Balancing academics and social-emotional well-being

The art of providing holistic learning environments for teens

In today's complex world, teenagers face more challenges than ever. Balancing academic excellence with mental well-being proves to be a daunting task amidst the deluge of online information, intricate social interactions, and a myriad of responsibilities. Studies reveal that,  in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers grapple with persistent mental health challenges and school absences. Social media only exacerbates these issues, further amplifying their impact on the teenage psyche.

Adding to the complexity, many teens contend with additional hurdles due to neurodivergence. Whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, learning disabilities, attention disorders, ASD, and other neurodiverse traits further compound the challenges faced by high school students.

There are various ways to address these challenges. Most schools strive to find a sweet spot where students are academically challenged and emotionally supported. Despite best efforts, there are still some students whose needs cannot be met by the more traditional academic environment

“For many teenagers who are neurodivergent, things get more challenging the older they get. Students may find ways to mask their challenges and succeed in elementary school, but as they enter high school it becomes more difficult,” explains Jason Ellenbogen, Clinical director and owner of AVRO Academy in Toronto. “The academic and social pressure often mounts in middle school and these students realize they are not able to learn or socialize in the same way as other students. By the time they get to us, they are often feeling defeated.” 

Ellenbogen founded AVRO in 2010 to provide the city with an alternative high school that offers individualized education, small classes, and therapeutic support. “We focus on building academic confidence by providing students with personalized attention. We recognize that every child learns through a unique combination of support, structure, and guidance,” he says.

For some students, the need for therapeutic support is great. Parents might seek therapists and counsellors outside of the school to work with their child. AVRO adopts a unique approach by integrating therapy and academics within the school environment itself. 

“There is great value in being able to provide clinical support to teenagers during the school day, rather than the teen seeking out these services once or twice a week outside of school hours,” Ellenbogen explains. While many schools do have counsellors onsite in some capacity, AVRO provides these services in a more integrated and accessible way. “Within our school, there is a great deal of flexibility, one-on-one support, and built-in therapy. Our goal is to meet the students at their level and raise them up.”

What’s crucial, when it comes to providing support for students in a holistic way, is to ensure they’re able to complete their academic assignments and feel as though they’re making progress in school. “Just taking care of your emotional well-being but falling farther and farther behind in school can be extremely stressful for a young person,” says Ellenbogen. “That’s why it’s important for schools to consider the whole child when developing a learning program.” 

For many neurodivergent teens, academics aren’t actually the issue. “Many of our students are performing above grade level, but the traditional classroom model just doesn't work for them,” he says. “There are too many other issues going on, including emotional dysregulation and social anxiety, preventing them from fulfilling their true potential.”

Creating a safe environment is key when it comes to finding the balance between emotional wellness and academic success. Helping students with relationships, ensuring there is a zero-tolerance policy around bullying, and having all staff closely involved in the students’ daily lives, are among the things AVRO has implemented to support well-being. The school size, never going above 60 students, ensures all of this is possible. Because of these supports, students are safe to push themselves academically and focus on doing their best. “We have many graduates go on to study engineering, medicine and a variety of other subjects in post-secondary school. We work with our students to help them find the right post-secondary programs and even provide counselling well into their first year of university or college.” 

By addressing the dual needs of academic progress and emotional wellness, AVRO is able to help students achieve outcomes they may not have thought possible. “Our students may come to us because they’ve dropped out of other schools or don’t want to go to school at all, but once they spend some time here, they most often don’t want to leave.”

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