While it’s well known that a child’s early years are crucial to brain development, that window of neuroplasticity doesn’t end there. It’s possible to aid young people in developing pathways in their brain that will help them to better retain positive thoughts and memories, says Dianna English, chief of staff for WE Schools.
“What we learned from Dr. Jean Clinton [clinical professor, department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University] was how much the brain continues to be ‘under construction’ into adolescence,” English explains.
This includes helping students establish relationships and a sense of community to positively affect how they feel on a daily basis, while influencing their brain on a fundamental level for years to come.
It’s no surprise, then, that the need for resources to support mental health development in the classroom is in popular demand. WE Schools’ long-standing educational programming, which has been rolled out at 16,000 schools and groups across North America and the United Kingdom, focuses on motivating youth to learn about local and global issues and to take action to create social change.
When the organization surveyed students and teachers on their experience, they began hearing a consistent request: “At the end of every school year, we always ask what else they need,” English says. “For three years running, at the top of the list was support for mental health and well-being.”
This feedback led to the creation of WE Well-being, which just completed its pilot year. The inaugural programming was made possible by Edmonton-based founding partner, The Erika Legacy Foundation. Created in honour of Erika Elkington, who lost her life to suicide at the age of 29, the organization helps lessen the stigma of suicide by nurturing conversation surrounding signs, symptoms and prevention.
The new initiative creates a safe space for students to talk about mental well-being, encouraging social-emotional learning, mindfulness and simple daily actions. The pilot was initiated at 150 schools across Canada and the United States in grades 4 to 6, the preamble to those between the ages of 15 and 24 years, a group who has a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Future programming will expand to include students in kindergarten to Grade 12.
The goal was to provide teachers with easy-to-implement resources, including a toolkit with lesson plans, deeply rooted in evidence-based practice and neuroscience, says English. Social-emotional learning is at the core of the program, which encourages students to focus on nurturing five key qualities: empathy, gratitude, compassion, altruism and resilience.
WE Well-being is still crunching data from an end-of-school year teacher survey to evaluate the success of its pilot, but anecdotally, “what we’ve heard from educators is that they do see an increase in positivity in the classroom, a decrease in stress and a decrease in conflict,” English says. “Additional schools are wanting to come on board. We’ve already seen a tremendous desire to participate.”
WE Well-being adviser Leysa Cerswell Kielburger, also partnership lead of community programs at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, shares neuroscience-backed actions that parents can promote at home.
”Science tells us sleep is the most potent thing you can do for your brain and your body each day. Neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker recommends routine: try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.” Consistency not only makes healthy habits easier to maintain, but also sleep regularity (not just duration) has been linked to a happier, calmer mood.
”Healthy eating supports synaptogenesis, the way neurons talk to each other. Get back to basics by choosing healthful whole foods.” Starting the day well can be as simple as prepping overnight oats topped with antioxidant-rich berries.
”Science celebrates the way movement boosts physical and mental health. Think of ways you can build activity into your day – individually and as a family.” Each day, aim for a couple of hours of moderate to vigorous activity (such as playing sports or biking) and light activity (such as walking to and from school).
”Brain-imaging studies reveal a great deal of meaningful activity occurs in the brain when it is at rest. Build downtime into your family schedule. Create some no-phone zones in daily routines.”
LEND A HAND
”Helping others is good for the world and for our well-being. You might even experience ’helper’s high,’ as the experience releases endorphins in the brain. Look for ways to help at home, then expand into the community.”
Visit www.we.org/wellbeing for more actions to promote well-being.