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The DSBN makes social connection a priority; rolls out new lesson plans in upcoming weeks.

By Brittany Carter

As families are learning to teach and work from home during this pandemic, “I’m fine” is a common response when asked about coping through this new normal. Amanda Sherman, mental health lead for the District School Board of Niagara says it’s important to reach out and check in; the DSBN has started rolling out lesson plans to help students do just that.

“What's important for all of us right now is just to make sure that we're connecting with other people. We're checking in, and we're having real conversations about the fact that this is a challenging time.”

Amanda Sherman, mental health lead for the DSBN.

“It's not easy and that's okay. That's normal and we're all dealing with it together. Once we're able to talk openly like that, I think it makes things a lot easier.”

Sherman says in previous years, extensive campaigns were planned throughout the school board to align with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week, which was observed this year from May 4 to 10. She says it's the department’s chance to “really shine a spotlight on mental health and wellbeing."

And though due to the pandemic this year there was “a more toned down” effort for Mental Health Week, Sherman says the board has been working on other ways to help students and families tackle any new concerns and problems that may arise.

Those issues could be figuring out how to work from home while also maneuvering homeschooling, dealing with the logistics of getting groceries and finding new ways to stay healthy, which Sherman says came up a lot at the beginning of this shelter in place mandate. Now, a few weeks in, requests are coming in for suggestions on setting up routines and tips on discipline strategies, for example.

“It's really a wide variety of things. Sometimes our social worker’s job really looks more like a case management role, where they'll help families to access the resources that they need to meet their needs.”

One of the ways the board is supporting families is by providing lesson plans for teachers to incorporate into their online curriculum, geared around the Canadian Mental Health Association’s theme: social connection, using the #GetReal hashtag.

“The idea is that if teachers want to focus on mental health needs in their online classrooms, they can use these lesson plans. You know, as a lesson this week with their students to bring awareness and celebrate Mental Health Week,” she says.

Lessons are being rolled out over the next few weeks and will be broken down by age group, and teachers can choose whether or not they would like to use them in their instruction that week. With the association’s theme in mind, she says the first week is all about fighting loneliness.

For junior students, for example, there’s a poetry activity which asks them to think about who they'd like to connect with. Instructions are given on how the students can create a poem and deliver it to that person.

Melinda Dacikw (Attendance Secretary), Susie Palumbo (Student Achievement Leader – Well-Being K-12), Nadia LaSelva (Attendance Counsellor), Stacy Turner (Consultant - Equity and Inclusive Education), and bottom row left to right – Amanda Sherman (Mental Health Lead), Jessica Moro (School Social Work Services Lead).

“The idea is to encourage social connections to help students and to help family members to fight loneliness and feel more socially connected.”

The #GetReal campaign is a way to encourage us to dig deeper and be real about how we're feeling.

"We say we’re fine, even when the truth is, we’re ecstatic, exhausted, grateful. Or even freaking out. Every time we just go through the motions, we miss out on the chance to connect for real. In time of crisis like this, we need each other more than ever," a quote from the Canadian Mental Health Association's website says.

While the new lesson plans are one way to focus on student's wellbeing at home, there are lots of ways families can incorporate simple practices into their day. Sherman stumbled across a graphic on Smiling Mind which she says encapsulates simple practices we can all do right now to help maintain our wellbeing every day.

“It says: “Questions to ask every day.”

  1. What am I grateful for today?

  2. Who am I checking in on or connecting with today?

  3. How am I getting outside today?

  4. How am I moving my body today?

  5. What beauty am I creating or noticing today?

  6. What expectation of normal am I letting go of today?

“I think for families, that's definitely what I would recommend is to try to keep those six questions or thoughts in mind every day because they really help us sort of feel grounded and feel connected, and remember that we're all doing our best right now.”

Sherman says parents may be feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information and resources being thrown at them since this pandemic began, and that’s completely natural. Without bombarding families with too much information, she says she wants them to know where to look when they need it.

The DSBN has published a list of resources that families may find helpful right now here.

Sherman is the mental health lead for the DSBN with a PhD in clinical and developmental psychology. She works with a team of professionals focused on creating and implementing the board's mental health and addiction strategy.

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