Curriculum, Engagement, Promising Practices, Well-being

A Different Kind of CHAT Room

The Cochrane Healing Arts Time Program

High school can be challenging for any student. For some, the stress is unmanageable; just entering the crowded hallways each day causes enough anxiety to avoid school altogether. Imagine having a space within a traditional school setting, where students can walk in at their own choosing, hear peaceful music, smell the aroma of essential oils, and find a calm, safe and caring place to work. At Cochrane High School (CHS) in Cochrane, Alta., this is an option for students like Christy.

High school can be challenging for any student. For some, the stress is unmanageable; just entering the crowded hallways each day causes enough anxiety to avoid school altogether. Imagine having a space within a traditional school setting, where students can walk in at their own choosing, hear peaceful music, smell the aroma of essential oils, and find a calm, safe and caring place to work. At Cochrane High School (CHS) in Cochrane, Alta., this is an option for students like Christy.

Christy has many challenging school years behind her. She struggles with anxiety, depression and personal issues in her home life. Haunted by nagging self-doubt, a paralyzing lack of confidence, and the fear of judgment, Christy has struggled academically as she proceeded into higher and higher grades. Entering Grade 10, her absentee levels were higher than her attendance days and her scholastic achievement scores were lower than ever. Balancing her personal issues while trying to be academically successful had proven too much for her. Suspensions and finally an expulsion ended her Grade 10 year in frustration and sadness.

Fast forward to the following September. After attending an outside treatment program, Christy and her parents decided to try school again, registering with the understanding that she participate in the CHAT (Cochrane Healing Arts Time) program. That February, Christy was called down to the office. Nervous because of her past experiences, she asked her teacher if she was in trouble. Unsure, the teacher encouraged her to go as requested. When Christy arrived in the office, she was greeted by the school’s Vice Principal. She was not in trouble; in fact, she was being awarded a certificate of achievement for making the Honour Role! Within four months of her involvement in the CHAT program, Christy was able to turn things around 180 degrees.

The Award-Winning Cochrane Healing Arts Time (CHAT) Program cochrane_hs_chat_room_1

The idea for the CHAT program was born in 2014, when CHS administrator Shirley Pepper saw the need to offer students more support for their mental and emotional health. Drawing from her extensive experience within Learning Support and her vision as an administrator, she had in mind an innovative program that would address the increasing anxiety she and her staff observed within the school population. To understand the students in her school better, she had them complete the Student Orientation to School Questionnaire (SOS-Q). This questionnaire was developed by Dr. John Burger in an effort to identify the socio-emotional needs of disengaged students. Results from the SOS-Q, completed by Grade 9 students at CHS, indicated that a significant number of students were at risk of disengaging from school due to academic and social alienation and lack of confidence and control.

With these powerful results in hand, Ms. Pepper knew that these students needed a place in the school where they would feel safe and cared for. But she wanted to create a program/space that would also excite the students, so that they chose to come to school, rather than being told they had to.

In a collaborative effort with members of the Learning Support team, the CHAT program was designed to help students express themselves through the arts and ultimately enable them to be more successful within an educational setting. As a Fine Arts and Education degree-holder experienced with using the arts as a therapeutic healing alternative, I was asked to lead this initiative and was privileged to spearhead its concept, creation, program design, and facilitator roles.

The CHAT program’s goal is to guide, mentor, and believe in students and their abilities, from wherever those points of light shine. We aim to empower students to develop their self-esteem, confidence, advocacy, resiliency, efficacy, healthy relationships, and 21st century competencies. Learners use techniques and strategies that allow them to communicate through “art” in a way unlike “words.” The program’s relevance is in its ability to teach strategies for real life – both in and outside of school – that students then bring back into the classroom for greater success.

I don’t usually like talking about my problems, but when I am here I feel safe and I feel like I belong. This program has helped me express who I am and what I feel like.

Students experiencing anxiety, emotional/social difficulties and academic stressors are eligible to participate in the program. These incoming youth must be referred by guidance counselors or school administrative personnel.

Inside the CHAT room

The CHAT room is an embracing space, designed with a sensory level that calms and regulates. The environment includes aromatherapy, background water music, comfort food, warm colours, soft lighting, comfortable seating, and plenty of display areas to acknowledge and celebrate students’ amazing works. Removing the typical triggers to anxiety, the CHAT room is a tranquil, accepting space for students to explore and uncover personal challenges that may be holding them back from reaching their full potential. The total CHAT room experience promotes self-care, resilience and recovery.

The Cochrane CHAT Program:  Understanding Youth Mental Health cochrane_hs_chat_room_2

The CHAT room is 100 percent student directed. Because the work we do is not connected to the Alberta curriculum and therefore not for marks, students have no pressure to complete any work by a certain date. All projects are based on an idea or question and remain open to interpretation. Students can take the project in any direction they want. Techniques and strategies are varied and adaptable. Art in all forms, including painting, sculpture, drawing and creative writing, are acceptable. Materials are spread throughout the room and include canvas, paints, clay, and various drawing tools. The medium they choose isn’t important; rather the meaning behind their work is what matters. With the typical expectations associated with course work removed, students simply enter the CHAT room and work on their projects when and how they want to. At first, this freedom is often hard for students to accept. They often ask for specific instructions or “rules” to follow. Having been taught for so many years to do something a certain way, by a certain time, for a certain grade, you can imagine how it must feel to simply create something for the sake of being creative and expressive. This program gives students the opportunity to express and resolve their frustrations, fears, and anxieties and to work toward healing and reconciliation.

Within our room, students see that they are not the only ones challenged with anxiety or other emotional or personal struggles. This connection is key. The relationships developed in our room may not have developed anywhere else in the school. Acceptance of other people’s skills, personalities, and past experiences grows. Mixing ages, skill sets, and personal experiences allows the students to build meaningful relationships in a safe environment. These new or strengthened relationships have improved students’ levels of respect for one another’s unique situations and personal challenges.

I always feel a sense of belonging and safety when I come in here.

Students learn that expressing themselves through the arts is as valid and valuable as any other academic endeavour. This release of potential and creativity, in a secure, safe, and nurturing setting, ultimately enables them to be more productive and successful within the overall educational forum.

Learning together

The CHAT program took off and never looked back. Like Christy, the enrolled students have experienced amazing changes and renewed belief in themselves. As a staff, we know our students better. Truly understanding these kids on another level helps us support them with greater success. What we are all learning is that we can express ourselves in different ways. We can, in fact, share parts of ourselves without words.

The Cochrane CHAT Program:  How To Improve Student Well-being cochrane_hs_chat_room_3

Being successful in school isn’t all about academics. It also means feeling confident, building relationships, feeling connected to your teachers and school. You could have the top marks in school, but never experience the healthy balance between academic success and overall happiness. Using the arts as our tool for success, I have seen students learn to communicate, build confidence and grow in self-awareness, all the while working on achieving a healthy balance – a great stepping stone for the rest of their life journey.

Action research within Rocky View Schools is demonstrating that a positive school climate can reduce absenteeism, suspensions, substance abuse, bullying, stress and anxiety, while increasing student achievement, engagement, motivation, and overall well-being. I have been witness to this type of growth and success in my students. Educators from across Alberta have asked to tour our program in hopes of extending its success to other schools and districts.

The mandate of dedicated educators is to put forth learning venues that bring out the best in everyone, to encourage the greatness in each and every student, and the CHAT program is executing on that promise. It has been my pleasure to get to know my students. I come to work each week excited and appreciative that I have the opportunity to use my passion for the arts as a way to build understanding and acceptance, and provide access to our students who need a different kind of path to attain success in both school and life.

The SOS-Q Questionnaire

By John Burger

Rocky View Schools for several years has been using the Student Orientation to School Questionnaire (SOS-Q), a scientifically validated instrument, to capture constructs such as resilience, self-confidence and affect towards school among our students. This allows early identification of veiled, not necessarily observable socio-emotional issues that research has repeatedly proven to affect achievement and behaviour.

The Cochrane Healing Arts Time (CHAT) program is a great school-level example that demonstrates the benefits of linking various aspects of student orientation to school to individual support strategies that ultimately benefit student academic success. By undertaking the research to better understand students and identify emerging issues, and then developing customized interventions to support students with these issues, Rocky View Schools is helping students improve their non-cognitive skills, their integration with the school and their subsequent learning.

Information on the SOS-Q is available on the Rocky View Schools website: www.rockyview.ab.ca/jurisdiction/research/sos-q

En Bref: Le programme CHAT (Cochrane Healing Arts Time) a été mis sur pied à l’intention des élèves à risque de se désengager de l’école à cause de l’anxiété qu’ils ressentent face aux pressions sociales et scolaires. Avec l’encadrement d’une enseignante brevetée en arts, la salle CHAT est un lieu calme et accueillant où les arts apaisants servent d’outils pour développer des aptitudes à communiquer, l’estime de soi, l’assurance, la créativité, la capacité de défendre ses droits, la résilience, l’efficacité et les relations avec des pairs. Ce cadre sécurisant améliore les habiletés d’adaptation des élèves et les aide à composer plus efficacement avec la pression en devenant des apprenants plus productifs et habiles.

Photo: Briane Link

First published in Education Canada, December 2016

Meet the Expert(s)

John Burger

Dr. John Burger recently resigned his position as a Director with Rocky View Schools to launch Practical Data Solutions, Inc. with his colleague, Dr. Anna Nadirova. Both John and Anna are passionate about research on student socio-emotional connectivity to school and in providing value-added data analytics to clients.

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Brianne Link

Teacher/Facilitator – CHAT Program Rocky View Schools

Brianne Link, BFA, BEd, is currently working at Cochrane High School as a teacher and facilitator of the CHAT Program and is excited by this opportunity to work with students in a new way. She has past experience initiating and implementing a variety of healing arts programs and she continues to travel throughout the province, sharing the program and its success with other school divisions.

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