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No wrong door classrooms: A model for improved student-teacher relationships

What is a wrong door?

In all the mental health agencies I've worked for, we were met with one consistent road block; government mandates.

Each organization and each faction of each organization had certain mandates that pertained to who could access mental health support from that agency.

For instance, if a youth presented with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, they may seek help at one agency, but upon their disclosure of significant substance use, they would often be referred for addictions treatment. Even if they did get in to the first agency, they would likely sit on a wait-list waiting for the "appropriate" service to become available. Or worse, they'd see a clinician, build a relationship, and the clinician would then have to conform to the mandate that they can only provide support for 8-10 months, and they must then refer onward.


Please don't mistake me here - these are GREAT clinicians! I have worked with some remarkable therapists! People who bend over backwards to help their youth; whose advocacy is so powerful that it made me fear for anyone who got in the way of their attempts to support their youth! Keep in mind, they also want to help as many young people as possible, and they know how long their wait-lists are! These are people who are trying to do the impossible, and their hands are tied.

What ARE the wrong doors?

The youth's dominant presenting concern didn't fit the mandate? Referred out.

The youth's dominant presenting concern wasn't severe enough? Referred out.

The youth wasn't mandated by probation but they sought in-patient treatment anyway? Referred out.

The youth appeared to recover from their original dominant presenting concern? Referred out.

And these are just a few examples.

Alternative Education Model

Most of my teaching career has been within Alternative Education. Although this looks different everywhere, the gist is that the learning is self-paced, flexible, and provides support for the "whole student" with a holistic approach to education.

The alternative schools that I worked at had nurses on site, psych-ed assessments with a psychologist annually, provided transportation, both by bus pass, or a staff member ensuring their ride, and they allowed space for students to be where they needed to be (accept, of course, in the youth custody centre... Students were pretty much told where to go and when to go there...)

I quickly came to notice that there were very few cases where students were "referred out." The mandate was simply "you want to learn? Welcome!"

This approach reminded me of my brilliant Child and Adolescent Psychology professor during my masters degree. She dreamed of a "no wrong door" counselling agency, where anyone could walk into any door to receive free counselling services and they would get a clinician. The specific "mandate" didn't matter. Most folks who work at different counselling agencies all have a masters in counselling or social work, and they all start off just as qualified for any one of those jobs. Besides, we all know, the real help is just having someone to trust.

I realized that alternative education basically had a "no wrong door" classroom policy. I may have been teaching English in one room, but if a student working on math connected with me more so than the math teacher, they were welcome to work in my room, and vice versa. It was an unwritten rule, and we always just accepted it.

What I noticed

I noticed a number of fascinating things happen under this practice:

  • Students built stronger relationships with all adults in the building because the relationship was built on trust and mutual respect, understanding that youth know best where they feel safe and comfortable.

  • Feelings of anxiety at school decreased for regular attenders (side note: alt.ed. has a higher rate of diagnosed anxiety and depression than mainstream schools).

  • Student's attendance for all of their classes increased! (It's kind of like that theory: "don't think about elephants" and now all you can think of are elephants. When students are told "you're not allowed to leave my room" all they can think about is leaving.

  • Student's academic performance increased. This is likely due to the above observations - a relaxed brain is a brain that can learn!

  • Staff were more collaborative with each other. This is huge! Being in mainstream school now, I notice how days will go by and I will have zero interactions with many of the other teachers in our school!

What about mainstream classes?

I'm left thinking, how can we adopt a "no wrong door" policy in mainstream schools? Perhaps moving to a full alt.ed. model in a mainstream high school isn't realistic, but perhaps we may be able to adopt some of the more successful attributes.

Many mainstream teachers are already doing aspects of this. Allowing struggling students to find refuge in their classes, regardless of whether or not the student is registered in their class. However, this can definitely ruffle feathers of colleagues who fear their student is missing out on valuable information during their absence, or perhaps worries that their opportunity to build relationship with the student is impaired with the student gone.

But what are we teaching for? The material? Or the student? If we know that a student experiencing anxiety has difficulty with academic output, are they really gaining anything during those 20 minutes that they seek solace elsewhere?

In my experience, students who are told they cannot go to another classroom are often wandering the hallways, or worse, they leave the school altogether.

What next?

How can we adopt this policy without creating conflict with our respected colleagues?

  • Allow students the freedom to take breaks in your class. Letting the student go for a walk or get some water, may be enough to calm their nervous system so they can return to class.

  • If the student is really struggling, initiate the conversation about what they need. It's as simple as saying "how can I help you right now?"

  • If the student finds themselves in a colleague's room, let them stay. Offer for the student to pick up their work and work independently in the other teacher's room (if the other teacher supports this).

  • If a student finds themselves in your room, call their classroom teacher and tell them where their student is. Explain that you are comfortable with them staying in your room and ask if there's any work they can complete independently.

  • If a student has found their way to your room and their classroom teacher needs them back, ask if there's a time-frame in which they can stay. For instance, can they stay for 15 minutes, then make their way back?

  • Consider it preventative counselling care. Letting the student find their safe space decreases the likelihood of them experiencing an anxiety attack and needing to see the already overwhelmed counselor at a time when they may not be available. Instead, the student can schedule an appointment with the counselor and take the time they need to feel calm.

Don't take it personally...

The bottom line is to not take it personally! There are a lot of reasons a student gravitates toward one space or one teacher more than others and it is not a testament to how incredible you are as an educator! Furthermore, the more we allow students autonomy, the more they learn how to ask for what they want and need, and the more they can identify what those things are! And isn't that as important a lesson as anything in the curriculum?

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