Focusing on more than just academics

Well-being and belonging at Trinity College School

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic put student health and well-being in the spotlight. Years of instability and uncertainty shed light on the importance of social and emotional connections for us all, but especially for young people. With the knowledge that well-being is an essential component of academic performance and personal growth, Trinity College School (TCS) is doing the work to evaluate and re-evaluate how to best support the students in their care. 

“We believe the first essential component of well-being is connection; we can’t have one without the other,” explains Krista Koekkoek, assistant head of the Senior School – Student Support and Well-Being. “Brooke Raney’s research would tell us that one of the greatest predictors of the success and development of a child is having a trusted adult in their life.” Not surprisingly, this is equally a buffer against declining mental health. 

“As such, we have decided to intensify our focus on well-being and belonging with the community’s adults, understanding that intentional modelling of social-emotional skills is the most effective way staff can have an impact on young people,” Koekkoek explains. 

Developing a coaching culture has become one of TCS’s priorities, and they’re doing so by training staff to develop intentional relationships with the students they work with, be it as a teacher, a Head of house, or an advisor. “As adults, we often want to try and fix our children’s problems when they come to us with them, but as a coach, we want to hold space for the student to remember they are more than just the problem at hand and to hold the long game for them.” 

Teachers and boarding staff at TCS have the option of participating in a social-emotional coaching program to expand their tool chest for working with young people, and staff are noting the impact this is having on their relationships with students. 

“We know parents are often concerned with the skills students are missing because of the pandemic, but what we are finding is that the biggest gaps aren’t necessarily subject-specific skill development but rather in learning skills, specifically how they collaborate together. They’re re-learning how to navigate connection, and that’s where our coaching skills are proving quite effective,” Koekkoek says. 

TCS offers students adult connection in a variety of ways through what they call the ‘Circle of Care.’ Each student’s personalized circle includes an advisor who supports their academics and co-curricular engagement, their Head of House who they live with (as boarding students) and who supports their community engagement, their Guidance Counsellor who supports their individual social-emotional needs and future planning, and the team at the school’s Health Centre. “With directed, intentional support from all of these caring humans, we hope each student has at least one person they really connect with and can be the trusted adult they go to when they want to celebrate something, when they are not feeling themselves, or when they might be struggling.” 

If connection is so important when it comes to well-being, then it only makes sense that belonging should also be top of mind—especially for a school like TCS that has a very diverse population with boarding students coming from around the world. TCS defines belonging as feeling valued, welcomed, and safe to challenge and advocate. 

“Our emphasis is on ensuring all students are seen for who they are, what they value, and what they bring to the table. When they feel seen and have relationships with trusted adults, they feel safe to advocate, to ask for what they need, and to have some agency over their personal journey,” Koekkoek explains.  

Knowing that belonging cannot take place in isolation, TCS also works with students and staff to develop a set of shared values which are brought to life on campus and in the classroom. “While our staff may not always represent the diversity of our student population, we attempt to bridge that gap by opening conversations, acknowledging what’s missing, and making recommendations for change,” Koekkoek says. 

Affinity groups are alive and well on campus, from the Black Student Association to the Gender and Sexuality Alliance and the Cultural Awareness group. “Students like to connect with others who share similarities, and these groups do a lot to forge community and a sense of belonging through education.” 

As part of a series of internal audits, TCS has also committed to reviewing its programming and priorities, looking at how the school supports well-being systemically and where changes need to be made. “We have taken our school’s definition of well-being and held it up against areas and programs,” Koekkoek explains. The school has already audited its House System and Student Leadership Program and is moving on to athletics, arts, service, and spirituality. 

“While we pride ourselves on our amazing, competitive athletics program, for example, we have to examine whether it’s serving all of our kids, and if not, ask what could change to better serve a range of student interests and abilities.”

From a student perspective, speaking up and making change seems to be second nature these days. But for a community with such a strong history and staff who have been with the school for decades, change can be challenging. Still, the hard work is certainly proving worthwhile. A newly developed Belonging Advisory has staff and students working together to examine all areas of the school and make recommendations to a supportive leadership team.

With the knowledge that adult well-being is directly related to student well-being, staff at TCS have worked hard to intentionally integrate and model social-emotional and relational skills with the students in their care. The school also believes wholeheartedly that these opportunities should happen outside of the classroom as well. The opportunity at TCS to live and learn as a collective community is taken seriously and to heart.

“Take, for example, the opportunity to see your history teacher singing karaoke at the Friday night community event, in front of a large audience,” Koekkoek says. “That takes courage, and that’s living bravely and displaying vulnerability, and it’s happening in real life at TCS.” 

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