Pillar 4: Student Wellbeing

A student can only be truly successful in school when they are mentally and physically healthy. There are several programs and resources that schools can provide to ensure that students take care of their well-being and prosper in school. The number one priority of schools and school boards should be to ensure that students are well-fed, cared for, and offered support staff so they know they have people they can talk to in the event of a mental health issue. Although Ontario has made investments into student well-being resources and this has become a priority for school boards.

OSTA-AECO’s OSPES found that 1 in 3 students feel their mental health resources and supports are inadequate.[1]

 Student Nutrition Programs: Updating the Funding Criteria

Research has shown that students face significant barriers to learning when they are hungry, as nutritious food is essential to the well-being of a student. In 2015, over 500,000[2] Ontarians visited a food bank, of which, 33% of those were students.

Through OSTA-AECO’s Student Survey, approximately 70% of students[3] felt that breakfast programs were either highly-important or important for a healthy learning environment.

Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services currently funds a student nutrition program (SNP) which includes 14 lead agencies that support nutrition programs in school boards across the province.[4] They provide students with nutritious breakfasts, lunches, and snacks in accordance with local need. Schools become eligible for additional funding when school demographics face extenuating circumstances such as low EQAO scores, limited parental post-secondary education, language barriers, and recent immigration.

Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services currently funds a student nutrition program (SNP) which includes 14 lead agencies that support nutrition programs in school boards across the province.[5] They provide students with nutritious breakfasts, lunches, and snacks in accordance with local need. Schools become eligible for additional funding when school demographics face extenuating circumstances such as low EQAO scores, limited parental post-secondary education, language barriers, and recent immigration.

“My school runs a daily breakfast program and several students use it due to financial reasons. Poverty rates are rising where I live, and because of this, my school has also had to begin a lunch program to ensure students are eating. I know we don’t receive any money for this lunch program so I worry that soon, they will cancel it and students will be starving during their afternoon classes.” High School Student, DSB of Niagara

In OSTA-AECO’s Student Survey, 31% of students cited that their school either does not include a breakfast program, or there is a fee associated with the program.[6]

With poverty rates on the rise across Ontario, student nutrition must be a priority for schools. To reflect the modern socio-economic barriers faced by Ontario citizens,

Recommendation 4.1: OSTA-AECO recommends that: A) The province mandate that every school in Ontario have some form of a Student Nutrition Program and provide the resources required to make it a reality. B) The factors considered for the SNP be broadened to include parental status, housing stability, utilization rates for social assistance programs, refugee status, regional unemployment rates, and low graduation rates.

Guidance Staff

Guidance staff in schools are invaluable resources to students. They provide insight into personal, interpersonal, and career-related development. In elementary schools, funding provided for guidance counsellors is based on the student to guidance counsellor ratio of 5000:1 and for secondary schools, 385:1. [7]

Clarifying the Role

According to the Ontario School Counsellors’ Association58 , the responsibilities of a guidance counsellor come in three parts: personal development, interpersonal development, and career development. However, due to Ministry documentation such as the 2010 progressive discipline document, Caring and Safe Schools[8] and the 2013 mental health and wellbeing document, Supporting Minds[9] , guidance counsellors are also given the task of helping students to deal with their mental health. Due to the conflict in job descriptions, the role of a guidance counsellor varies across the province, which creates significant discrepancies in the abilities of students to get both academic and well-being support at school. Mental health supports are also covered by a wide variety of support workers, which can make the exact role of a guidance counsellor within mental health confusing and undefined. Due to the differing views of the actual responsibilities of guidance counsellors across the province,

Recommendation 4.2: OSTA-AECO recommends that: A) the Ministry of Education specifically outline the role of guidance counsellors to ensure that they can perform their job to the best of their abilities, and students can have a solid understanding of who to turn to for assistance in mental wellbeing and academic success. B) the Ministry clearly define the scope of professions considered to be “Social Workers” in an educational setting and their responsibilities, as well as the difference between academic guidance staff and social workers.

Minimizing the Ratio

Although funding is provided to school boards at a fixed ratio, only 14% of elementary schools report having guidance supports for their students and 10% of secondary schools in Ontario report that the ratio of students to guidance staff jumps to 800:1.[10] Some students report that they must schedule an appointment with their guidance counsellor a few weeks prior to seeing them, due to the workload placed on the counsellor. In elementary schools, most students have never spoken to a guidance counsellor, even though grade 8 students are deciding on which path to take during their high school journey which directly impacts their post-secondary endeavours. This results in students making uninformed decisions and taking courses at levels that do not fit their learning styles. The extremely high student to counsellor ratio creates difficulties in ensuring that all students with academic, social, and post-secondary inquiries are supported to the fullest extent. Therefore,

Recommendation 4.3: OSTA-AECO recommends that the funding provided for guidance counsellors in Ontario be increased in order to properly support the needs of Ontario students, and the funding provided at the elementary level should match the secondary level.

“I go to school in a rural area. We have one guidance counsellor for the entire high school of 500+ students. To make an appointment you often have to wait for several days or weeks before she can see you. We have one social worker for the entire school (grade seven-twelve) of 700+ students. She is only in two or three times a week, as she works at other schools in my school board. If you need to speak with her, you must book an appointment and have a similar waiting time to our guidance counsellor. As a student who deals with mental health, this is not nearly enough support. I have never been able to see my SSW in a time of distress or need due to the wait times.” Student, Upper Canada DSB

Social Workers in School 

Social Workers are trained professionals who work with youth in school-settings to help students as they struggle with mental health concerns. Mental illness continues to pose a challenge to many students, and because of this, mental health supports are invaluable in ensuring that students are learning in the best possible environment. Despite the importance of social workers in schools, the 2018 Student Survey conducted by OSTA-AECO asked students to rate the effectiveness of their school’s well-being resources on a scale from 1-5.

Almost 64% of students gave a rate between 1 to 3.[11]

Social Worker Ratios

In addition to the 34% of students who rate their mental health as poor or worse, 28% of students have said that they’ve wanted to speak to a trusted adult regarding a mental health challenge, but had nobody to turn to.[12] The province of Ontario needs to financially support school social workers in order for them to provide the best possible specialized care to students. Promoting mental wellness in schools will improve every student’s education by improving their ability to learn in their classrooms.

Recommendation 4.4: OSTA-AECO recommends that funding should be provided for social workers on a ratio that should match guidance counsellor ratios.

As mental health concerns continue to be on the rise for students across Ontario, school boards strive to ensure that every student has a trusted adult they can reach out to in the event of a mental health issue. Some of the first trusted adults’ students reach out to are teachers. Teachers are a vital part of a student’s educational journey, and by participating in a 3-hour SAFETALK training program, they will be equipped to identify and help students who are experiencing suicidal thoughts and help connect them with important resources. With more than 5800 youth suicides across Canada in the past 13 years[13], this training could help save countless student lives and work to better student mental well-being. Knowing this,

Recommendation 4.5: OSTA-AECO recommends that teachers be trained in SAFETALK so they can help students who reach out to them.

Bringing Student Well Being into the 21st Century: Online Booking Systems

One of the hallmarks of modernization in today’s schools is the digitization of previously pen-and-paper processes. Several school transactions now take place online – from buying uniforms to paying for class trips. In addition, some boards are also moving traditional start-of-year medical forms to digital formats as well. With technology changing many of the enduring customs and practices of schools, a similar approach should be taken with mental health resources. Some of the most important and utilized mental health services in schools are guidance counsellors and social workers. However, booking appointments remains an in-person process, which may require a student to chat with several staff members which results in their appointment public knowledge. This can sometimes be a barrier to students accessing the help they need. Additionally, an online process facilitates flexibility of shared support worker resources, as the staff who split between different schools can be in the schools which require them at certain times, rather than waiting in their office for a student to drop by. This also helps to solve an issue regarding the average wait times that students face when trying to get support. There are several benefits to digitizing the process of booking appointments with support workers, which is why

Recommendation 4.6: OSTA-AECO recommends that the Ministry of Education work to develop the infrastructure to allow and work with school boards to digitize the booking of guidance counsellors and other mental health worker appointments through online systems that fits their local needs.

“Whenever I tried making an appointment with my school’s social worker I would have to talk to several different secretaries which I was not comfortable doing. Just last year, my school launched an online booking system used to book appointments for our support workers which is extremely convenient and makes me feel more comfortable when reaching out for help.” High School Student, DSB of Niagara

References   [ + ]

1. OSTA-AECO Executive Council, A Turning Point for Education: The Student Platform. (Ottawa: Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, 2018).
2. OSTA-AECO Executive Council, The Ontario Student, Parent, and Educator Survey; Official 2017 Report. (Ottawa: Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, 2017).
3, 12. Ibid., 54
4, 5. Ontario Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services, Student Nutrition Program. (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, 2018).
6. Ontario Association of Food Banks, Hunger Report 2018. (Toronto: Ontario Association of Food Banks, 2018).
7. Ontario Ministry of Education, Supporting Minds. (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013).
8. People for Education, Guidance Counsellors: Expanding Roles Limited Access. (Toronto, People for Education, 2018).
9. Ontario Ministry of Education, Caring and Safe Schools in Ontario. (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010).
10. Ibid., 57
11. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. (Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2017).
13.  Canadian Mental Health Association, New Report on Youth Suicides Across Canada. (Toronto: Canadian Mental Health Association, September 20, 2018).