Creating a K-12 Ecosystem that Supports Wellbeing

If you saw a single sick frog in a pond, you might think 

I wonder why that frog is sick? 

But if you saw a pond with many sick frogs, would you more likely think, 

I wonder what is wrong with the pond? 


The world is changing rapidly. Climate change, global unrest, economic pressures, food security and growing inequities are contributing to daily anxiety for K-12 staff and learners – especially amongst our most vulnerable populations. We are witnessing serious mental health concerns in schools and district offices. Children and youth are showing up with increasingly complex learning needs and behavioural issues. Employees are having to navigate new challenges and growing workloads, which is contributing to higher rates of burnout, absenteeism and turnover, and increasingly severe staffing shortages across the country.  

Using the metaphor of frogs in the pond, western society has focused on the frogs, not the pond. We have gotten very good at identifying when individuals are struggling. We care about the wellbeing of our colleagues and students, so we have built systems that enable those in crisis to access counselling and other forms of professional help. We are also getting good at teaching people how to cope with their stressful environment by providing information about how to make healthy lifestyle choices. This might include educational sessions or resources around nutrition, physical activity, or stress management.  

However, the number of people who are struggling is overwhelming our ability to provide support. While interventions focused on individual health behaviours are important, they don’t consider why people are experiencing such high rates of distress in the first place.  For that we need to look at the whole system.  

For decades, population health researchers have recognized the significant effect that the environment has on one’s wellbeing. The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (1986) recognized peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable eco-system, sustainable resources, social justice, and equity as fundamental prerequisites for health. Extensive research shows that a comprehensive approach to school health improves student and staff wellbeing, creates a sense of belonging, and enhances student learning. Similarly, emerging global research shows that positive work environments are among the most effective approaches for promoting workplace wellbeing.  

Increasingly, this understanding is filtering into mainstream conversation. The EdCan Network launched Well at Work in 2019 to shine light on the importance of K-12 workplace wellbeing. Over the past several years, our conversations have evolved from generating awareness around the importance of systemic action to collaborating with leaders at all levels to formulate strategies for creating healthier work and learning environments. Today, a growing number of K-12 employees and system leaders recognize that there is a complicated web of factors contributing to student and staff wellbeing. They understand the importance of addressing these environmental factors – the question we get asked today is how? 

The prospect of addressing the entire, interconnected web of factors contributing to our wellbeing is daunting. You might be asking yourself “how can I possibly change something as big and nebulous as the system?” The good news is you don’t have to. No single person has the power to change the whole system; but together we can nudge the system towards wellbeing.  

Throughout our work we see and hear how small actions can create ripples of wellbeing that reverberate throughout our schools, communities, and workplaces. For example, homemade muffins and fresh coffee can draw people together in the staff room, creating a sense of community and connection.  

Each one of us can contribute to a positive workplace/school environment by taking care of ourselves and showing up in a way that fosters positive relationships with our colleagues and students. If our role involves higher levels of responsibility, we can encourage and support decisions around priorities, policies and resources that positively affect the wellbeing of everyone in our school, worksite or school district.  

Authentic collaboration has emerged as a key theme in our work. While leadership staff have a responsibility for setting expectations and creating an enabling environment, they don’t need to have all the answers. Our experience echoes the research: collaborating closely with employees to identify priorities and design solutions, not only maximizes the impact of our actions, but the process itself supports wellbeing.  

The Generative Listening Experience demonstrates how applying the principles of community collaboration to a professional learning program can foster wellbeing and create meaningful change. This pilot project builds on two foundational principles: 

  1. School leaders play a key role in shaping safe, welcoming and inclusive school environments, and 
  1. Leaders are most effective at shaping positive school environments when they are well.  

The initial phase of this project involved working closely with six principals and two school district leaders to co-design the content and structure of a professional learning program that would be delivered to a cohort of up to 20 principals in the 2023-24 academic year. The collaborative design process created space to reflect, build relationships, and experiment with community building tools. The principals found this approach so valuable that it was embedded into the resulting program. Through the process of collaboration and co-design, principals participating in the Generative Listening Experience are fostering healthy ecosystems in their schools while (re)discovering wellness in their work. 

Applying this collaborative, co-design approach at all levels can help us create a K-12 ecosystem that supports the wellbeing of students and staff alike.  


Photo: Pixabay


As you reflect on your school or school district’s approach to wellbeing, has the focus been on the frogs or the pond? EdCan’s Well at Work Advisors can help you apply an ecosystem approach to your workplace wellbeing strategy or ask us about creating your own co-designed professional learning program.  



World Health Organization & International Labour Organization (2022). Mental Health at Work: Policy Brief 

Canadian Healthy Schools Alliance (2021). Canadian Healthy Schools Standards  

Wong, B. & Greenwood, K. (2023) The Future of Mental Health at Work Is Safety, Community, and a Healthy Organizational Culture. Harvard Business Review 

Tamarack Institute. Interconnected Practices for Community and Systems Impact. 


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