As the pandemic takes a mental toll on Quebec students, teachers are trying new ways to keep them learning

Quebec students are so anxious that many are having panic attacks in class. But teachers in the province are exploring new ways of connecting with them and making the classroom feel safe again.

Here is how teachers are trying to connect with their students despite the barriers

Grade 1 teacher Heidi Dimou sanitizes her hands as she gets her classroom ready in preparation for the new school year at the Willingdon Elementary School in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Teachers in Quebec are facing students wracked by stress and anxiety related to the pandemic, but they are also finding new ways of ensuring that learning still happens amid the upheaval.

Across the province, teachers at all grade levels are adapting their classrooms and lesson plans to a student body they say is more distracted and disruptive than ever before.

"We are seeing a lot more panic attacks this year, which is linked to the uncertainty the students are facing," said Françis Sabourin, a psychoeducator at École Père-Marquette, a large public high school in Montreal.

Dozens of teachers provided similar descriptions of the mental health of their students to CBC Montreal last week.

The descriptions were among nearly 2,000 responses to a questionnaire that asked education professionals in Quebec about their working conditions.

The participants were granted anonymity. Their written statements offer a unique overview of how children have been faring since schools reopened two months ago.

"I'm seeing a lot of fragility (anxiety, 'more frequent crying)," said a high school teacher in the Laurentians with more than 20 years' experience.

A high school teacher in the Mauricie said: "The students are not ready to learn. They have cognitive overload.… Basic lessons take three to four times longer this year."

On Wednesday, the Quebec government announced it was increasing funding for youth mental health services by $25 million.

"The increase in anxiety and psychological distress is an issue that greatly concerns me," said Lionel Carmant, Quebec's junior health minister.

One pedagogical expert in Montreal said he's seen an increase in students having panic attacks.

A teacher paints markers in the school yard in preparation for the new school year at the Willingdon Elementary School in Montreal in August. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Problem solving

More than 500 teachers also offered descriptions to CBC Montreal of alternative teaching strategies they were having success with.

One popular approach appears to be making time in the day for open-ended discussion about whatever concerns may be on their students' minds.

"I started a discussion period every morning so students can vent their frustrations, their pain, their joys, their pride," said an elementary school teacher in the Eastern Townships.

A high school teacher in Montreal said: "I ask them to speak about their experiences and I listen to them express themselves in order to adjust my pedagogical methods, or orient them toward the appropriate services."

The unusual context this year, where classes can be quarantined at a moment's notice, has made many teachers more willing to improvise with the curriculum.

"We made our priority their mental health and don't follow the curriculum like we would in a normal year…. This way we can catch up on things missed last year without rushing and stressing them out," said an elementary school teacher in the Outaouais.

Coping with public health rules

Other teachers have focused on implementing measures to help their students follow the public health guidelines.

These guidelines include limiting how often one class interacts with students in another, which in some schools has meant reducing time spent in common areas like the cafeteria.

"Our school has bought board games for each classroom. So the second half of lunch they have fun activities," said a Montreal high school teacher.

WATCH | How are Quebec teachers coping with the pandemic?

How are Quebec's teachers coping with the pandemic?

2 years ago
Duration 2:04
Anxiety. Stress. Fear. These are the testimonies from nearly 800 teachers in the province.

A gym teacher in the Montérégie lets students eat in the gymnasium when he's on lunch duty. "The students appreciate it a lot because there are no more extracurricular activities," the teacher said.

At a high school in Montreal, a teacher constantly teaches in different areas of the school, or even outside, in order to add some diversity to the school day.

This teacher's operating principle? "Make the classroom as normal as possible."

Sabourin, the pedagogical expert, also said parents and teachers should try as much as possible to normalize the current situation.

"This is happening around the world. So students need to know they are not going through this alone," he said.

"We need to cultivate the notion that we're all in this together, even if we're alone because of the confinement measures."

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