Stand Up for Student Well Being

How kids are turning their problems into punchlines

By Trevor Burnett
We’re excited to have Trevor be our first parent-submitted blog post for the 2018-2019 school year! Trevor has a child in Grade 1 at SSJS. He was former SAC Co-chair (2017-2018), and Ward 3 PIAC Representative (2016-2018 and 2017-2018).

A few years ago, I approached Sue Stephenson the founder of the Happiness at School program to discuss her experience working with kids in the TDSB and Peel Region. I had come across a random one page flyer at one of the local ward meetings and it included a general outline of what her company offered. Sue is a passionate advocate of achieving positive mental health and well-being through humour. When we first met, I found her hearty laugh infectious and her passion for comedy and kids equally contagious. It did not take very long for me to get on board with the project, fast forward to the fall of 2018 and I am now a full-fledged Coach Comedian with her team.

Since our first meeting Sue has made some changes to the organization, it is now a not for profit and the company has recently rebranded with a new name ‘Stand Up for Student Well Being’ (SUSWB). These slight changes have made the model more enticing to schools in the GTA, while the vision and mission remains the same: ‘To inspire a greater community of youth who are empowered to be kind, inclusive, resilient, confident and mentally healthy.’

The goal of each trained Comedian Coach is to support students in turning their problems into punchlines and empowering them so that they can deal positively with their mental health and well-being. Creating an inclusive environment in the classroom is a key factor in the process of enhancing their literacy skills as they strive to shape their own stories in a unique stand up comedy format.

North Kipling Junior Middle School (GR JK-08) is one of our favourite schools where the program is regularly offered. North Kipling serves a multi-ethnic community where diversity is a reality not an issue. Many of the families are new Canadians who speak different languages such as Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu, Hindi and Creole in addition to English.

Comedy is a language that everyone shares, the kids are incredibly receptive on the initial assembly day and the teachers completely buy into the idea of using humour to bring out the best in the youths who might have personal or academic struggles or simply have a desire for a creative outlet. The North Kipling staff is committed to teaching responsibility and respect in a peaceful atmosphere while providing a strong program with a foundation in literacy, equity and anti-racist education to every student. It is the exact type of environment that children need to be successful and it aligns perfectly with the SUSWB mission.

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The first few weeks of the program focus on getting the students comfortable telling a simple anecdote that is randomly selected for each of them from our joke ‘Roll-A-Dex’. They tell it in front of their peers and together they deconstruct things like tone, enunciation, speech cadence and physical expression.

Once the children become more acclimatized to the program and the coaches, we begin talking about mental health. We define what it is and how it can affect everyone. We explore questions like, what is IMG_0183the difference between being a class clown and a bully? Are there pros and cons to feeling joy, disgust, anger, sadness and fear? What are the root causes of these emotions and how can we use them to inspire comedy?

One of the highlights of the six-week program is the ‘Joke Jam’ where the groups submit their ideas for jokes based on their personal life experience. It varies from things their parents do to annoy them, foods they dislike, silly things they did with their friends or cultural differences in the community We work together to spin these issues into positive punchlines and I can say without question that it works.

I am no stranger to the idea of using comedy to deal with the ups and downs of life. Throughout my early childhood, teen years and even as an adult and parent I have found incredible value in throwing a bit of humour into difficult situations. Years ago, I was an improv student with the Second City Training Centre and later an understudy with ‘Student Rules’ their educational touring company geared towards schools across Ontario. It was there that I truly learned to appreciate the benefits of laughter with regards to mental well-being. I found it healthy for the audience as well as the performer. Just think about how wonderful you feel when you are surrounded by laughter or how stimulating it can be when making someone else chuckle.

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Mental health and well-being are not just buzz words, it’s not a phase in a person’s life or a matter of opinion, it is a reality that affects us all in a myriad of ways. If you want concrete proof, here are some not so funny facts about mental health and our kids:

  • Seventy-five percent of mental health problems begin before the age of 25 years, fifty percent between 12 and 25 years. http://tramcan.ca/initiative
  • According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the economic cost of mental illnesses in Canada for the health care system is estimated to be at least $7.9 billion with the cost continually rising.
  • Up to seventy percent of mental health problems begin in childhood or adolescence. As many as 1 in 5 people in Ontario between the ages of 4 and 16 experience some form of mental health problem. https://ontario.cmha.ca/mental-health/child-and-youth-mental-health/
  • Suicide accounts for twenty four percent of all deaths among 15 to 24 year olds.
    The total number of 12 to 19 year olds in Canada at risk for developing depression is a staggering 3.2 million.

As a parent, these statistics are alarming, so how do we tackle this issue?

“In our 21st century world, media, particularly social media, guarantee that today’s children are bombarded with serious and even frightening issues they need help navigating. Bullying, gangs and even terrorism were unimaginable for most of today’s adults when they were young. Yet most of us who deal with kids on a regular basis tend to focus on these matters to the exclusion of things that make life lighter and provide balance” – Sue Stephenson.

Laughter reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), dopamine and growth hormone. It also increases the level of health-enhancing hormones like endorphins, and neurotransmitters. Laughter increases the number of antibody-producing cells and enhances the effectiveness of T cells. All this means a stronger immune system, as well as fewer physical effects of stress. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-stress-management-and-health-benefits-of-laughter-3145084

Research has discovered that authentic laughter can heal, aid and prevent several mental health related issues. The psychological-cognitive health benefits of laughter are many but here are just a few that I found listed on the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association website:

Relaxation, restful sleep, relief of stress, counteracts depressive features and anxiety, encourages creativity, improves cognition, mood, brain function, memory and alertness, helps build rapport with others and amplifies resiliency. https://www.ccpa-accp.ca/the-benefits-of-laughter/

In the words of Mark Twain, ‘the human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter’. It may not be the only answer, but comedy certainly is one of our best weapons in the fight for positive mental health and well-being.

For more information on Stand Up for Student Well Being you can email me at trevor.h.burnett@gmail.com or check out http://suswb.ca/

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Sue Stephenson with Comedian Coaches Kyle Woolven, Marc Hallworth and the North Kipling Comedic Players.

 

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