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New OJCS committee dedicated to students’ mental health and wellness

A group of 12 teachers, administrators, and support staff at the Ottawa Jewish Community School have created a committee that is dedicated to making mental health and wellness a top priority for the school.

The new MindsUp Committee is introducing a wellness model called SELF (Social-Emotional Learning Focus), which will help continue to foster a school community of wellness and mindfulness.

“It is essential that we attend to students’ mental health and well-being in order for them to achieve their full potential,” said Head of School Marlene Wolinsky. “Students who feel safe and secure and see themselves as capable learners are more likely to reach their goals. Resilience, experienced by the acceptance of mistakes as a way to help them learn, becomes a factor that leads them towards the achievement of success; it is a constant focus on ‘not yet’ rather than ‘can’t.’”

The S.E.L.F. model will focus on four non-cognitive skills: self-regulation, resilience, positive relationships, and growth mindset.

“Non-cognitive skills need to be explicitly taught in schools today, just as math and science are,” said Deanna Coghlin, Grade 4 and 5 teacher and member of the MindsUp committee. “Learning how to collaborate with others and persevere when facing a difficult challenge are not just skills to succeed in school, but in life.”

One way the school is using this SELF lens is through student preparation for tests. In May of this school year, the grade 3 and 6 students completed the CAT4 test, a Canadian Achievement Test in Literacy and Mathematics.

Keren Gordon and Paulette Routliffe, both teachers in the resource department, spent the weeks leading up to the CAT4 test fostering student wellness. This included workshops on positive self-talk and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, such as the importance of sleep and nutrition before writing any test.

“We wanted to be mindful that taking the CAT4 might bring on feelings of worry for some students and help them understand that stress, when managed effectively, can be a positive motivator,” said Gordon. “We helped prepare them by sharing various relaxation strategies and reinforcing the importance of the non-cognitive skills they bring to any challenge, including writing the CAT4.”

Ensuring purposeful teaching of non-cognitive skills extends beyond just preparing students for tests, but rather needs to be embedded into existing classroom practices throughout the day. This can be done in a way that doesn’t require teachers or administration to reinvent their curriculum.

This school year Julie Bennett and her Grade 3 class are working on a biography project where students learn about a chosen person. With the SELF lens applied, students focused on how their chosen person showed resilience and perseverance in their life.

“One student chose to share the remarkable life of Helen Keller, while another student chose her great grandmother who survived the war,” said Bennett. “The presentations of the projects were outstanding and the children gained valuable lessons on perseverance.”

The commitment to student mental health includes not just teachers and administrators, but parents as well. In June, Kathryn Owens, the OJCS social worker, held a parent workshop on children and self-regulation. These workshop opportunities will continue next school year, in addition to many other exciting and important SELF wellness initiatives for students.

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