School and system leaders set foundations for positive mental health
School and system leaders have a tremendous impact on student mental health. Sometimes this work is direct and visible, like when principals support students experiencing a mental health crisis or when superintendents respond to concerns from parents and families. But most of the time, mental health leadership is indirect. The primary role of leaders at the district and school level is to create a supportive environment for effective and sustainable practice.
Create a supportive environment
When planting a garden, you need to
consider not only having the right seeds, and using the right methods and
tools, but also ensuring that the soil is ready and that the conditions are
right for planting.
Similar considerations apply for school
mental health. Implementation Science suggests that:
Effective School Mental Health = Evidence-Based Techniques
(the right seeds) X Strong
Implementation (the right methods and tools) X Supportive Environments (fertile
School and system leaders have a role in
all of these areas, but your most significant contribution is to “ready the
soil” so that effective approaches have a chance to take root and
All too often, good programs fail because
they are introduced without adequate preparation and/or ongoing monitoring.
Visible commitment, consistent alignment with the overall strategy, along with
clarification of roles, set the foundations for positive mental health
You create the conditions for success so effective mental health programming can reach every student now and into the future.
Mental health leadership strategies
To create the sort of environment that
leads to successful uptake, growth, and sustainability of evidence-based
programming in this area requires specific mental health leadership strategies.
The following focus areas are based on
research related to organizational readiness, the Ontario Leadership Framework,
and Leading Mentally Healthy Schools.
Leading Mentally Healthy Schools is still available for review on our website, and is foundational to the thinking outlined below. We’re grateful for the insights of practicing school and system leaders who continue to help us to articulate and support the role of leadership in supporting student mental health.
Key mental health leadership strategies
Focusing on mental illness, rather than mental health, can leave educators feeling overwhelmed. This is mostly because school administrators and staff do not have the training or mandate to intervene at this level. However, educators are very well-positioned to contribute to positive mental health amongst students, and to assist with early identification and ongoing daily support to students who struggle with problems in this area. Honing our skills related to upstream mental health promotion and prevention in schools allows us to contribute meaningfully without working beyond our professional boundaries. The Aligned and Integrated Model (AIM), which outlines a multi-tiered system of support for Ontario schools, emphasizes that most of the work of schools is, or should be, focused on tier 1 (mental health promotion) and tier 2 (prevention) services.
Promotion of well-being and mental health starts by creating the conditions needed for a respectful, safe, inclusive and accepting learning environment and by reflecting on the top ten organizational conditions for effective school mental health. These conditions have been identified through research and in consultation with Ontario school and system leaders. As a school or system leader, you are well-positioned to assess your setting in each of these areas and to enhance as needed.
As a school or system leader, you have a role in helping school staff to grow in confidence so they can take action in support of student mental health. This begins with building your own mental health literacy, and being aware of offerings that your staff may be accessing through School Mental Health Ontario and elsewhere. You may also wish to enhance this with additional, aligned in-person learning and training in your context. As your staff engages with this topic, they will benefit if you also encourage and model self-care. We are better able to care for student mental health when we are also attending to our own mental health and well-being.
In some ways, mental health may seem like a new area of focus in schools. But we’ve always supported students who struggle with their emotions and behaviour at school. What is new is the use of evidence-based techniques, implemented systematically across the tiers of intervention. As a school leader, you can help to connect the dots between this new focus on mental health, and familiar related work on developing safe, healthy, inclusive learning environments, supporting equity, and promoting student achievement. The key to building a strong foundation is the use of an integrated approach.
As a school leader, you have an essential role to play in supporting student mental health, but you can’t do it alone. Meaningful, authentic engagement with staff, community partners, parents and families and students helps you to consider diverse perspectives and keep the needs of students central to decision-making. Leading with compassion, and including parents/families 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. Considering student voice and engaging young leaders can help to boost momentum for mental health promotion at school.