Can 'ukeru' and blocking pads help improve mental health in schools?

Districts across the Fraser Valley are using different approaches to try and understand how trauma can affect student behaviour.

The Langley School District says ukeru training will help staff better support vulnerable kids. | Langley School District

Some Langley teachers will be equipped with blocking pads like those used for football drills—but they’re not for exercising.

The Langley School District (LSD) is training select staff on a new practice called ukeru—a Japanese word that means “to accept” or “to receive.” The district expects ukeru will help staff understand how trauma can affect student behaviour.

The training also includes physical protection skills and blocking techniques that make use of “receiving pads”—large hand-held pads, like those used in football practices.

The pads and ukeru are part of Langley’s response to a provincial strategy from 2020 to guide how schools can better support vulnerable students.

But Tanya Kerr, president of the Langley Teachers’ Association, says the ideas and actions suggested by the strategy fail to help teachers and students who witness violent behaviour by their peers in schools.

Why ukeru?

In Langley, the district says it is focusing on promoting mental health through techniques that help students who have lived through a distressing event, among other methods. The ministry wants schools to promote compassionate learning and minimize stress.

The district says the ukeru training is meant to help with conflict resolution. The initial roll out of the program will cost roughly $22,000 and will be completed by June.

The Current asked to interview a support staff member about how the training will assist in their work. The district declined, citing concerns about privacy.

Instead, The Current spoke with Tanya Kerr, president of the Langley Teachers’ Association. Kerr completed ukeru training last May.

The first part of the training, she said, teaches staff how to recognize trauma and how to respond. The district will provide additional training to special education and resource teachers on how to respond to violent students. (Kerr used the example of a hair pull or choke.)

“Not every staff member is going to require that training,” Kerr said

But some clearly will. One Langley teacher recently spoke with the Langley Advance Times about her experience with violent incidents in the classroom. She said a lack of support had her considering moving to another district.

Some staff will be taught to use receiving pads. The purpose of the pads is to give a student a target to release their frustration, Kerr said.

“You're not using them to push against the student.”

This idea to provide staff with physical tools isn’t new, Kerr said. Rather the training philosophy is new.

“There’s a lot of questions that still have come up that we don’t necessarily have the answers for,” she said. “It’s still fairly new, and the district is, I think, working on the training and revising.”

The district does track the number of violent instances reported by staff and the number of WorkSafeBC claims, but the district refused to share that data. Instead The Current asked WorkSafeBC. (In a future edition we will share the WorkSafeBC data about acts of violence and force in Fraser Valley school districts.)

“The primary reason the district introduced ukeru training is because it supports one of the goals in the district’s strategic plan: to implement trauma-informed strategies in schools,” said district spokesperson Joanne Abshire in a written statement.

Ukeru, then, could also have benefits beyond preventing violence. The practice could more broadly address student mental health.

The approach to mental health in other districts

Other districts say they are also taking a trauma-informed approach.

The Abbotsford, Mission, and Fraser Canyon school districts have also adopted the ministry's trauma-informed framework when it comes to student mental health. But their strategies don’t include ukeru.

Bernard Klop, the Fraser Cascade School District’s health lead, is implementing trauma-informed practice with a focus on mental health literacy.

“Children who experience adverse experiences often have a very elevated stress response system. So they live with chronic stress,” Klop said.

“So what we want to do is have environments in school where children’s and youth stress response systems are turned off, where they can relax, where they can access the prefrontal cortex where they can focus.”

Klop pointed to a study completed in the mid-1990s that investigated the relationship between childhood abuse and household dysfunction and how those relate to risk factors for death in adults.

That study sparked an array of research in the field of trauma in the early 2000s, Klop said. The evidence helped identify the correlation between lived experiences and mental health.

It showed early intervention is key to improving outcomes for children who have experienced—or are experiencing—trauma.

“We look at what routines in the school that we as staff can implement, that will reduce the stress component on students,” said Klop. That can involve offering breakfast programs and just creating structure and predictability in the school day.

Exclusion policies

Districts are also taking a new look at when and how students are told not to attend classes through their exclusion policies.

The Langley School District’s exclusion policy was thrust into the spotlight after a district committee meeting in the fall.

(The policy is not directly linked to its trauma-informed practice or ukeru, Abshire said.)

A student who is violent is sometimes asked to remain home until a safety plan is implemented.

“It’s to keep staff safe, but also to learn how to work with that student. It’s not meant to exclude them completely and that’s it,” Kerr said.

But when it was highlighted at the meeting last fall, parents started trying to figure out what it meant.

“They (this district) started getting questions and comments, and people were really concerned,” said Kerr. But Abshire said the district was made “aware of concerns circulating” about the policy before the December board meeting.

The district declined to elaborate on parents’ concerns, only saying the policy was new.

The policy guides how the district responds to students who are asked to stay home. The policy isn’t restricted to violent incidents and is separate from the district’s suspension procedures. It can also be enacted should a student need to stay home for medical reasons.

The district held an information session in late January. Kerr said the written procedures simply spell out existing processes.

“People don’t understand that. And they look at it, and they think that the district then can choose who they want to exclude and that's not the case.”

A parent’s concern

Parent Mike MacDonald’s issue with the exclusion policy (formally called Admin Procedure 356) is the name. He’s not quite sure what the policy addresses.

“The district’s comments on AP 356 are so vague I have no idea what it’s about,” he told the Current in a written message. “I do believe their vagueness is deliberate to avoid difficult conversations.

“I am surprised because the new board, which I mostly supported, is supposed to be more open and accountable.”

Despite the district’s push to promote mental health, MacDonald doesn’t think it’s doing enough.

MacDonald has two kids who attend the district’s largest school, Walnut Grove Secondary.

The secondary school has been the subject of a number of lockdowns over the years, including a bomb threat in 2021.

“The school never offered any extra services—just the same old four counsellors for 2,000 students.”

“I was (am) very disgusted and angry how the school handled this after my kids were texting me from a real lockdown, horrified, seeing RCMP, guns, dogs. The school’s total reaction was to say ‘It’s ok just go back to class?’”

Counselling was offered to students after the threat, the district said. A letter was also sent home advising parents to contact the school if they believe their child required additional support.

Following a police incident or shelter-in-place call, the Langley district says it follows its emergency preparedness and student counselling services procedures.

“Depending on the situation, administrators, teachers, or staff such as school counsellors, may debrief with students about what happened and offer counselling support as needed,” Abshire said. Alternatively, communication might be sent to families with information about counselling supports in the community.

The Abbotsford School District responds similarly to those incidents. The district told the Current it “has internal procedures and policies” outlined in its emergency operations procedures manual. Critical incidents in Abbotsford are overseen by the district principal for learning support services.

“We know that certain events (even if a false alarm caused it) can sometimes be distressing for students, staff and families, so our post-event communication also includes mental health resources.”

The Mission School District said its policy is still in the draft stage and not yet available to the public. And the Fraser Cascade District said its procedures are internal and not part of any administrative procedure.  

Room for improvement

Kerr, too, thinks the district’s mental health strategy still has a ways to go.

The strategy focuses on students who need support but not staff or other students who might have witnessed a violent incident.

“Where’s the mental health support for that?” Kerr asked.

Kerr has tried to access counselling through the district’s employee and family assistance program but was put on a waitlist.

“So it’s great that we have it, but there needs to be more support,” she said.

The district knows where it’s lacking, Kerr said. In December 2021, staff, including teachers and custodians, were asked to complete a survey that measures mental health and safety in the workplace.

“The district does have the data and knows what they need to work on, but it’s taking a while to put anything in place.”

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