Learning Alternatives SD#68 Nanaimo-Ladysmith

I. General Information

School Name: Learning Alternatives

School District: SD#68 Nanaimo-Ladysmith

Inquiry Team Members: Lacey Daly: lacey.daly@sd68.bc.ca, Trevor McIntyre: trevor.mcintyre@sd68.bc.ca

Inquiry Team Contact Name/Email: Lacey Daly/lacey.daly@sd68.bc.ca

II. Inquiry Project Information

Type of Inquiry: NOIIE

Grade Levels Addressed Through Inquiry: Secondary (8-12)

Curricular Areas Addressed:

  • Not applicable

Focus Addressed:

  • Social and emotional learning

In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? To help mitigate the effects of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) in our students and increase their chances of life success.

III. Spirals of Inquiry Details

Scanning: Very quickly in September, we realized that the level of stress, signs of anxiety, and mental health concerns our students are displaying, are among the highest we had ever observed. As an Alternative Education school, our enrollment is at an all time high and the complex needs of our students have never been greater. In our scanning phase, we realized that the majority of the students who are struggling to find success both in and out of school, are those who have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. We were inspired by the work of Jody Carrington, and we used her insight on ACEs as a platform to become better informed regarding the correlation between early adversity and poor outcomes later in life.

Focus: What can we do to help mitigate the effects of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) in our students and increase their chances of life success? Recognizing the tension and constant state of turmoil that many of our students live in, our philosophy is to provide students with experiences that go above and beyond normal for high school students. Connecting leadership, responsibility and teamwork activities with outdoor education experiences, creates a feeling of empowerment within some of our most vulnerable students. As a result, the negativity that often engulfs student headspace can be temporarily paused and feelings of confidence emerge in an organic way.

Hunch: The best way to address ACEs is to prevent them. But, even under optimal circumstances, adversity is sometimes unavoidable. Fortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, families and communities can actually create buffers that protect children from many of the negative health and life outcomes that stem from adversity.

By looking beyond the home, to the school and community environment, we can give children even more opportunities to develop buffers against the effects of ACEs. This is especially important as children move from infancy to adolescence and then into adulthood.

New Professional Learning: The more ACEs children face, the more harm they can have over time. We were blown away to learn that adults who’ve experienced even one (or more) ACEs as a child, or are exposed to ongoing chronic social inequities over time, are at higher risk of depression, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, suicide and other health conditions during their lifetime. All of the students who we conducted the test with scored much high then we anticipated, this knowledge made our work even more important and solidified our intuition was correct.

Taking Action: Currently in our school we widely recognize children who are affected by trauma, and we are quick to offer appropriate responses and refer them to supportive services and interventions when necessary. What we hoped to do more of this year is explicitly identify the students who are struggling with the effects of trauma, and create more opportunities for us as “buffers” to help offset the adversity they experienced in childhood. We did this through several experiential learning opportunities where trust and relationships were strengthened. The focus was on building resilience through embedding confidence training in each of these opportunities. I am thrilled to report that the students’ response exceeded our goal, and both attendance and academic output increased significantly for those who participated.

Photo (above): In this photo, students are participating in a very rainy and wet kayak trip in Tribune Bay, Hornby Island. 10 students were able to step away from their lives and their phones, to appreciate each other, the outdoors and themselves.

Checking: We struggled to conduct the ACEs testing with all the students we identified. The test is very triggering and took a lot of energy for the student to answer the questions. We wanted more official data, rather than observations and life stories, so this will be something we try to improve on next year. This inquiry has become very near and dear to us, and there is plenty of work to still be done.

In the future, we believe that being able to conduct the ACES test over a longer time span, progressively, will allow for more candid responses. Students often share with adults when not in direct eye contact and/or participating in an activity that allows for liberating and natural conversation. A more prolonged version of the ACEs test will be developed for future student surveys.

Reflections/Advice: We learned that providing positive experiences to students with ACEs helps to redirect their pathway and promote visions for their future. Being able to overcome life obstacles is a learned skill and without the ability to freely share traumatic history or the benefit of influential adults to guide, youth can very easily fall into a negative void. Offering opportunities that others may never experience can provide ACEs affected students with feelings of pride and self-advocacy as well. Connection beyond the classroom has a lasting positive outcome that students can carry with them well-beyond graduation. Students may not remember what you’ve told them, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Moving forward, we plan to continue our focus and research around the topic of ACEs and Learning Alternatives students.

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