Laura Conboy On this podcast, we talked with registered social worker Laura Conboy, who is the Mental Health Lead at Limestone District School Board. Laura discusses mental health as a continuum, strategies for mental health in the classroom - both individually and as a group, how to create caring conditions, what a circle of care looks like, how to navigate the tiers of intervention, creating brace spaces, and she provides some really great tips on how to take care of yourself as a teacher. 

Resources for Mental Health in the Classroom 

Laura Conboy is a registered Social Worker and has been working as the Mental Health Lead for the Limestone District School Board since 2017. As part of her role, Laura creates and implements Limestone’s Mental Health and Substance Use Strategy and annual action plans. Prior to coming to Limestone, Laura worked as a hospital social worker in several departments including the emergency department, high-risk obstetrics, and child and adolescent psychiatry. When Laura is not working, she can be found reading, traveling, or learning to play pickleball. 

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Transcript of Lauren Conboy's Podcast 

(Song)Talking about innovation in teaching and education, popular Podagogy. discussions that are topical and sometimes philosophical. Popular Podagogy . Popular Podagogy.

CC: Hi there. Thanks for joining us and welcome to another episode of popular pedagogy where we try to bring big ideas in teaching and education to life. I'm your host, Chris Carlton, and this podcast is being brought to you by the faculty of education at Queen's University. Welcome to our podcast. In this episode, I'm excited to be speaking with Laura Conroy, who is the mental health lead with Limestone District School Board and chair of the mental health and substance use leadership committee here in Kingston. We will be having a conversation about student mental health and the important role of teachers and students support success and well being. Laura is a registered social worker and has been working as the mental health lead for limestone District School Board since 2017. As one part of her role, Laura creates and implements limestones, mental health and substance use strategy and the subsequent annual action plans. Laura, welcome to our podcast.

LC: Thanks for having me, Chris.

CC: Laura, I have been an elementary teacher for 20 years and have loved working with students from kindergarten to grade eight, I have witnessed and appreciate how mental health plays such an important role in student's success. And I am a huge advocate for talking about some of these challenges with the students directly. I feel that the teachers role in helping equip our students with strategies and supporting them through relationship building is more important than ever, during these times in education, and the world we live in today. I know how important your role is as mental health lead and LTSB. And I'm excited to be speaking with you today about how we as teachers can do even more to support and protect our youth. So this is going to be an exciting conversation. I think the first basic question we should start with is what's the definition of mental health in this conversation specifically related to our students,

LC: a great place to start. And sometimes that can be confusing for people. And sometimes that's where people end up getting tripped up. And then it makes it hard to enter the conversation. So when we think about mental health, especially in the context of students within schools, we really want to think about mental health as a continuum. And so on one end of the continuum, you have good mental health. And on the other end of the continuum, you have poor mental health. And the why I like talking about mental health is because we all have mental health, every single one of us. And then we know that there are some students, there are some adults, typically the statistic is about one in five, pre COVID that struggle with mental illness. And so if we think about, again, that continuum of good mental health and poor mental health, we all move along this continuum at some point in our life, depending on maybe what's happening with us personally, or things that are happening in the world, which we're seeing a lot of right now. But we know that not everyone reaches that point of mental illness. And even folks with mental illness see themselves on a continuum as well. And so we often have people who have no diagnosable mental illness, they have very few symptoms or no symptoms at all. And then we have other people who have a diagnosable mental illness, and they're really struggling. And they can fluctuate on that continuum as well. So just because you have a mental illness doesn't necessarily mean you have poor mental health. And just because you have good mental health doesn't mean that you might be struggling or not struggling with a mental illness. So it can be a bit of a tricky concept sometimes to wrap our heads around. And I think sometimes in education, you know, historically, we've really been focused on the academics.

CC: I love the part that you said it's a continuum. And the fact that we can have good mental health but still struggle in different ways. And I've seen and maybe you can back this up that that continuum, can can be affected on a daily basis, how you're perceiving your day, how the day went, triggers that happen during the day and with students, there's so much being filtered down to them or unfiltered down to them that will affect their mental health in positive and negative ways. I really, I really see that need for us to have a better understanding to to help our students in any way we can And I so appreciate leads like you that are there to support the teachers.

LC: We often also when we think about mental illness, kind of use an analogy of, of a student carrying their backpack into school. And there are lots of things within the backpack that you can see or that you would expect kids to be carrying. And there's lots of things that they might carry within that backpack that day that you don't see. So they may have come to school that morning, and they haven't had breakfast, and there's been a fight at home, or they have to get up really, really early to help take care of their siblings and get them off to school. And so it's about both those things that we know and those observable signs and symptoms. But we also really need to be thinking about all of those other things that students might be bringing with them that we can't see, but that are definitely going to have an impact on their day.

CC: I love the backpack analogy. And and I often am amazed that some of my students can even focus on academics with what I know and and the things I don't know, that they've got in their backpack that we haven't unpacked yet and maybe never unpack. So the resilience of our students is just amazing. Um, Laura, that leads us to the second question. And now that we have a basic definition of student mental health, what is your advice as to our role as teachers related to student mental health, and I know this is going to be a several part answer, and we'll sort of work through it that way.

LC: So the nice thing is that, again, when we're thinking about the school context, academics and well being do not need to compete with each other. Teachers don't need to focus on one or the other. And it doesn't do us any better to focus on one or the other, we really can be intentional about weaving well being in throughout our day, not only for our students, but but for educators themselves. We know how busy educators are. And so those small sort of micro moments when they can model but also benefit from some mental health and well being strategies is really, really key. So educators are just so well positioned to be able to support student well being. And that doesn't mean that they need to be a clinician or a mental health expert. But they are in a position to be able to model healthy habits for students to validate a student's experience and emotions. And to help them learn how to take care of their mental health and set boundaries as well around their mental health. So there's lots of different strategies, and lots of listeners are probably already doing some of the things that we're going to talk about. So hopefully they feel reinforced, that they're on the right track. But there are lots of things that can be done at a classroom level. And then if you have individuals that you're concerned about some pretty specific things that you can do as well, to support those students, but certainly, very, very well positioned to be able to support students.

CC: In our classes that I teach at Queens, we talk a lot about the Circle of Courage, which is an indigenous teaching, which really envelops a lot of what you're talking about as well, in the circle of courage. They talk about belonging, they talk about independence, they talk about generosity, and mastery, and how those have to be intertwined with the academic. And so what you said right at the beginning really hit home with me is that academics and mental health are not in competition, but really have to be developed and talked about at the same time. And and I love the fact that you said right at the beginning modeling is very, very important for teachers, to be able to be open to talk about having a bad day or a good day, and be able to, like you said validate the emotions that are happening in the classroom, I think are such an important, important aspect of a teacher, and how it relates to mental health. You also talked about that we don't have to wear every single hat, even though most teachers have hundreds of different hats on. This is one of those ones where we have to be very careful. We are there to support the students, we are there to protect them and we are there to educate them. But at some point in time, we've gone as far as we can go. And so there's that handover of responsibility or giving the student more support through other people. So how does that look in in what you've seen in education?

LC: So I think you hit the nail on the head when you spoke about creating some of those caring conditions, right that environment where kids feel safe and supported. And then have a readiness to learn is first and foremost. And so you know, having the welcoming space, including students to use their voice, making sure that as an educator, you yourself, have an understanding of your own personal beliefs as they relate to mental health, offering some of that really explicit instruction and things like social emotional learning and problem solving. And really making sure that you are partnering with the students, their family, their community members, because they're really the people that know the student best. So those are all sort of the basic things that you can be doing for all students within a classroom. And then if you had a specific student that you were worried about, again, I think educators are really, really well positioned to be able to do some of that monitoring. And so we often think about three main things that an educator can do, which I think is really important to touch on before we talk about maybe where the limits are. And so, as an educator, if you were concerned about a specific student, you might want to collect some data and do a little bit of documentation around the frequency of the concerning behavior that you're seeing. So how often is the student exhibiting that behavior? You'd want to think about the duration. How long is the behavior lasting? How long has it been lasting? Is this baseline? Or is this a new change in behavior that's occurred over a period of days, two weeks, and then the intensity in which that behavior is occurring. So is it really coming to a point now where it's interfering with the student's social and academic functioning, and that's really key information that you can share back with a caregiver, or perhaps a school administrator or someone else within the circle of care at your school to move on to those next steps. And so, as an educator, you need to remember that you are part of a bigger multidisciplinary team within your school or within your board. And members of that team bring different lenses and different skills and expertise and our positions differently to be able to support students. And so once you've done some of that documentation, and you've noticed, and made notice some of those changes, and you share that information back within the parameters of consent. That's probably the time when you're going to step back and you're going to engage the other supports within your school, to work with the student and the family around next steps. So one thing that I really like to send teachers back to, I think it's something that's a really important document for them to reflect back on is the ICT professional advisory on supporting student mental health. It's a really great document that was released a couple of years ago. And it really aims to help educators enhance their professional knowledge and practice with respect to understanding how to support student mental health. But it also really clearly reinforces for them, that they are not clinicians, they are not mental health professionals. And after they've noticed some of those problems, they've clearly explained their observation to the parent, without labeling or diagnosing their job is is done for now. Their job is not treatment. And it is time then to let some of the other professionals who might have a little bit more nuance in the area of mental health, just step in and take over

CC: Laura, I love the idea of that circle of care and being able to pass our students on to professionals that will be able to go deeper with our students. But as a teacher, we're always looking at, we're going to see them every single day we're going to be working with them. So how do we continue that journey of recovery with our students without sort of going past what we're supposed to be doing as teachers?

LC: We often think about mental health supports within schools as tiers of intervention. And there's a role for the classroom teacher to play at each of those tiers. So if we think about tier one, that some of the stuff that we talked about a little bit earlier on in the episode, and we're thinking about what are the things that are good for all of our students. That's the foundational work that educators are doing every single day, to welcome and include students to broaden their understanding of mental health to be better positioned to support them. And that's where most of the work in schools happens is at that tier one. And so, every day they're doing that and regardless of where a student falls on the mental health, mental illness continuum, that work is really, really important, and we can't undervalue the work of tier one. But we know that there are some students whose mental health falls in what we might call tier two or they require another tier another level of support. And we know that But that impacts some students, not all students. And that work is really focused around prevention and early intervention. And there are going to be students in every classroom who fall into that tier. So educators and other school staff at tier two can be doing things like reinforcing skills, working with the student and family to remove barriers to learning, whether that's in the form of accommodations or modifications, and making sure that they're connecting with the school and mental health professionals in their building, who are supporting the work of psychotherapy and other maybe more structured interventions, really making sure that with consent, there's consistent communication is really, really helpful. And if an educator has a student who perhaps is leading class for a period of time, whether that is to attend a counseling session at school or out in the community, welcoming them back, greeting them, receiving them, and giving them a bit of a soft landing is really, really important, and something that educators can do. And then the last tier of intervention that we talked about in education, is what we would refer to as tier three. And those are the smaller number of students, the few students who are probably on that furthest end of the continuum who have poor mental health and like are really struggling with a mental illness. And they need to be connected to community supports, and they need levels of intervention that we are not able to provide within education, for whatever reason. And again, there is a role for educators and for school staff to help students to be able to access those supports, provide ongoing care as needed, making sure that we are doing the same thing at tier two around reinforcing those skills. And at that tier, there's often a large piece of work that comes with supporting the family. Sometimes the work isn't always necessarily with the student, depending on the age and stage of development. And so just clear, consistent communication is really, really important for families as well, and helping families who are at that tier students who are receiving that tier of intervention, helping them to feel supported and safe to be able to talk about that, because there is still an incredible amount of stigma, and fear and shame that comes with mental health and mental illness. And sometimes students and families are afraid to say, You know what, I went to the hospital last night, or I'm seeing someone you know, because they think that I have an eating disorder, or I self-harmed last night. And so just creating brave spaces to be able to have those conversations, being really open, reflecting on your own practices about your own bias. And putting that in check is really important for students who might be struggling at that tier.

CC: I love that tears of intervention. I hadn't thought of it in that way. And I really liked the idea of creating brave spaces. I think that's a wonderful phrase. But from what I heard Laura, each tear, the teacher has the opportunity to be that relationship and community slash team building person. And, and making sure that that communication continues, is such an important step. So we're not just giving our students away to professionals that we know will do a great job. But we are still part of that team. And still a big part of that. And you talked about the soft landing the connection with the family, the creating the brave spaces, that all happens, as they're going through, though, that those three tiers. Is that Is that correct?

LC: Absolutely. And I think we can never underestimate the power of a caring adults. And educators get to be that caring adults, sometimes you are the only caring adult that a student has. And that can feel like a big weight to carry. But the importance of relationships and the impact that relationships can have is one of the most profound interventions that can happen and it doesn't that doesn't require you to be anything other than a human being who listens and validates and other human beings experience.

CC: I love that you're preaching to the choir, because I believe that so much and I teach that to my teacher candidates as well. And that perfectly leads us into the next question. And that is as teachers we know the importance of building relationships. We just talked about that with our students. But what have you learned about how that relationship building also relates to their mental health?

LC: We have done a lot of work in the limestone board over the last Couple of years around a resource called the third path by Dr. David Tranter. So I would really encourage anyone who's listening today to check out that resource because Dr. Tranter is a social worker and an educator. And his information is geared towards educators. So it's really digestible and and seems to have resonated with a lot of folks within our board. We know that building belonging is so so so important. And when we do that, and when we focus on relationship and connection, the academics will come, the achievement will come. And that has an impact on wellbeing. But if kids are coming in, they're not feeling well. And they're not feeling connected. They're not interested in the academic piece, and they're not going to be able to do well at that. So Dr. Tranter talks a lot about you know, there are a lot of really complex challenges in education. It's not an easy job. And it's not an easy system to work in sometimes. But the solutions to those problems don't have to be complex, they can often be simple, and then it can be small. And it starts with the educator and a student relationship. And when we focus on that, and we make that a priority to build on, then we can work outward to address some of the other issues. And sometimes those other issues go away. Or they lessen, because often what students are seeking is connection. And that comes out as behavior. But what they're looking for is a connection to a stable, trusting adults.

CC: Absolutely love that I actually checked our education library. And we have the third path book as well as the class kit in there now. And his the website is amazing. I was on it yesterday. You also I think run a book club for the third path, you know, for teachers.

LC: Yeah, we've done this for a couple of years. But it really exciting for us this year, and that we have opened it up system wide. So as a result of the OPC report that came out, I think in 2022 from principles around the need and the want for some more trauma informed resources and leadership, Dr. Tranter is putting on a stick series book clubs. So this is not this is not a paid plug. But we do truly believe in, in what David talks about. And so we have all of our administrators in limestone registered this year for that six session trauma informed leadership webinar, and we have opened it up to any and all limestone stuff. So if you are limestone staff, and you are listening somewhere in the abyss or reach out to me, there are instructions for how you can register for free and have access to this super important and impactful material.

CC: And we'll also include that in the resources on the podcast page as well. So Laura, we all know the airplane safety analogy that in an emergency, make sure you put on the oxygen mask first before helping others. So how does that apply to teachers and mental health?

LC: Well, we hear it all the time, that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people. And educators are certainly, you know, in a helping position where there are lots of demands. And so, you know, there's no one way to maintain balance and promote personal resiliency for people. We know that taking time for yourself is really, really important. We know that practicing self care, maintaining connections with people, those are all really good ways to replenish yourself and can set a really excellent example for students. But we know that self care goes beyond taking a bath and having a cup of tea and watching Netflix. And sometimes we dilute I think self care, and we maybe dilute the importance of taking care of ourselves. And so it is extremely important. But we do recognize that there is more to it than maybe some of those small day to day pieces, especially when we think about you know all of the challenges that educators are facing right now.
And those challenges, from my point of view are only getting bigger, when we look at all the things that are happening extrinsically In our world today, it all reflect back on our students and on our teachers. And so it is a challenging position. And we do need to take mental health seriously. And I do love the idea that that way. By doing that we're modeling mental health the making sure that we're taking care of ourselves and modeling that that type of behavior. So we need to make Sure we work on that. And I know there's always time restraints. And we're pulled from every direction. But I think it's becoming more and more evident, that that, we need to make sure we put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, especially when it comes to mental health.
So as I was thinking about our conversation today, I did think of four quick takeaways that I wanted to leave for educators. And so this is again, going beyond the cup of tea on the walk. But for messages that, I would say I even as a social worker, and someone who works in mental health have learned the hard way. So I will impart my wisdom on folks, as we wrap up our time together. The first is around setting boundaries. This is imperative and this is a really, really hard thing to do. And it can feel really, really uncomfortable. But it is okay to say no to things, it is okay to say no to things that you don't necessarily want to do. Or that might not be serving you. And I'm not implying that you should be doing that within the context of you know, your your job, per se. But you can set boundaries around checking email at night, or taking work calls after hours. Or maybe saying no to some social engagements that you just don't feel like you have the energy to put into delegate renegotiate reprioritize your responsibilities. setting boundaries is really important. My second nugget of wisdom for people is to ask for help when you need it. It's okay to ask for help. Whether that is you know, related to again, a day to day task at work. Whether that is feeling like you're stuck in a tricky situation on how to support a student, or whether you've noticed that for yourself, you've just really not been feeling like yourself lately. And you maybe don't have someone to talk to about that or you don't feel comfortable talking to a friend or a family member. There are lots of people out there who are in a position to be able to support you and help you critically reflect. And it's okay to do that lots of school boards have EAP agencies, and other service providers who are available to support and I strongly, strongly encourage you to take advantage of those supports when you feel like you need them. The third is a little something that I learned from Brene Brown. And I love Brene Brown, she is full of wisdom. And so this nugget is that comparative suffering helps nobody we love. Yeah. So if you've ever heard Brene, or you you read any of her stuff, Brene will talk about how we often without even thinking about it start to rank, our suffering or our feelings. And we use that to deny or give ourselves permission to feel a certain way. But our emotions don't go away just because we say you know that we're not struggling as much as somebody else, or they have it worse off than we do. All that really does is sort of push the emotion down and creates a whole other set of emotions around shame and, and all of these things. And we beat ourselves up for feeling that way. So have empathy with yourself, just like you have empathy with students, with colleagues, with your family, have empathy with yourself, and you don't have to compare yourself to somebody else to justify reaching out and getting support or taking a little bit of time for yourself. And then the last thing that I wanted to leave people with is that and this is a collectively as a whole as a society, we need to stop glamorizing exhaustion as a status symbol, because it's not. And we often will, you know, make lists and talk to people about how busy we are, because we think that that shows that we're being productive and we're contributing to society. But we have to stop thinking about exhaustion is some like Medal of Honor that people wear. And if you're exhausted, you know, that means that you're working harder than everybody else. Because that's not what it is about. And at the end of the day, you do not need to justify to people or yourself, why you need to rest, or why you need to take a break. We're all entitled to those things. And those things are critically important for our body and our brain to replenish and to be able to get up the next day, or interact with your family and your friends. And you don't always have to hit the point of exhaustion, to be able to do that. So I challenge people to think about those four things because I think for a lot of us, it is a shift in mindset. And it takes a long time to change our mindset, especially if we're in a bit of a routine or a pattern with some of those things. But if we can slowly start to do that even by 1% In each of those areas, I think that it will make a profound difference for people in the way that they are approaching their own mental health, perhaps their ability to show up and support students, but your ability to show up and support your friends and family as well and just enjoy life because educators work really, really hard. And you have a tough, tough job. And so you've got to make time and prioritize yourself.