GECDSB launches new position, focused on educating students about mental health and mindfulness

As a teacher for more than 20 years, Jodi Nolan always dreamt of having a job where she could teach students about the tools they need for success — well before they ever step foot in the classroom.

"I feel like these are the most important lessons that we can teach our children so they're ready to learn academics," said Nolan.

The Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) has named her as its Special Assignment Teacher of Student Well-Being, a new role that sees her visit different classrooms and teach students about mental health and mindfulness.

"I get to teach students how to manage stress in their own lives, how to manage their emotions and how to have improved friendships," she said. "The strategies they're learning, the mindfulness practices and lessons, become tools in their backpack of life. They can use it always."

According to the board, the position was created using provincial funding stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, school boards across Canada have requested more support for students' mental health ⁠⁠— and this position is one way of meeting that need.

"People often think we have two ways to deal with our emotions. One is we can act out of the anger and another is to bury it down," said Nolan, adding she works with students to understand a "third option" of grappling with stress and anxiety.

"Pause. If something happens in your life and you feel very angry, notice that emotion. Sit with it. How does that feeling feel in your body? What thoughts are you having? How does it feel in your mind? Now the child has a chance to respond to what's happening in their environment more thoughtfully and positively rather than reacting impulsively out of the emotion."

On Thursday, Nolan spoke to students at Central Public School, teaching them about mindfulness, breathing exercises and expressing statements of positive affirmation to themselves.

"It would really help me with sleeping because I usually stay up a lot," said Grade 7 student Rita, adding she can find herself staying awake until 7 a.m. — an hour before her school day begins.

Another student, Sam, called Nolan's exercises "awesome" and would like to see them incorporated in the school curriculum.

"Last night, when I was finishing up a project, I was talking to my friend and I got distracted. So I think things like this are needed more often. If you have anxiety, it's good for you,” Sam said.

Nolan said she'll occupy the Student Well-Being role for three months, before the job is reposted in the fall. She added her goal is to see teachers incorporate mindfulness exercises with their students on their own.

Grade 7 teacher Sara Mailloux said she plans on doing exactly that.

"It's really beneficial,” she said. “Especially after COVID, I find the students are coming with a lot of anxiety and feelings they don't know how to deal with. So I think this is a great practice and definitely something I'll incorporate into my program."

On Friday, Nolan will visit Kennedy Collegiate to conduct a special presentation with the school's Grade 12 students, focused on overcoming challenges and managing major life changes.