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The Globe and Mail

Graduation rate, stress are highest among East Asian teens, survey finds

A Grade 5 classroom at Newton Elementary School in Surrey, B.C.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

East Asian teenagers have the highest graduation rates but suffer from the greatest levels of emotional distress, one of the country's largest school-based surveys has found.

One in three high-school students in this group say they are lonely, worried about the future or lack self-esteem. This despite the fact that they excel academically – an 85 per cent graduation rate – among ethnic groups. Students who self-identify as black, Middle Eastern, and Latin American meanwhile, have the lower graduation rates, but are among the most emotionally confident, according to a questionnaire completed by nearly 103,000 Toronto District School Board students.

The findings, teased out from a larger student census released earlier this year, will be used to fill the gaps in student support programs and develop a new mental health strategy at Canada's largest school board this fall.

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"Too often the focus is on students who may not be doing well academically. What this data tells us is we need to make sure that our programs and strategies are in place for not only students who are not [academically successful], but also for students on the high end of the achievement spectrum," said Christopher Usih, the TDSB's senior superintendent of student success. "Those students are not immune from dealing with personal stress, and they're not immune from dealing with family issues."

The school board included questions on emotional health for the first time in its census of students in Grades 7 to 12. Data released in February showed that the vast majority of teens are so worried about the future, they're either losing sleep, feel like crying or experiencing more emotional distress than their parents or teachers expected. The new data, released Tuesday, delve deeper into the emotional well-being of various groups of students.

Kwame McKenzie, a medical director at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, said the data need further investigating as to why teens from certain ethnic groups are more emotionally distressed than others in order to provide students with proper programs.

Dr. McKenzie said schools concentrate on the academics, and need to redirect some of their focus on emotional development. "To be successful, you need development of your IQ, but you need development of your emotional intelligence and you need your mental health," he said.

A growing body of research is showing the importance of supportive relationships in the lives of children and teens for them to do well academically and emotionally.

Cathy Dandy, a TDSB trustee who sits on the board's health and mental well-being committee, said staff and teachers in schools have to be more attuned to all students, including the high achievers.

"I think teacher qualifications and teacher pedagogy, we got that nailed, we know how to do that," Ms. Dandy said. "We now have to attend to this big piece around engagement, relationships, connectedness, because the data is telling us we need to, and the research is telling us that it's absolutely the way to go."

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