By Mick Amundson-Geisel
Our school, like many around the world, has been online since March 2020. When we were preparing to return to in-person school in February 2021, a military coup occurred in Myanmar, which kept us online. In autumn 2021, there was no end in sight. When I met with student council members, they reported that too many of their friends were struggling with motivation, stress, anxiety and other issues, even though The International School Yangon’s (ISY) team of administrators, counsellors and teachers were offering an array of support through structures and programming we put in place. Further, the school counsellors adjusted what we were teaching in classrooms to address the struggles we anticipated students might have, were even more available for individual meetings than in the past and tried to be creative to offer more opportunities for students to connect with one another.
Thus, I was thrilled when a group of students decided they wanted to take action to support their classmates.
After a few meetings where we examined common themes when it came to issues we might address, engaged in a ton of brainstorming and set out some goals, we ended up with four committed high-school students and too many tasks to act upon. We decided to call ourselves the ISY Student Support Group.
We decided it was important to be action-based, so the students were determined to end every meeting with a task for all of us to complete that we would build upon each week.
We began by surveying the students in order to obtain a baseline on their level of stress and anxiety. By January 2022, our school was transitioning back to in-person schooling. At the end of the transitional activities and the beginning of being in person full time, we sent the survey out again. Results showed that stress and anxiety levels were reduced.
We were able to share the results of the survey as well as get the word out to the ISY community about our group’s existence when Global, our school’s magazine, interviewed our group members and published an article. It mentioned an upcoming project we were about to embark on that would directly address the mental health of our students from elementary to high school.
Wellness in action project
Instead of telling students how they could take better care of their mental health, we wanted to have them engage in those behaviours or show them what they could do.
The four students and I developed short activities that small groups of participants could complete within 10 minutes. The students set up the activities, explaining how they were connected to wellbeing or taking care of their mental health and then led students in grades 2 to 12 through the activity.
One of the students’ and teachers’ favourites was ice throwing. We took a piece of plywood, stood it nearly vertical and drew a target on it. We had students stand about 10 feet from it. We then handed each student an ice cube and asked them to remember a time when they were stressed, anxious or angry and to put the feeling into it. They threw the ice cube at the target and it shattered and would eventually melt away. Visualising putting our feelings into objects can be helpful and the metaphor of ‘throwing away’ or allowing the feeling to melt away or decrease in intensity can help students manage their feelings more effectively.
Another was our ‘scent centre’. One of the high-school students gathered items that have a strong odour – flowers, candles, herbs and spices, fruits, oils and other objects. Participants went around and smelled each one then recorded a memory or feeling that surfaced by the different scents. We emphasised how scents can change our moods or replace one feeling with another.
One that was heartfelt and created a buzz was our ‘compliment and gratitude’ activity where students could write down a compliment to a classmate or something they were grateful for and tape it anywhere around the school on railings, walls, chairs, tables, etc.
The four students each ran a different activity and we had each grade level split into four groups and rotate through all of them. We hosted this three times, once a month in March, April and May, so students experienced 12 different ways to enhance their mental health. Feedback from both students and teachers was overwhelmingly positive.
Next year we hope to build upon this concept and gain more members. Students looking out for the mental health of peers is always positive, especially when students can actively engage in activities that they can incorporate into their lives.
Implementation of a student-led wellness project
For schools who wish to run something similar, here are some lessons we learned:
- Find a few students who are willing to dedicate time and energy.
- Develop a simple set of ideas or possibilities, then flesh out each one with students to see which ones they might be most interested in.
- Have the hands-on activities be something simple that all students can engage with and that high-school students can easily explain how they are connected to wellbeing.
- Gain support from administration and teachers.