Winter 2018

Attending to Student Well-being: Making a Case for Equity and Inclusion

In Canada, schools are responsible for student safety and security in the day-to-day operationalization of teaching and learning. This environment is particularly pervasive in Ontario, where a plethora of legislation and policies inform students’ physical, mental, social, and academic health (Achieving Excellence, 2014; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014; PPM, 119). Irrespective of provincial jurisdiction, however, as chief managers of their buildings, school principals are accountable for the successful enactment of student safety policies. And, while Ontario is uniquely positioned to attract the most diverse student population, the province continues to grapple with issues regarding access, opportunity, and outcome of learning for all groups of students. In this article, we argue that student well-being is an undergirding component of student safety and security; that the diversity of Ontario classrooms demands a commitment to equity and inclusion; and, that principals play a key role in leading equitable and inclusive school practices.

To say that “principals face new challenges everyday” is an understatement. In the seven years spanning our work with school leaders across Ontario, we have lost track of the number of times principals and vice principals indicated that they spend large chunks of their work days attending to student safety and security. Bullying, and in this past decade or so — cyber-bullying, physical and sexual abuse, illegal drugs, physical altercations and threats to harm, and building maintenance, among other student safety and security responsibilities, significantly consume principals’ work lives (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013; Swapp, 2012; Pollock, Murakami & Swapp, 2015; Pollock, Wang & Hauseman, 2015). Compounding the educational landscape on a national scale are recent and escalating world crises, threats to global food security, wars and other conflicts, natural disasters, and domestic and international terrorism. Mass migration is a most conspicuous consequence of these phenomena, and Ontario receives a disproportionately high number of immigrants and refugees, when compared to other provinces (Eggerton, 2007; Statistics Canada, 2016). In fact, one in five Canadians was born outside of Canada (Statistics Canada, 2016). This reality of Canada’s diversity requires new and unconventional public responses, and while we acknowledge that principals are bombarded with work, we nevertheless see Ontario’s changing dynamics as necessitating interventions on principals’ part that are rooted in an understanding of, and commitment to, equity and inclusion in learning to ensure the overall well-being of the diverse students under their care.

Attending to Student Well-being

It is along these lines that we make our contribution to this CAP journalissue. We argue that student well-being is the foundational goal of student safety and security. We build on The World Health Organization’s definition of wellness as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Student well-being, then, is defined as having a “positive sense of self, spirit and belonging that [students] feel when [their] cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs are being met” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016, p. 1). Ontario students must have their well-being attended to, irrespective of ethnicity or race, gender, sexuality, country of birth, or other characteristics. Global phenomena such as bullying, terrorism, wars, natural disasters, and physical and sexual abuse among others impact all students; some in obviously more direct ways than others. There are serious and often debilitating impacts on the mental, physical, social, and psychological lives of children, and school principals are uniquely positioned to identify and harness school practices to address this impact. The idea is to attend to all students’ cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual development. In practice, this means promoting positive mental health, and creating safe, accepting, and healthy schools (Ontario Well-being Strategy for Education, 2016). We believe that in order to achieve well-being for all students, principals must first have an informed understanding of what equity and inclusion look like in practice, and then commit to leadership that promotes equity and inclusion in their schools.

What Do We Mean by Equity and Inclusion?

Equity is about being treated fairly, but not necessarily the same. It is a social justice aim that takes into account individuals’ and/or groups’ historical and persistent social, cultural, and academic inequalities and systemic discrimination in making educational decisions (Dei, 2008; James, 2012a, 2012b; Novak, Armstrong & Brown, 2014). To be fair to all students and ensure all students’ well-being, then, it is necessary to account for, and correct, this context when planning and implementing teaching and learning practices across Ontario classrooms. Our emphasis on equity and inclusion focuses attention on groups of students who have hitherto not received the same educational access, opportunity and outcome as their peers in Ontario classrooms, whether due to gender identity, race, religion, sexuality, disability, or other needs or characteristics. Principals can build on the Ministry of Education’s definition of equity: “a condition or state of fair, inclusive, and respectful treatment of all people. Equity does not mean treating people the same without regard for individual differences” (Ontario’s Equity & Inclusive Education Strategy, 2013, p. np). Part of working towards equity and inclusion involves principals’ aligning their instructional leadership practices with Ontario’s four main goals of education are (i) achieving excellence;(ii) ensuring equity; (iii) supporting and promoting well-being; and, (iv) enhancing confidence in publicly funded education (Achieving Excellence, 2014; PPM 119). As is evident, two of these four goals speak specifically to equity and inclusion. When principals lead their schools in working towards reducing barriers to access education opportunities, more equitable learning outcomes can be fostered.

Inclusion goes hand in hand with equity and is better understood when juxtaposed against the term, exclusion. Inclusive school practices are “based on the principles of acceptance and inclusion of all students. Students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, their physical surroundings, and the broader environment, in which diversity is honoured and all individuals are respected” (PPM 119, p. 9). Further, Canada’s inclusive education system is premised on the diversity of learners who come from different socio-economic and cultural background, and who attend schools that support their communities (Specht & Young, 2010). Inclusion then, emphasizes access, participation, and achievement of and for all students; it supports diversity; learners with different socio-economic and cultural histories see themselves reflected in the curriculum (Ryan, 2012; Ryan, Pollock & Antonelli, 2009; Specht & Young, 2010). For instance, there is evidence that disparity in student achievement is most prevalent among Indigenous and racialized/minoritized groups of students attending schools in vulnerable communities (Debassige, 2013: Dei, 2008; James & Turner, 2017). Principals must be knowledgeable of evidence-based data that speak to student diversity and equity and inclusion in learning in order to drive the efforts to improve the well-being of their students.


In this current educational climate in Ontario, principals must work harder, and differently, if they are to ensure the well-being of the students in their care. Practising inclusive leadership (Ryan, 2012), where all stakeholders, including parents, students, teachers, and the community —  particularly vulnerable communities — can engage in meaningful discussions on policy and program initiatives at the school level, is an important step. Principals can also commit to expanding their existing professional learning networks to benefit from the dialogue and input of a wide cross-section of stakeholders in brainstorming and initiating equitable and inclusive practices to address the well-being of all students in their care. Such leadership practices that are drenched in equity and inclusion require “a commitment to problematizing the status quo, examining issues from the lens of [students], and advocating for all students” (Swapp, 2017, p. 10, emphasis added). As Ontario educators, we strive to ensure all students realize their fullest potential, and to do that requires that we attend to systemic, social, and cultural deficiencies in our schools and classrooms. Principals who are committed to equity and inclusion are best poised to help achieve this vision.

Donna H. Swapp is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Education, Western University. She taught at the secondary and university level and currently researches principals’ changing work in Ontario. Donna has received several academic and research awards.

Annette R. Walker is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Education, Western, researching principals’ occupational mental health and well-being. She serves as the Graduate Student Representative on CASEA.
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