement worker and other available supports to help facilitate family events.
- Remember, the primary focus of school mental health activities is promotion – so focus on the positive!
It’s important to build relationships with families, to value parents and families as equal partners and to understand that they know their child best.
When an educator is concerned about a student, often the first step after documenting observations and consulting with someone on the mental health leadership team is to speak directly with the student or their parents/guardian about the concern.
Keep in mind that it’s easier to have difficult conversations when a relationship has already been developed. Always try to start conversations with something positive –remember, this is someone’s beloved child.
Here are some sample prompts from Supporting Minds to help educators have a conversation with parents or guardians:
- “I’ve noticed that Tanya is having a hard time settling in class. She is easily distracted and often has difficulty focusing. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed this at home.”
- “Arvin seems very quiet in class and finds it difficult to answer questions when I call on him, even though he knows the answer. Have other teachers mentioned this before?”
- If the parent disagrees, then an appropriate follow-up comment might be: “I see this behaviour often in class, and it’s affecting Tanya’s learning. Do you have any suggestions about what we can do to help Tanya manage this behaviour?”
- Act as an advocate. Families may not know where to turn, or what services are available. Help families navigate the system and access the proper supports.
- Be understanding and compassionate. Think about how you would feel if it were someone talking to you or your child.
- Check-in. Ask families how things are going at home, or how things have been going over the past few weeks. You may learn some crucial additional context that is important.
- Have and promote hope for their child.
- Look at your work together as an equal partnership. Listen to the family’s needs, goals, and desires, and work to achieve them together.
- Check your assumptions. Never blame a student’s difficulties on a lack of parenting skills or make assumptions about home situations based on stigma, or prejudice.
This list of tips was adapted from information by Parents for Children’s Mental Health.
More tips for talking with parents and families:
Tip Sheet: Talking with Parents and Families About Mental Health
Engaging in Wellbeing and Safety Issues by Ontario Teachers’ Federation
Collaborate with students
Considering student voice and engaging young leaders can help to boost momentum for mental health promotion at school. Students have an interest in mental health and would like to contribute to mental health awareness and stigma reduction efforts at school. They also have a clear sense of what they want to learn about in relation to mental health literacy, and how they want to learn it.
Resources to support collaboration with students
Collaborate with community partners
Schools can and should do their part within the system of care, but it’s essential to coordinate care with community partners, and to clearly articulate the circle of support and service pathways. We rely on our community partners to provide intensive and crisis support services when students require more care than can be offered at school. Clarity is needed in terms of referring students for services, and also with respect to appropriate ways to help while students are receiving treatment, and after they are discharged.
Mental Health Leadership Teams across the province are working on their Circle of Support and Service Pathway protocols. Check in to make sure you are clear about the pathways in your area.
Resources to support pathways and collaboration
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We will continue to expand our resources based on input. Please send us your ideas for topics to cover so we can meet your professional learning needs.