A climate survey used to gauge where there might be strengths or a need for improvement throughout the school district showed that a quarter of the students in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board (TLDSB) who anonymously completed the online survey late last year are dealing with anxiety and depression and that not all students feel safe at school as a result of moderate to severe bullying.
Survey responses also showed that a high number of students feel a sense of belonging, that they have positive relationships, and that there are high academic expectations, according to a summary presented by Katherine MacIver, superintendent of learning, at a Jan. 23 TLDSB board meeting.
The Ministry of Education requires the survey to be conducted with elementary and high school students as well as parents, guardians and the school community once every two years.
The focus of this year’s survey, available from Nov. 20 to Dec.1 last year, was on student engagement, bullying, safety, and emotional and physical well-being; measures chosen in consultation with the TLDSB Safe and Accepting schools committee.
“We purposefully chose anxiety because we wanted to know about kids anxiety levels,” MacIver told the Echo.
“We seem to be talking about it a lot but we wanted to hear about it from the kids.”
To gauge students’ anxiety level, students answered a series of statements including, “I worry about what other students think about me,” “I’m fearful and nervous,” “I worry about a teacher asking me a question” and “I’m afraid that other students will think I’m stupid,” with a yes/no response.
“Was it a surprise? I’m going to say no,” said MacIver. “We talk a lot about kids feeling anxious. I think it certainly draws our attention to the fact that we’re sitting at 25 per cent and it begs the question, what are things we can put in place to help students feel less anxious? And also begs the question, are we helping kids to understand anxiety, and when does good stress become bad stress and what are the strategies that we need to put in place to try and support students or help students support themselves when they’re headed into the bad stress part of the continuum?”
To assess the feeling of safety at school for students, they were asked questions including, in the past four weeks, had they been in a physical fight, stayed home from school because they felt unsafe, heard a student threaten another student or had something stolen at school.
In response, 60 per cent of elementary students and 56 per cent of secondary students reported feeling safe.
Questions asked about physical, social, verbal and cyber bullying resulted in 44 per cent of Grade 5 males reporting they felt they had been bullied or excluded at school, a number that declined as the survey respondents got older, with about 26 per cent feeling the same in Grade 8. Bullying incidents were reported to often happen in school hallways.
Schools are implementing a “We Asked, You Said, Now What?” program to further the discussion, led by students, about the survey results.
Facilitators sought feedback on the survey results from students at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School and Haliburton Alternate Education and Training Centre upon their arrival back to school after the winter break during the week of Jan. 8.
“[Students] gave suggestions, everything from dress code… to staff being really caring, who some of the key people in the building were for kids to approach for support, to talking to what’s available in the community for them, to extra-curriculars,” said MacIver. “They’re actually going back to the students to ask, what can we do differently that would help reduce that anxiety?”
She said schools were using the survey feedback to look at how kids were being taught pathways to care – understanding the role of the guidance department and student services and how to access mental health organizations, as well as the explicitness in teaching skills and strategies, and looking at restorative practices and the ability to build community.
TLDSB will also develop a well-being profile, expand the bullying and reporting tool, encourage the use of the Mind-Up curriculum and offer mental health first aid training for students according to a summary of the presentation made at the board meeting.
MacIver noted schools were also looking at things like peer support models and mediation to put in place to help other students help their peers, who were generally who students turned to when in need.
“So that when a friend goes to a friend, that friend knows what to say and how to help,” she said.
In total the survey, led by an external partner, received 8,863 responses: 4,241 from Grades 4 to 8 students, 3,307 from students in Grades 9 to 12, and 1,315 responses from parents, guardians and the community – the latter which MacIver said was a disappointing number given there are 15,000 TLDSB students, but was double the response compared to the last time the survey was held, in spring 2015.
“Our focus is always on communication, how well are we communicating with our parents and families about what’s happening at school,” she said. “We’re certainly looking at how we’re communicating, and when.”
Schools were able to customize the survey by adding an open-ended question, with some asking what students liked best about the school, or what one thing they would change if given the opportunity.
“Our schools have met this with a lot of interest and a lot of wanting to dig in of what’s next,” said MacIver. “I’m amazed at how many of our schools are saying, ask the kids, we have to ask the kids. That’s exactly where we want them to go next – ask the kids.”
School staff are invited to share input in a similar survey this spring.
Individual TLDSB schools received access to survey results and will share and discuss the results with Safe Schools teams and their school council.
“We’re listening,” said MacIver. “That’s the key message.”