Survey results released by Canada’s largest school board reveal the emotional well-being of students is on the decline and more of them feel less connected to their teachers than they did five years ago.
“Students’ emotional well-being has dropped incrementally by age and over time,” the Toronto District School Board said in its 2016-17 Student and Parent Census released on Tuesday.
“Many more middle and high school students compared to the last census felt nervous and under a lot of stress and pressure often or all the time, and had multiple worries especially about their physical and mental health, their own future and their school marks.”
The census, which surveyed parents of students in junior kindergarten to Grade 6 and students in grades 4 to 12, found there was an average of 10 percentage-point decrease in the proportion of Grade 7-12 students being at the “high/middle” emotional well-being level compared to the last census conducted in 2011-12.
Although students in lower grades report higher levels of well-being, the numbers show a decline as students enter the later stages of high school.
Between 54 per cent and 71 per cent of students surveyed from grades 7-12 reported feeling good about themselves, a nine to 10 percentage-point drop compared to five years ago.
Meanwhile, more Grade 7-12 students, between 15 and 22 per cent, reported feeling lonely. Nearly 50 per cent of Grade 12 students reported being under a lot of stress or pressure related to their future.
“It becomes our responsibility, but also partnering with post-secondary, trades, college, university and parents, to work together to figure out how to manage the emerging and growing anxiety and stress that our students have reported,” TDSB Director of Education Malloy said during a news conference on Tuesday.
As a comparison, a study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) from 2007 to 2017, reveals a higher proportion of girls than boys in grades 7-12 report fair or poor mental health.
The CAMH data measuring moderate-to-serious psychological distress among Grade 7-12 students climbed nearly five per cent from 34 per cent in 2015 to 38.7 per cent in 2017.
Those in the same group with serious psychological distress jumped from 14.2 per cent in 2015 to 17.1 per cent in 2017.
Relationship between adults and students
The census shows younger students felt more positive about their teachers than older students did. However, fewer Grade 7-12 students than before felt connected with their teachers compared to five years ago.
Between 59 and 76 per cent of Grade 7-12 students either feel supported or encouraged by teachers, a drop of seven to 10 percentage points from the previous data set.
Meanwhile, only 68 per cent of Grade 9-12 students feel accepted by school adults and only 56 per cent feel they have at least one school adult to turn for help, advice or support.
“That feeling of not belonging is one that we will continue to work at school level to change,” Malloy said.
School safety and satisfaction
Although most students said they felt safe in school, fewer Grade 7-12s than before reported enjoying school or having a sense of belonging at school.
Nearly 90 per cent of students from grades 4-12 feel safe in the classroom while 80 per cent feel safe at school (outside of class).
Compared to 2011-12 census, the proportion of Grade 7-12 students reporting having a sense of belonging in school dropped four to seven percentage points and enjoying school by 10 to 14 percentage points.
The study said the numbers are in line with data collected by the BC Ministry of Education in its recent satisfaction survey as well as results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) looking at 78 participating countries globally.
Physical activity drops, screen time up
The board says fewer students than before reported being physically active or physically healthy, a drop of 10 percentage points compared to 2011-12.
Among high school students, only 32 per cent say they exercise at least one hour per day, five to six days a week. Meanwhile, 27 per cent exercise three to four days a week and the same percentage only once or twice a week. Thirteen per cent say they never exercise.
As physical activity drops, students’ on-screen time has risen during the past five years.
The survey found that 15 per cent of boys in grades 7 and 8 reported using social media constantly. That’s up five percentage points in five years. For girls, 23 per cent reported using social media constantly, up 11 percentage points.
Meanwhile, 26 per cent of boys in grades 9-12 reported using social media constantly, up eight percentage points. For girls, that number is 38 per cent, 16 percentage points higher than five years ago.
“Sometimes data like this might make us feel as though we need to step back and say to students, ‘You can’t do this or you should do that,’ Malloy said.
“But no matter what the age is of the people in this room, we understand that adolescence is a very significant time and the world we live in is both a physical world and a digital one and it is our job partnering with families to support our students to be healthy.”
Also, more Grade 7-12 students reported watching TV/videos for over two hours on a school day, a 10 percentage point hike from five years ago.
‘Urgent’ areas for change
Although parents surveyed were highly positive about their child’s school and school experience, the school board admits there are “urgent” areas for change.
As part of the TDSB’s Multi-Year Strategic Plan, the main priorities include creating a culture of student and staff well-being, transforming student learning and building partnerships within school communities that promote learning and well-being.
Some of those measures include creating equitable and inclusive learning environments, engaging students in “deep learning experiences” and examining the connections between staff and students.
“We must be looking at the full and complete needs of the students and talk about it and address ways that are responsive,” Malloy said.
The action plan will also consider evaluating curriculum resources and programs focused on cultural relevance, equity and human rights and student interests.
The board said more than 220,000 census surveys were received from parents and students in 2017.