Saturday, 26 November 2011

To Sleep - Perchance To Dream

"To sleep, perchance to dream-
ay, there's the rub."

Hamlet (III, i, 65-68)
 Its no accident that by Act III of Hamlet, the title character is struggling to maintain his sanity. Not just haunted by his father's ghost, and beset by the machinations of his dysfunctional family, Hamlet is also suffering from serious sleep deprivation. While most of us never have to struggle with "a sea of troubles" like those faced by the Prince of Denmark, busy complex lives are a fact for 21st century learners. Both adults and students alike never seem to have enough time to get everything done. The demands and pressures can lead to disrupted lives where sleep quickly falls to the bottom of the priority list. Too often seen as an expendable optional activity, sleep is actually essential for maintaining good mental health.

Why we sleep is a hotly researched topic. There are many different theories as to why humans sleep. Whether it is to rest or regenerate the brain and body systems, or whether its just a biological quirk, what's not in dispute is that we all need adequate amounts of sleep, and that the amount needed can vary depending upon our age. Ten hours is a pretty good benchmark for school aged children. Slightly more for younger children, slightly less for teens, the amount can vary person to person. 

Until the 19th century sleep patterns basically followed the sun. The invention of  the electric light bulb changed everything. With lights, television and other electronic distractions available 24/7, sleep time became discretionary and optional. Its little wonder sleep deprivation is a primary source of disrupted learning. The Sleep Research Division at Harvard Medical School reports;

"When persons are sleep deprived, focus, attention, and vigilance drift, making it more difficult to receive information. Without adequate sleep and rest, over-worked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly, and people lose their ability to access previously learned information.

In addition, their interpretation of events may be affected. People lose their ability to make sound decisions because they can no longer accurately assess the situation, plan accordingly, and choose the correct behavior. Judgment becomes impaired.

Being chronically tired to the point of fatigue or exhaustion means that a person is less likely to perform well. Neurons do not fire optimally, muscles are not rested, and the body’s organ systems are not synchronized."

Sleep deprivation does not discriminate. Whether one is a learner or a teacher, the need for a good night's rest remains important. Education is a collaborative effort. Whether its exhausted educators or sleep deprived students, the result is still ineffective learning and increased frustration. In a world filled with diversions, new emphasis needs to be put on the importance of a good night's sleep and the discipline people need to exercise to ensure they get it. Adults need to set an example and provide guidelines for children. In her book "Different Learners, Identifying, Preventing and Treating Your Child's Learning Problems", educational psychologist Jane Healy identifies some common sense steps that can assist in ensuring proper sleep levels are achieved. Some of these include:
  1. Modeling appropriate routines - children model their behavior after the adults in their lives
  2. Establishing and sticking to regular bedtimes
  3. Establishing and maintaining a regular sleep routine
  4. Avoiding vigorous, exciting, frightening or highly physical activities directly before trying to go to sleep.
  5. Limiting evening screen time. Computers, cell phones and other electronic media should be turned off and kept out of the sleeping area. 
  6. Prior to bedtime face time should trump screen time every time. Engage in calming pleasant activities
  7. Make sleep and self care a top priority.
Although these suggestions are aimed at children they work well for adults too. Ironically, the internet contains dozens if not hundreds of sites with more ideas and information about the need for and value of adequate sleep - just limit your screen time to regular waking hours! 
The last of Healy's suggestions might be the hardest, yet most important. Self care cannot be an optional activity, nor can people assume that mind and body will rebound or recalibrate by default or through extended endurance of poor routines. Doing right by ourselves and our students takes planning, commitment and follow through. Or as Polonius might have put it;
"This above all: to thine own self be true". Getting a good night's sleep and helping others to do the same,  needs to be a priority for maintaining the health and mental sharpness of all learners.


Sunday, 20 November 2011

Resiliency: The Art of Bouncing Back Better

Ever wonder why some people seem to be able to deal so much better with adversity than others? We've all heard the cliche's "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" or  "When life serves you lemons, make lemonade".  Easy to say - harder to do. And yet most of us know  persons who remain upbeat no matter what the situation, people who deal with life's tougher moments and still come through as good or better than before.

The ability to deal with, and bounce back from tough times is called resiliency. Clinically defined, resiliency is the capability of an individual to cope with stress and adversity in ways that are both effective, and allow a person to respond constructively to future challenges. In other words it's how to deal with tough times and come back better than ever. for 21st century learners, coping with an ever changing and uncertain world, resiliency is a much needed skill.

Everyone admires resilience. The big question is where to find it? Is it something a person is just born with? Is it genetic or a product of circumstance? Some people believe that resilience is some sort of random magic: that people either have it or they don't. Others believe resiliency comes from a variety of internal and external factors: that it is sometimes inherent in a person's nature, but that it can also be developed, or impeded, within a person depending upon external influences and circumstances.

One thing experts do agree upon is that resilient individuals are better able to cope with change, and even if we are not certain where resilience comes from, we do recognize its characteristics. Resilient individuals are positive, focused, flexible, organized and proactive. Resilient individuals see life as challenging but full of opportunities. They make goals and determinedly forge forwards to attain them. They are open to different possibilities and options and develop strategies to deal with the unknown. Ultimately they are forward looking. they engage with their surroundings and work with them. They are survivors, by and large, happier and more content than most people.

Resiliency should not to confused with motivation. Anyone who has faced a difficult decision knows how easy it can be to procrastinate to delay the moment of truth. Resilience does not trump Newton's first Law of Physics.  A body at rest will stay at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. Instead, resilience, or its lack, becomes evident once the force has been applied. Resilience shows up in to how a person reacts to adversity. Patience may be a virtue, but jut sitting around waiting for something good to happen is neither efficient nor effective as a resilience strategy.

As adults working with children we need to both model and develop resilience for both our students and colleagues. The antithesis of resilience is burn out: with its attitude of indifference, apathy and inactivity. Being resilient takes effort and resources. Not everyone has the strength of will to do things completely on their own. Children need to be taught to enlist and be the support of others. Together we can all seek and share the load. Resilience  involves being willing to adapt one's style to suit the situation. Some people respond best to encouragement, some require a firmer nudge; the key is to support people in a positive manner.  Relentless optimism is not nagging, and positive insistence is not running a person down till they want to quit, contrary to what reality television shows portray. Ironically it is is the perseverance and resilience of regular people on such shows that makes them popular. More than anything, we need to remember to build some fun and reward into the task. Just because something is hard doesn't mean it has to engender feelings of hopelessness. Real resilience includes learning to laugh at adversity, finding ways to overcome it and celebrating even the smallest successes.

Adversity and change are hard. Life happens and its not always easy. Helping each other to cope and succeed is a good thing. By staying positive, focused, flexible, organized and proactive we can deal with most of life's challenges. When things get hard we can, through our own efforts, or, with the help and support of others get through and come out better for the experience. Resilience is not about sailing through life unchallenged, but rather about how we deal with challenge. Like another cliche states "its not how many times you get knocked down, it what you do when you get back up that matters". Resilient folks bounce back and push on better than ever!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Promoting Positive Mental Health Practices In Schools

21st century learners exist in a complex and often confusing world.Consequently, the issue of student mental health is more important every day. Healthy, happy children learn better, and there is a growing recognition that the psychological well being of students is affected by factors present within and surrounding students. Mental health can be measured not only in the absence of symptoms or problems, but also in the resilience of individuals to cope with the anxieties and stress that they face, both at school and in the worlds they live in.

Promoting positive mental health needs to be a goal for effective and caring schools. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) " Fostering the development of positive mental health by creating supportive environments and addressing the broader determinants of mental health are key to the promotion of positive mental health". The Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health (JCSH), recognizes that schools are source of social connection, safety and belonging for many students and encourages schools to adopt healthy school policies, promote positive social and physical environments, use appropriate teaching and learning activities and to partner and collaborate with families and other organizations with a similar focus on youth education.

Reprinted below are the JCSH's checklists for schools and positive mental health. How does your school stack up?

Healthy School Policies
does your school......
  1. provide alternatives to zero tolerance policies that allow for continued school connnectedness  and restoration for challenging students?
  2. ensure that all staff and students are held accountable for upholding and modelling rules pertaining to respect and appropriate behavior?
  3. have policies that contribute to the emotional and physical safety of all students?
  4. accommodate the learning and social needs of all students, including those with special needs?
  5. offer ongoing pro d related to positive mental health?

Positive Social and Physical Environment
does your school.....
  1. encourage and allow students to participate in decision making?
  2. foster an atmosphere of empathy, trust and cooperation?
  3. have a welcoming student centered environment?
  4. showcase student achievement?
  5. design physical spaces so that students can easily access facilities?
 Teaching and learning  
does your school.....
  1. provide students with an enhanced understanding of diversity?
  2. incorporate culturally relevant themes into its instructional activities?
  3. offer students opportunities to learn and use social skills?
  4. accommodate individual learning needs?
  5. support the autonomy of learners by listening to student perspectives?

does your school....
  1. interact with home regarding learning issues?
  2. adopt policies that ensure collaboration community and government organizations?
  3. offer opportunities for participation in school - community action groups or committees?

For more information regarding Positive Mental Health please see "Schools as a Setting for Promoting Positive Mental Health: Better Practices and Perspectives". This 80 page plus document gives examples of good practice, and is designed to encourage dialogue and action in this are, with the goal of improving mental health outcome for Canadian students. It can be found at

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Living and Learning in Interesting Times

Many people have heard the phrase, "may you live in interesting times". Less well known is the fact that it is actually one of a sequence of three statements; the other two being, "May you come to the attention of those in authority" and "may you always get more than you wish for". Taken together, these three statements are  quite ironic. They seem to wish a person well, when actually they are a curse, wishing the recipient far more stress than they ever bargained for.

These statements could easily apply to today's schools. Who wouldn't support a school system that is interesting, brings students more than they hoped for and is overseen by well intentioned authorities? Much is made of the need to engage students, to prepare them for an uncertain future and ensure that they are overseen by alert, caring and responsible  people. While such efforts are honorable and well intentioned, for many students school is already stressful place, and the urgency with which the new education agenda is being promoted must be tempered with an ethic of care and calm.

The world is already a fast and confusing place. Many students lives are programed from the moment they wake until late into the evening. If its not school, then its after school activities, a job or even just an active social life. Even unscheduled time is filled with stimulation, as kids get wired into  their computers, smart phones, ipods or television sets.  Its little wonder that some students tune out, shut down or display any number of anti social behaviors. For many, such behaviors are defense measures against the bombardment of relentless stimulation.  Research indicates that stress and other mental health issues now impact as many as one in four students.

In our district we like to talk about developing students who are not just the best IN the world, but also best FOR the world. To do that we need to consider what is truly in best interests of students and take steps to promote personal wellness and positive mental health at least as much, if not more, than the academic, technological and active social agendas. While it is important for students to engage and be active with the world around them, it is even more important that they have a healthy base from which to launch their efforts. Keeping well needs to be more important than keeping busy. Considerations such as sleep, nutrition, and healthy recreational activity, where the focus is fun, rather than constant competition, need to be in the forefront of the new education agenda, not tacked on, and dealt with as wishful after thoughts.

There is no doubt that we do live in interesting times, It is also interesting how many of us yearn for the "good old days" when life was simpler. Its important to remember that for our students the future is now. What will they remember when they look back? As we prepare them for an unknowable future, we also need to do our part to provide students with a less stressful and healthier present. Taking the time to advance an agenda that emphasizes personal care, wellness and positive mental health has a positive impact on that future. In a world where instant results and a constant pressure to achieve are increasingly the norm, we must take the time to make sure a 21st century education is really a blessing  and not just an ironic curse.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Comprehensive School Health: Making it Work Together

 More than ever schools are places where students connect and interact socially, as well as intellectually, with their peers and their community. As a consistent presence in the lives of children, schools give students a sense of community, safety and belonging. Health and education professionals need to work together to take advantage of this opportunity to create a framework for supporting improvement of learning and for developing healthier and happier students.

Its undeniable that education and health are interdependent. Healthy students are better learners, and better educated individuals become healthier citizens! We need to find ways to recognize, develop and strengthen this link; to bring forward initiatives that improve both health and educational outcomes, and allow students to learn and internalize healthy behaviors that can help them both during and beyond their school years.

One initiative is Comprehensive School Health (CSH).  Google Comprehensive School Health and you will find that it is an internationally recognized framework for supporting improvements in student educational outcomes, while also addressing health topics in a planned, integrated and holistic way. (or just find CSH at!) CSH focuses upon four inter related pillars - social and physical environment, teaching and learning, healthy school policy and partnerships and services. Many communities and school districts have any number of initiatives driven by local or provincial mandates that fit into one or more of the four pillars. The real challenge is coordinating agencies and policies to create a harmonious and effective CSH program.

The benefits of Comprehensive School Health are realized at many levels. In the classroom CSH facilitates improved academic achievement and can lead to fewer behavioral problems. In the broader school community students learn skills that allow them to be physically active and more aware of other factors that affect health such as sleep or nutrition. Healthier students maintain better habits for a lifetime, helping to reduce the stress on community health services.

So how do schools and districts move towards achieving comprehensive school health? Formally recognizing that healthy young people learn better and achieve more is a start. Districts and schools committed to CSH understand that school can directly influence student health and behavior. They encourage healthy lifestyle choices and promote student health and well being. They incorporate health into all aspects of school and learning. At district level steps need to be taken to establish formal links between the education and health systems. Together both systems need to engage and encourage the participation and and support of families and the community at large.

Creating links is more easily said than done. Most folks will agree that actions that promote better health and education are good but few have concrete suggestions as to what should be done. Talk is cheap, action takes time and resources - commodities that are in short supply in both health and education. It is exactly this scarcity that makes the need to act even more important. As resources get stretched tighter and tighter it will be only through collaborative effort and partnerships that things will get done. 

Need and circumstance recently brought representatives from SD 60 together with representatives from Northern Health and the Ministry of Children and Families. Grappling with a particular situation brought the need for joint consultation and efforts more sharply into focus, and a schedule of regular meetings has been developed. It remains to be seen what might come out of our joint efforts, but the positive step is that we are meeting. Alone schools and health authorities can only do so much. Working together we can all do more. Hopefully together we can find ways of making Comprehensive School Health a reality for the students and families we serve.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Physical Literacy - A True 21st century Skill

 Schools spend a lot of time working with students around literacy. Most people understand literacy to have something to do with books or reading, but really it means much more. In its broadest terms literacy has to do with competence and knowledge in a specified area. There is a growing awareness that schools need to consider more than just the academic development of their students; that attention needs to be paid to students physical well being as well. More than ever students should be physically as well as academically literate.

Physically literate individuals consistently develop the motivation and ability to understand, communicate, apply, and analyze different kinds of movement. They demonstrate a variety of movements confidently, competently, creatively and strategically across a wide range of physical activities. Their skills enable individuals to make healthy, active choices that are beneficial to and respectful of their whole self, others, and the environment. These skills also translate to other aspects of their schooling and help develop a healthier, happier and more competent student. There is definitely truth to the phrase "Mens sana in corpore sano -a sound mind in a healthy body.

PHE Canada (Physical Health and Education Canada) is an organization, made up primarily of educators, that has been promoting physical education programs for the generation of healthier citizens for 75 years. PHE Canada believes physical literacy is about developing student attitudes so that children can engage in a variety of physical activities with poise and confidence. PHE Canada believes schools can be the drivers to engage and condition students to see physical activities as fun and necessary aspects of daily life.

Spend some time on an elementary playground during break time and you can easily see that younger students are willing participants in physical literacy. The energy and effort that goes into a recess break is truly inspiring. Move to a middle school or a secondary school and the energy levels seem to drop. At some point schools become serious places dedicated to academic pursuits and physical exercise starts to be more like work than fun. Ask a group of fourth graders to race the length of a play ground and you'll likely get left in the dust. Ask a group of grade 10's and you'll more likely get ignored or be met with reasons not to. 

Physical literacy is not about creating elite level athletes. It's about keeping people active. Isn't it ironic that in a world that seems fixated on body image and waist line watching, more attention and resources aren't dedicated to the sort of positive preventative maintenance that physical literacy represents? Any adult who has tried to drop a few pounds can easily attest to how hard it is to correct the situation after the weight has gone on. How much better would it be to develop generations of students who view physical activity with confidence, enthusiasm and as a necessary part of daily life?

Its not like schools are unaware of the issue. Quality DPA - daily physical activity has been part of the BC Curriculum since September 2008. The ministry requirements, guidelines and resources can be found at Its one thing to set out the expectation however, and completely another to make it happen. Physical Literacy needs to be legitimized, promoted and profiled in positive ways. Ministry definitions of DPA don't help this cause. DPA is described as "endurance, strength and/or flexibility activities done on a daily basis".  Webster's dictionary defines endurance as " the ability to sustain an unpleasant or difficult process without giving way". The whole concept of sweat equity makes all exercise sound like an unpleasant investment.

Physical literacy should not be about enduring. It needs be about enjoying processes that are seen as fun, not difficult! The whole point of physical literacy is to give students the confidence to try, learn and master skills that will sustain them for a lifetime. As schools move towards developing 21st century learners it will be increasingly important to include physical literacy on the learning agenda. Valuing physical activities and keeping them fun and accessible for all will engage students more than many more "serious' academic initiatives. Since a bi-product of active energized students is a greater receptiveness to learning, physical literacy might be a better route to literacy in other areas as well. Perhaps Descartes got it backwards. Surely there's got to be more to school than just being there, Instead of "I think therefore I am"  21st century learners need to declare "I move, therefore I think!"