(Courtesy of World ORT) It comes as no surprise that student welfare is at the top of World ORT’s priority list. As a global network that spans dozens of schools and colleges on almost every continent, the organization’s education professionals employ a sophisticated array of tools to enable its institutions to constantly develop and improve on every level.
“Even before the pandemic, we identified a spike in mental health issues not only in teens, but also among younger students,” observed Daniel Tysman, head of the World ORT Education Department. “For example, the difficulties associated with growing up are exacerbated when your reality is different from the media portrayals of your peers. Fast-changing technologies can create anxiety that you aren’t doing enough to prepare for an uncertain future, and the public debate about global issues like climate change can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness. COVID, of course, drove mental health higher on the agenda.”
Tysman points to the forced isolation during the pandemic, which fostered a lack of the social and emotional stimulation that are part and parcel of normal development for children and teens.
World ORT’s Education Department employs two different approaches to address mental health. The first is bringing teachers, educational administrators and leaders from around the world together virtually for a meaningful conversation. Representatives from member schools across the network were gratified to be able to air their concerns and share their experiences with other professionals and learn new strategies from each other.
“One of the conclusions that arose—and we saw this in all corners of the globe and across different cultures—was the realization that teachers, parents and students need to develop a richer, common vocabulary to discuss their emotions, particularly difficulties in mental health,” said Tysman. “All asked for training in emotional intelligence, to help open up the conversation and overcome taboos—not only with children, but also with colleagues and parents.”
The second way in which World ORT endeavors to improve the mental health of students is through boosting the capacity of interventions in the schools themselves. “Through our teacher training seminars, we are guiding schools to perform proactive activities with children, to help them to develop greater resilience and gain coping skills for unfamiliar and difficult situations,” said Tysman.
He pointed out that as the schools are often where problems are identified early on, the most efficient assistance is through fortifying mental health teams in the schools themselves. “We have offered schools the option to increase the hours of counseling they offer. We’re also providing training and enrichment courses to provide teachers with the tools to identify issues such as anxiety and depression in the early stages, before they get out of hand,” Tysman said.
An idea currently in the planning stage is providing a rudimentary level of that same training to senior students. “One of the observations across the board was that students find it easier to talk to their peers than they do to their teachers. In this way, fellow students will also have the training to identify problems early on so that they can be nipped in the bud.”
Tysman noted that the department has rolled out a special program for students from Ukraine, where the mental health issues are “more serious and pressing.” World ORT has six schools in Ukraine, and although roughly half of the student body has fled their homes, the schools are still running online with many students attending classes from a distance. Tysman pointed out that while many of the teachers are also refugees, they are performing admirably.
“ORT Kyiv’s educational inclusion coordinator Maryna Zavgorodnya is coordinating our nationwide intervention from outside the country. She’s making sure the mental health experts in each of our schools are able to provide one-on-one support for children, meeting parents and counseling them, and receiving specialist training themselves in handling the trauma they’re dealing with—and it’s all happening online,” he said.
Dan Green, World ORT Director General and CEO, said: “So many conversations I have had with students and teachers from around our network have focused on their mental health needs and the severe impact the pandemic has had on them.
“It is vital that we step up our support, and that is why we are devoting so much time to these issues. ORT’s work has never been solely about classroom-based learning—we are committed to giving young people the skills they need to develop and to support themselves throughout their lives. Providing the resources and tools they need for their mental health has become a crucial part of what we do.”