After an extensive study of teacher education programs across Canada, Western University psychologist Dr. Susan Rodger was dismayed by how little attention these programs devoted to children’s mental health and wellness. This spurred her to develop and launch an online pilot elective course for preservice teacher education candidates in Western’s Faculty of Education in 2016. The course rapidly became heavily subscribed and a long waiting list ensued.
Two years later, Dr. Rodger’s course became a required component of the second year of the Western BEd program. Designated EDUC 5018Q Mental Health Literacy – Supporting Social-Emotional Development, the 12-week course now enrols some 300 candidates a year. It runs from mid October for six weeks, pauses while candidates are in their school practicum placements and holidays, and returns in early January for another six weeks.
Underlying EDUC 5018Q is the belief that teachers need to recognize the context in which their students live to be able to understand their social and emotional needs. Accordingly, the first topic studied in the course is the social determinants of health. Other topics include trauma and violence, informed care, stress, building relationships, resilience, and creating a mentally healthy classroom.
The course provides participants with very practical exercises and helpful strategies for K-12 classrooms. Dr. Rodger includes video presentations addressing specific topics as well as videos of guest speakers, such as a child welfare expert who explains what really happens when a call is made under the duty to report legislation.
Each week, core readings and resources are posted in OWL, a customized version of the Sakai open source learning management system, and candidates are encouraged to seek out resources related to their own teaching situation. Issues related to these readings are discussed in groups of 20 in weekly graded online forums monitored by Dr. Rodger and three graduate assistants. Also discussed in the groups are case studies of hypothetical K-12 students from non-dominant cultures. Dr. Rodger developed eight of these cases with the assistance of graduate students. In successive weeks, more and more information related to the topic under discussion is revealed about the cases. Candidates are expected to contribute thoughtfully and professionally to the online conversations in ways that will foster a community of practice. During weeks 2 to 11, candidates complete weekly graded online quizzes.
At the end of weeks 6 and 12, candidates are required to submit a short video to demonstrate mastery of the strategies learned at that stage of the course. For example, at the end of week 6, they may be asked to create a video welcoming a student to their class demonstrating warmth, empathy, and understanding. At the end of week 12, the strategy may be to talk to a student who is experiencing a family breakdown or is worried about getting into university and provide helpful strategies for coping with the stress. The videos may be a maximum of two minutes in length and candidates are expected to speak clearly and directly to their hypothetical student as though they were talking face-to-face.
Candidates are also asked to write about how their hypothetical student will fare next year in school, an assignment candidates very much enjoy.
Benefits and Outcomes
Dr. Rodger typically receives very positive anecdotal feedback from candidates each year on how much they learned about an area in which they had very little prior knowledge. Moreover, she administers a pre- and post-course questionnaire to track the efficacy of the course in meeting goals and learning objectives. She has now begun a longitudinal study to follow up on candidates who took the course in 2019-2020 and are now teaching. They will be asked to complete the same questionnaire to assess any changes in their responses.
In 2016, she co-authored an article, Pre-service Teacher Education for Mental Health and Inclusion in Schools, on the evaluation of the course pilot in which the authors reported teacher candidates readily achieved course learning objectives, namely to:
- Learn about mental health for all children and youth;
- Learn about the impact of mental health on school performance;
- Develop an understanding of their role and capabilities as a teacher; and
- Increase self-awareness, decrease stigma, build capacity, and increase engagement on mental health issues.
The authors also reported the online environment of the course provided candidates a safe opportunity to share personal or sensitive information and, at the same time, build a sense of community with their peers. In another article, Initial teacher education and trauma and violence informed care in the classroom: Preliminary results from an online teacher education course, Dr. Rodger and colleagues reported on strategies teacher candidates can use to support students facing trauma and violence.
An added benefit of the online course, said Dr. Rodger, is candidates appreciate being able to use course resources long after graduation when they are teaching in schools.
An ongoing challenge is to train the teaching assistants (TAs), who may change from year to year, to reliably assess the video assignments. To address this issue, Dr. Rodger works with the TAs to grade several videos together to ensure they are applying the scoring rubric as intended. Since the course doesn’t start until mid-October and she has the TAs for a full academic year, she can familiarize them with the course expectations and help them learn to summarize the weekly discussions for posting in the discussion forum.
Challenges and Enhancements
Next year, more emphasis will be placed on discussion of equity, diversity, and inclusion as well as on the relationship between wellness and academic performance. Dr. Rodger would also like to enhance the case studies with additional details on the student personas and eventually integrate multimedia elements as the cases are now only text-based.
Currently, candidates are assessed with a letter grade for the course, however Dr. Rodger said another change for next year will be to shift to Pass/Fail grading.
Dr. Rodgers strongly believes educators need to work together to enhance mental health education in teacher education programs. Accordingly, she is happy to share the entire OWL course with other teacher educators or provide access to a shell version without any student data. Some teacher educators have already taken up this offer, although she is unsure of how many adopted it entirely or in part.
Susan Rodger, PhD, C.Psych
Professor and Psychologist
Faculty of Education
London ON N6G 1G7