Winter 2018

Creating Safer Schools Through Leading for Wellness

The idea of what constitutes a “safe” school has changed considerably over the previous two decades. Nowhere is this change more evident than in educational policy. Ontario’s Safe Schools Act (2000), for example, clearly focuses on reducing school violence and student substance abuse while increasing respect within the schools, especially respect for teachers and principals. It was thought at that time that accomplishing the goals of the Act would make our schools safe places. Policy makers now believe this is not enough. For example, Ontario’s new proposed legislation, the Accepting Schools Act (Bill 13), widens the scope of what a safe environment is by advocating for the creation of an inclusive and positive school climate, characterized by healthy and respectful relationships throughout the entire school and in the wider community. Specific mention is made of raising awareness of anti-racism, mental health challenges, gender equity and gender identity and sexual orientation. Now, safety is not the absence of violence and substance abuse, but rather, the absence of discrimination and the acceptance of diversity in all its forms. This change in the concept of what a ‘safe school’ is has, and will continue to have, implications for school administrators who are expected to create the environment outlined in the policies.

One way school principals can create an inclusive and positive school climate is to adopt and implement a framework that holistically addresses the wellness of all members of the school community including students, staff, teachers and the principals themselves. This framework involves considering everyone’s overall self concept, including elements such as culture, social class, exposure to trauma, social and emotional contexts, and availability to learn, teach and lead (Mazur & Doran, 2010). A crucial component of the framework is the creation of multi-tiered, holistic systems of support that are simultaneously focused on promoting positive physical and mental health for all members of the school community, preventing social-emotional challenges for school members who may be at risk for them, and supporting interventions for those in the school community who are experiencing distress as a result of a physical or mental health challenge. Research has demonstrated this framework as the most promising model of promoting and maintaining school wellness (Kutash, Duchnorsk, & Lynn, 2006; Stephan, Sugai, Lever, & Connors, 2015; Short, Finn & Ferguson, 2017). It is important to note, however, that this framework must be nested within a much broader system of care that includes community and health-care organizations (Short, 2016). This will ensure support is provided for those school community members who need more intensive services than the schools themselves can deliver.

School principals have a critical role in establishing, implementing and maintaining the comprehensive wellness framework. Short et al. (2017) argue principals have three important, interconnected tasks they need to do in order to lead for wellness: 1) Establish the organizational conditions that are foundational to adopting a comprehensive wellness framework; 2) Build Capacity; 3) Support ongoing implementation. Each of these tasks are detailed below.

Organizational Conditions

In order to implement a comprehensive wellness approach a commitment from the principal is required. This cannot just be a “one-off” reform initiative with short-term funding. It requires continuity across policies and practices in terms of dealing with issues like bullying, mental health challenges, appreciation for diversity, and suicide prevention. It involves a need for the principal to work toward a shared vision of wellness for all stakeholders and for the creation of a shared mission statement which can guide the framework (Whitley, 2010).

The creation of a Wellness Leadership Team, composed of both school and community-based members, who create both short and long-term goals, has been shown to be an important, and effective way to implement a wellness approach (Whitley, 2010). Principals need to be members of these teams and provide time for school community members to take part. The team would be responsible for creating a School Wellness Strategy and Action Plan.

It is also important that principals ensure that the wellness framework aligns with the overall school board plans, integrates into provincial initiatives, has clearly defined shared language so all school community members can understand things, involves meaningful collaboration with local community and health partners and consists of investments in evidence-based wellness interventions and programs (Short et al., 2017).

Build Capacity

While most school principals recognize the importance of Leading for Wellness in terms of their students’ learning, academic achievement and overall health and well-being, many believe they are not prepared to provide support and leadership in this domain (Intercamhs and International Confederation of Principals (2009). As a result, there is a great need to build principals’ capacity to Lead for Wellness. This includes building up principals’ basic mental health literacy and having them identify and confront their own biases and prejudices. It also involves teaching principals self-care and wellness skills so they can model and promote these skills to their staff, students and parents (Short et al., 2017). Workshops, however, are not enough for principals, teachers, school staff or students. Whitley (2010) argues for real capacity-building to occur it requires a change in school culture and the development of professional learning communities where teachers and principals observe each others’ wellness practices, discuss and reflect upon various approaches, and collaborate with other schools engaging in similar initiatives.

Principals also need to provide their teachers and staff with systematic professional learning around wellness and provide high-quality information about wellness and wellness-related topics, which includes where and how to access community-based services, to students, parents and staff (Short et al., 2017).

Support On-going Implementation

Principals also have a role in the ongoing implementation of effective, evidence-based wellness initiatives, programs and interventions. This may involve providing technical, policy or financial assistance to support the initiation and maintenance of elements of the Wellness Strategy and Action Plan. It also involves collecting evidence that the initiatives that have been adopted are resulting in the desired outcomes. Providing more access to the schools, and creating more partnerships, with university researchers would allow for evidence of initiatives’ efficacy to be collected and reported (Whitley, 2010). Leading for Wellness offers an exciting opportunity for school principals to create safer schools where all community members are respected, their diversity appreciated, and their strengths celebrated. Adopting a holistic, comprehensive wellness framework has the added benefits of also increasing the quality of life and wellbeing of school community members, leading to increased academic achievement. Although not easy to adopt and implement, we believe today’s principals are up to the challenge!

Michael Savage, Ph.D., C. Psych is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in Education at Brock University and a licensed clinical, school and forensic psychologist in the province of Ontario. His research focuses on mental health and wellness.

Vera Woloshyn, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in Education at Brock University. Her current research projects focus on mental health and wellness in various educational settings.
International Association of Child and Adolescent Mental Health (Intercamh) and the International Confederation of Principals (2009). International survey of principals concerning emotional and mental health and wellbeing. County report: Canada. Newton, MA: Authors.
Kutash, K., Duchnowski, A. J., & Lynn, N. (2006). School-based mental health: An empirical guide for decision-makers. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida.
Mazur, A. J., & Doran, P. R. (2010). Teaching Diverse Learners: Principles for Best Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Short, K., Finn, C., & Ferguson, H. B. (2017). System Leadership in School Mental Health in Canada. Oakville, ON: Canadian Association of School System Administrators (CASSA).
Stephan, S. H., Sugai, G., Lever, N., & Connors, E. (2015). Strategies for integrating mental health into schools via a multi-tiered system of support. School Mental Health, 24(2), 211-232.
Whitley, J. (2010). The role of educational leaders in supporting the mental health of all students. Exceptionality Education International, 20(2), 55-69.

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