Secord students learn how to manage stress

Sharon takes time to colour during a mindfulness class at Secord Elementary School. PHOTO: Lara O'Keefe

It’s a conversation that has begun to permeate the walls of homes and schools nationwide, thanks, in part to initiatives such as Bell Let’s Talk and the work of countless advocates.

Still, mental health is a serious issue that affects a number of Canadians, children among them. But Jordyn Horne, a third year nursing student at Ryerson University, believes that learning methods to cope with stress and mental illness early could prove to ease the suffering for some.

Horne, who is currently completing her placement at Secord Elementary School, decided to take it upon herself to encourage mindfulness in Grade 4 and 5 students in order to teach them better ways to cope when faced with stress, anxiety and/or depression.

“We wanted to incorporate mindfulness and mental health in the curriculum at public schools,” explained Horne.

According to research conducted out of John Hopkins School of Medicine, the simple act of practicing mindfulness has been shown to improve moods, the ability to cope with stress, and can even improve classroom behaviour and academic competence.

On March 21, Secord held their first annual Mental Health Day in order to “help children understand what stress is, how it affects our body, ways to handle stress, and the importance of mindfulness in our everyday lives,” said Horne.

With the help of school staff and public health nurses, organizers arranged to have four stations in total placed throughout the school — mindful eating, music, colouring and mindfulness, how stress affects our body, and physical exercise and meditation — with groups spending 25 minutes at each station.

Students were mixed into different colour groups which were red, blue, green and yellow, and were given passports that included information about each of the stations they had visited.

“They get a little sticker when they complete each station and they can write one thing they learned at each station. At the last station they get a stress ball that was donated by Toronto Public Health to take home with them,” said Horne.

While the mindfulness station allowed children to colour while being calm and quiet, the ‘how stress affects our body’ station was a little more interactive and led them through a demonstration of what stress can physically do to the body.

Public Health Nurse Voula Varsamidou poured vinegar into two cups, explaining as she poured baking soda into one and watched the bubbles flow over the top that if you don’t learn how to manage stress, your body can react just as the vinegar and baking soda reacted when combined.

Varsamidou then placed cotton balls into the second cup to symbolize what happens when you have methods of coping with stress such as yoga, or playing and laughing with friends. While the children chimed in with their methods of stress management, she continued to drop in cotton balls.

As she poured baking soda over the top they noticed that this time, the cup did not boil over. Despite a small amount of bubbling at the bottom of the cup, the fluids remained calm much like our levels of stress when we learn stress management methods.

The other stations involved a yoga class and taking time to eat an apple mindfully.

Huda, a Grade 5 student at Secord Elementary said she felt the day overall was “really peaceful. I’ve had everything on my mind just…let out.”

She noted the importance of learning how to cope with stress because, “if you live your life with stress you’ll never get over it and just move on.”

Horne said she hopes the lessons extend far beyond Mental Health Day at the school.

I just hope that they enjoy themselves and they’re able to really think about what stress is and how to handle it in their everyday life,” she said. “I hope they take something away from it and know that there are all these [techniques] that you can [use] when you are feeling stressed.”

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