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Grade 11 students teach Grade 5, 6 students mental health strategies

Mental wellness facilitators - Centre Wellington District High School teacher Carly McFarlane, left, and her Grade 11 girls health and physical education class held a mental health outreach project at John Black Public School in January for Grade 5 and 6 students.   Submitted photo

Grade 11 students teach Grade 5, 6 students mental health strategies

by Jaime Myslik

FERGUS - A group of high school students recently spent an afternoon explaining mental wellness coping strategies to Grade 5 and 6 students.

This is the second year Carly McFarlane’s Centre Wellington District High School Grade 11 girls health and physical education class has completed a mental health outreach project.

Last year’s class ran its project with Grade 4 students at JD Hogarth Public School. This year the class reached out to Grade 5 and 6 students at John Black Public School.

“One of the girls has a sister at John Black in Grade 5 or 6 and they just felt like they wanted to target their day to a slightly older group,” McFarlane said.

“And I thought it was a great choice. The kids responded really well.”

Grade 11 student Emma Withers said she saw the benefit of targeting Grade 5 and 6 students.

“There is a big change once you get into Grade 7 and I think it’s important to have tools to deal with anything that you might be kind of facing as you get older,” she said.

“When I was younger I didn’t really have anything like that so I just kind of bottled it up.”

Because the day was facilitated by Grade 11 students for elementary classes, the narrow age gap may have contributed to the project’s success.

“We’re in high school so we know how much stress is put on in high school,” said student facilitator Ashley Bannister.

“It’s better for them to learn how to cope with stress so they don’t build up anxiety for high school.”

Grade 11 student Tori Lawson agreed.    

“There’s less of an age gap ... so we can sort of relate to them a little bit and they can look up to us and see this is how they coped with it and stuff like that,” she said.

This year’s group of 50 elementary students was half the size of the 2017 group.

“It was a more intimate experience,” McFarlane said.

“It was really, really nice because we were able to contain the groups a little bit easier and then, during the time that you were spending with the children, you just had that much more opportunity to visit and check in.”

McFarlane said she received a lot of positive feedback from John Black teachers and students.

“They were thrilled that we chose them,” she said. “The thank-yous were very sincere and individual.”

McFarlane said teachers were emailing her the next day to say students were already using some of the tools.

The mental health outreach project ran for about an hour and a half on Jan. 10 and the elementary students rotated to six different stations, learning various strategies to improve their mental wellness.

The stations included crushing worry monsters, participating in Zumba and tai chi, learning about healthy food decisions, constructing calming jars, creating stress balls and decorating wellness boxes.

Worry monsters

At the worry monster station students were asked to think of something that worries them or causes stress and create a representative sculpture out of play dough.

“It was just kind of the idea of calling to mind their worries and then at the end they would squish it so it’s kind of like getting it out of your mind ... showing your worries and anxieties ... who’s boss,” said Withers, a station facilitator.

Withers said she talked to the students while they were sculpting their “monsters.”

“It was really kind of weird because I can’t remember if I ever thought like that when I was younger,” she said. “And ... some of the stuff that they were saying was similar to stuff that I was worried about.

“Sports coaches and stuff like that.”

The students were each sent home with the play dough for future use.

Physical activity

At one of the stations elementary students participated in tai chi and Zumba.

“I think it went really well and it got all the kids’ heart beats up for the physical activity, having a good time, smiling, hanging with their friends and then getting to go home with something,” Bannister said.

Co-facilitators Bannister and Lawson had participated in Zumba in their physical education class and had learned tai chi for a previous project.

“We wanted something that could get their heart rates up because we had learned ... that can help relieve stress and help you sleep better and boost your overall mood,” Lawson said. “So we knew that Zumba was an easy way to do that and ... you can just let loose.”

Bannister added, “Then we did tai chi for breathing techniques so if they’re ever stressed ... [they can] calm themselves down and relax.”

Healthy food

The Grade 5 and 6 students were also given a lesson on healthy food choices.

Facilitators Desiree Finch and Katie Creamer said they chose healthy fruit options so the students could create rainbow skewers.

“We chose fruits because it’s good for their wellbeing and brain foods that are healthy and they’re colourful so they make them happy,” Creamer said.

Finch added the Grade 11 students also included cards explaining why each of the fruits was healthy.

The students also received chocolate and a juice box.

“We had little butterfly bags to take home, which had the healthy food on one side of the butterfly’s wings and the other side a happy snack,” Finch said.

Creamer added, “It’s just good for them to learn to eat healthy, but it’s okay if you’re feeling upset, have your little junk food or whatever, so it’s not always fruits and veggies.”

Calming jars

Another activity had the Grade 5 and 6 students creating calming jars.

The students received a water bottle which they filled with soap, corn syrup and sparkles.

“If you’re ... feeling unsettled or you’re not sure what your feelings are, you’re supposed to shake it and watch it settle and hopefully your feelings will settle,” said station facilitator Frances McKnight.

She said the Grade 5 and 6 students really enjoyed individualizing their calming jars.

She said she heard some of the students saying they would use the calming jar in the future.

“That was really cool as somebody who’s teaching it, to know that somebody might actually go off and use it,” she said.  

 Stress balls

The high school students also helped the elementary students make stress balls.

Rachel Thorpe, one of the station’s facilitators, said students could choose between rice, soft gel balls called Orbeez or a flour and water mix.

The high school students then helped to put the chosen substance into a balloon, which was tied off to create a stress ball to squeeze.

“They can just relieve their stress safely and without maybe making a scene or doing something they might regret later,” Thorpe said.

She added the younger students seemed to understand what stress was.

“We asked them while we were making the stress balls ... ‘Are you guys worried about anything?’” she said.

“Some of them said no, but others said during tests they get a little worried or maybe writing and then sports stress them out a little bit.”

Wellness boxes

The Grade 5 and 6 students also made a wellness box, where they could keep all of their tools from the day.

“Basically each kid picked one box and then they decorated it with paint and stickers with their name, just things that make them happy,” said facilitator Natalie Ziolkoski.

“The main goal was something that they could go to when they were feeling stressed out, then use a calming jar or the stress ball.”

While the goal of the day was to provide tools for elementary students, Ziolkoski said it benefited her as well.     

“I definitely feel a lot more confident because I don’t really like speaking in front of large groups so I was pretty nervous about that,” she said. “But they had a really chill vibe so ... it wasn’t nerve-racking to talk in front of them at all.

“So I kind of feel more confident I guess.”

The Grade 11 girls health and physical education class has applied to the province  for a SpeakUp Project grant to fund the day, but as of January, McFarlane didn’t know if the application was successful.

The SpeakUp grant is for student-led projects that make a difference in the school community.

McFarlane said she hopes the wellness day will help elementary students address their emotions.

“That’s a part of life so if we can start to teach them healthy ways to cope in tough situations now, in a couple of years when they join our high school community then they’ve already been practicing those strategies,” she said.

“And certainly on a whole we want a healthy community, we want kids to be feeling good and to feel like whatever it is that they’re really having a hard time with, they can work through it.”


February 9, 2018


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