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The WE Well-being pilot program launched Sept. 5, but the organization rolled out some of its curriculum/modules at the ME to WE Take Action Camp this summer in Bethany, Ont.

WE Charity

The Globe and Mail and WE Charity are partners on a range of content and initiatives, including WE Day at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Sept. 20. This story is part of a special report on the organization and the event.

For both students and teachers, Canadian classrooms are becoming more challenging and stressful places – and that’s having a big impact on how kids learn.

“Mental health has never been more critical to the educators we work with,” says Carrie Patterson, chief operations director with WE Charity and the head of WE Schools, which works with educators in 7,000 schools nationwide. “Students today are not like the students of 20 or 30 years ago. There’s more anxiety and stress, more kids diagnosed with learning disabilities." And teachers are also experiencing more stress. "There are many theories as to why, but the results are that more teachers are quitting, stress levels are up, and it affects kids’ ability to learn and socialize.”

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A recent study by Ontario’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that 34 per cent of students in Grades 7 through 12 in the province reported psychological distress in 2015, up from 24 per cent just two years prior. That’s 328,000 students.

Numbers like that are why WE Schools has begun turning its attention in a new direction. The charity’s main focus in schools in the past has been on academic achievement, primarily through “service learning” – getting youth involved in volunteering or community work that provides a valuable service, and has an educational component.

But more of the teachers in the WE network have identified mental-health concerns in recent years. So this fall, the charity is piloting WE Well-being, to be rolled out initially with 100 teachers in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. It will include four modules distributed to teachers, which will include activities, lesson plans, posters, and discussion cards. They’ll be focused on three outcomes: social, emotional, physical and mental well-being; stigma around mental health issues; and building safe school environments. There will be online videos, one per module, with subject-matter experts who work with WE, and the program will include face-to-face learning sessions with educators.

One of the project leads is Maureen Dockendorf, a teacher, principal, and most recently superintendent with the B.C. Ministry of Education, who has a long track record of bringing creativity to classrooms. “The first thing in my teaching has always been social and emotional well-being,” she says. “Building relationships, problem-solving, valuing diversity.”

In 2000, Ms. Dockendorf was the first principal at the just-opened Blakeburn Elementary School in Port Coquitlam, B.C. She wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a great place to learn, but an accepting, open and uplifting second home for students. So she had a simple idea: to haul out a piano in the mornings, for a few minutes of singalong to start the day on a positive note. “I got a bit of pushback from parents and teachers concerned about losing instruction time,” she admits, but her small musical experiment worked. “It changed the trajectory of the whole day.”

There won’t be any pianos in WE Schools, but it will embody the same spirit of community and creativity. Critically, say both Ms. Patterson and Ms. Dockendorf, WE Well-being will look at self-care and well-being among teachers as well as students. And that’s crucial, especially in light of emerging evidence that anxiety among teachers can be passed straight to students.

Ms. Patterson points to a 2016 study from the University of British Columbia, in which researchers analyzed saliva samples from more than 400 Vancouver-area elementary-school students. They found that in classrooms where teachers reported more exhaustion and burnout, students’ levels of cortisol – a hormone produced in response to stress – were higher. “We know that there’s feedback both ways,” says Ms. Patterson, “so it’s important to make sure we focus on everyone in the classroom.”

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Over the next year, the pilot will be evaluated by the first 100 teachers participating, and their feedback will be used to make it “deeper and richer,” according to Ms. Patterson, before it’s brought to more schools nationwide.

The pilot is supported by the Erika Legacy Foundation, a suicide prevention charity, as well as department store giant Hudson’s Bay Co. “We’ve been looking for opportunities to get involved with WE in the past,” says Patrick Dickinson, vice-president of marketing with HBC. “We’ve focused a great deal on mental health in the past few years and taken that up as a cause in North America, so the time was really right.”

HBC will be selling one of WE’s well-known Rafiki bracelets in the colours of the HBC stripes, with $2.50 from each sale going to WE Well-being. The company’s charitable foundation has also donated $100,000 to the program, in addition to a planned $250,000 in proceeds from its next Giving Day – when customers purchase a ticket to support a particular charity, in exchange for in-store savings.

“Our partners come to us because of a passion for well-being,” says Ms. Patterson. “And every one comes to us knowing we have a large reach, that youth care about our messaging, and that we can make sure their efforts have an impact.”

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