A New Skills Toolbox
by Dan Mullins
“The most important influence on the biological development of the human brain is the quality of adult-child relationships, particularly in the early childhood years.
“If we understand that these are years of brain development, then the question the school will be asking themselves is… what conditions will promote the development of healthy brain circuits?”
-Dr. Gabor Maté
While it would likely be of tremendous value to anyone interested in how to help children thrive, the new Essential Skills for Today’s Classroom tool was primarily developed for classroom teachers and school staff. The website was created by members of the Educational Services and Student Services Departments, and is described as a set of “tools to promote positive mental health, classroom climate and educational success.”
As is the case with many good things, the new tool only exists due to a great deal of hard work and a bit of synchronicity.
The seeds for the Essential Skills project were planted before the pandemic by two employees of the LBPSB who deeply understand the importance of trauma-informed work and the principles of attachment. One is Tina Newton, a teacher with 25 years of experience and a pedagogical consultant in the Educational Services Department. Ms. Newton’s background provides her with a thorough understanding of these areas’ practical and in-class aspects. The other is Elizabeth Roberts, a Ph.D. psychologist in the LBPSB’s Student Services Department. Ms. Roberts brought researched-based knowledge and clinical expertise to bear. The two knew that their strengths and personalities were a good complement to each other, and they had an excellent professional experience while working together within various schools and collaborating on professional development projects. “We both have a really solid understanding of kids, and what they need to succeed in classrooms,” says Ms. Newton.
Despite the initial outbreak of COVID-19, severe time constraints and no funding, the duo began working on a tool they hoped might help teachers and school staff achieve greater success with students experiencing social, emotional, and behavioural difficulties. Incorporating the Ministry of Education’s related ÉKIP framework, which aims to support the health, well-being, and educational success of young people, they met with the Student Services Department’s Consultants in Inclusive Education.
Meanwhile, a letter arrived on the desk of Nathalie Allain, the coordinator of Student Services. Ms. Allain had begun this role around the time of the COVID-19 outbreak and had immediately inherited the task of reporting on it to the Regional Public Health organization. In this capacity, she was putting in long hours at the peak of the Delta Variant. The letter was from the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (MSSS) offering funding via the Direction Régionale de la Santé Publique de Montréal to be used for a project linked to the ÉKIP framework.
Ms. Allain needed to find an appropriate project. She had discussions with other school boards and services centres, but together with Student Services Director Stephanie Stever, eventually decided to keep the funding locally. After some brainstorming and deliberation, they identified Ms. Newton’s and Ms. Robert’s project as potentially being an ideal fit. When the news reached Ms. Newton and Ms. Roberts, they realized that they would be able to produce something distinctive which combined theory and practice.
A flurry of activity followed, and with support from the Information Systems and Communications and Community Development Departments, web and graphic designers were brought on board, a translator was found, and the writing began in earnest.
The weeks leading up to the deadline were somewhat hectic and occasionally stressful, but the reaction from the Ministry was very positive. With final changes made, Ms. Allain received approval to make the site public and to promote it in September 2022. It has since been featured at the Ministry’s Rencontre nationale d’information, and presentations have been delivered to the Direction de la santé publique de la Montérégie and the Kativik School Board, among others.
Perhaps most importantly, ‘Essential Skills’ has been very well received by educators. Teacher Erica Kresevik suggests exploring the site “…if you feel like you have tried everything and you have no more tools in your toolbox,” while teacher Natalie Zagari says that it “is a great tool for teachers and school staff.” The rich and accessible knowledge base helps identify skills a student lacks and, according to teacher Lindsay Smith, provides practical and “useful strategies to implement.”
“Behaviours always boil down to a few things: a connection need or some sort of a lagging skill deficit. We tried to take the guess work out of what it could be by listing the driving forces behind challenging behaviours in concrete categories to prompt teachers to reflect, in the spirit of all behaviour being communication” explained Ms. Roberts.
If all behaviour really is communication, then the behaviour of this team is saying “we care about you, and we’ll overcome obstacles to help you succeed.”