TOGETHER WE CAN works to identify how adolescent girls feel about themselves in the world and helps build positive identities and other important empowering assests. The program officially launced at StFX University on December 5 and pictured (from the left) are: Dr. Kara Thompson, assistant professor StFX psychology department; Dr. Chris Gilham, StFX faculty of education; Stephanie Ruckstuhl, faculty of practical nursing and allied health, NBCC; Wanda Fougere, coordinator of programs and policy, SRCE; and Faye Fraser, SchoolsPlus community outreach worker.

ANTIGONISH: A representative from the Strait Regional Centre for Education (SRCE) says they plan to offer a program to increase pro-social skills and positive identity in adolescent girls to a broader audience during the program’s launch event at StFX University last Wednesday.

Wanda Fougere, SRCE’s coordinator of programs and policy said in responding to the complex needs in classrooms, there is both a necessity and a desire for a coordinated support system to enhance the social-emotional skills and well being of the youth and children in our schools.

“Through the success realized in the two pilot schools in the 2017-18 school year, we plan to continue this partnership and offer it to a broader audience throughout this school year,” said Fougere. “Given the mental health and inclusion priorities of both the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the SRCE this program is exactly the type of intervention needed to help fulfill the goals outlined in [our] business plan and mental health strategy.”

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TOGETHER WE CAN is the product of a three-year research project led by St. Francis Xavier University (StFX) and the New Brunswick Community College (NBCC). It was conducted using 60 girls in two schools in the Strait area, along with 160 girls in five schools in New Brunswick.

Funding for the project was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHCC) and was the first ever of its kind; providing $250,000 over the three-year pilot.

The project works to identify how adolescent girls feel about themselves in the world and helps build positive identities and other important empowering assets According to a Search Institute study, only 40 per cent of Grade 6 girls have a positive identity and by Grade 10 that dips down to only 18 per cent.

“This is important upstream work because we know nationally that girls’ sense of positive identity significantly drops through adolescence. We also know that girls’ reporting of mental health problems increases in this adolescent range,” said Dr. Christopher Gilham, associate professor, faculty of education, StFX. “The program focuses on strategies and activities aimed to empower young girls and we have strong evidence to show it works, especially for vulnerable, at-risk girls.”

TOGETHER WE CAN’s message to take a stronger look at getting more mental health help in schools and make sure girls have the tools to go through adolescence with strength and pride.

“It’s recognized by both the Department of Health and Wellness, and the Department of Education as an evidenced-based social-emotional program,” Gilham said. “The SRCE at least has taken it up in earnest, and [now] we want more people to pick it up. I’d love to see different school boards across the whole Maritimes pick it up.”

TOGETHER WE CAN will now begin a roll-out phase where they will mail out information directly to administrators in all schools in Atlantic Canada, as well as the majority of schools across the country.

The project utilized StFX bachelor of education students and NBCC licensed practical nursing students, as well as staff from the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre to act as peer mentors and deliver workshops to girls in Grade 7 and 8. The workshops included activities and encouraged conversation on a variety of topics.

Sixty-two per cent of girls surveyed in the Strait area identified as being venerable in having a positive identity, with 74 per cent of the total 220 participants identifying as venerable in at least one aspect.

The data was collected using the Search Institute’s development assest model, which is well respected and has been tested with millions of children and youth. For girls who initially scored as vulnerable on the development assets, the project saw tremendous success with significantly increased scores in the following developmental assests; positive identity, social competence, positive values, commitment to learning, support, and constructive use of time.

Faye Fraser, SchoolsPlus community outreach worker, said getting the message out that this program is evidence-based and it can be really impactful and powerful for the girls in our communities is the true highlight.

“I was just really excited the girls were so keen on taking on the social-aspect part,” she said. “I think for me the best representation of the project as a whole, was having the girls take something that they were really proud of and putting it into action.”

Additionally, SRCE will be working towards increasing their capacity with their guidance and other specialist staff to offer these gender-specific programs.

Fougere noted one of the challenges during the pilot was having a limited number of people trained to offer the program – so if they can extend training to more people to offer the program, than they can extend the number of students who can have a positive impact.

“The SCRE looks forward to continued and enhanced relationships with our partners so our students can have better access to school-based services that promote skills, attitude, knowledge and habits that develop a healthy lifestyle, that provide preventative initiatives that build skills and reduce risk factors, and intervention services that support students to and through mental health care,” she said. “Together we can create the conditions that contribute to better academic success and social emotional functioning of our students.”

In speaking about what’s next for the program, Gilham said it’s now about adapting it for boys.

“That’s the whole goal, when the girls were talking about menstruation and how it was getting to be known in the schools, the boys were teasing them,” he said. “And of course that’s our job to say to boys, as men, as role models, that’s not ok and we need to understand this so that we don’t make girls feel that way, that’s the work that I think needs to happen.”

For more information on the program, the research methods or findings, or how you can become involved visit their Web site: www.togetherwecangirls.com.