Well on their way

Nicole Wiens used to wake up and put on her game face for work. “I’d count the hours until I could go back to bed,” says the Grade 1 teacher at Carstairs Elementary School, north of Calgary. All her energy went toward work while her husband managed the household and their small children. Her stress was mounting. “It wasn’t the family life I wanted.” When her husband suggested a career change, it was the wakeup Wiens needed to admit she was burned out.

“It’s not surprising there are health challenges when we allow staff to work all the time,” says Ray Hoppins, associate superintendent with Chinook’s Edge School Division. “The best way to serve kids is to take care of ourselves.” But while many schools are taking action, there is little research available on the best ways to establish and maintain a culture of well-being in schools. So Chinook’s Edge partnered with UAlberta researcher Kate Storey to learn and share how to build wellness into school operations. 

This research is funded by the McConnell Foundation, a Canadian organization whose WellAhead initiative aims to improve social, emotional and physical health and well-being in K-12 education. 

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For every $1 invested in health promotion in schools, the education and health systems benefit an average of $11 (Source: Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education, New York). Kate Storey’s research in the School of Public Health focuses on the holistic health and well-being of children and youth.

 

“We know that kids who are healthy and well learn better, feel a sense of belonging and inclusion, and are more likely to thrive into adulthood,” says Storey, an associate professor in the School of Public Health. Her team studies wellness programs implemented by school districts in B.C. and Alberta and will create a video series showcasing different approaches to inspire schools across Canada. 

Chinook’s Edge, for example, implemented a division-wide initiative called “Weekdays ’til 6,” an effort to protect personal time by asking parents and teachers not to send or answer texts and emails outside of business hours.


“We know that kids who are healthy and well learn better, feel a sense of belonging and inclusion, and are more likely to thrive into adulthood,” says Storey, an associate professor in the School of Public Health.


The change benefited Wiens, who also incorporated wellness practices into her classroom. She and her students take part in mindful movement, purposeful kindness and a minute of quiet breathing each day after lunch.

“School is busy and noisy and students are overstimulated. If we miss mindfulness for a day, the students ask about it,” says Wiens. Research shows that improved wellness can raise students’ grades by up to 11 per cent. Since kids spend thousands of hours in school, it’s an ideal place to promote well-being and develop lifelong healthy habits.

Storey stresses that wellness initiatives should make teachers’ workloads more manageable. “Wellness is a precondition for learning,” she says, adding that the most meaningful programs are developed within the school itself rather than in a one-size-fits-all set of instructions. 

Wiens wants her wellness success to encourage other educators. “Changes in a classroom take time and are subtle,” she says, “but they are definitely there.”

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