Imagine for a moment that you are startled awake in the middle of the night.
Sitting up quickly in bed, you scan the room for any sign of what woke
you but the dark is hard to penetrate. The silence is deafening.
Suddenly you hear a loud bang downstairs. Your heart jumps into your
throat. Did the cat knock something over or was it the patio door being
forced open? Another loud bang, a crash. Then something that sounds like
Your pulse is racing and all your muscles tense. You feel cold and hot
at the same time. Your stomach drops and you feel nauseous. You’re
sweating and shaking. Now you’re dizzy too. Should you run and hide or
stay where you are? You don’t know what’s going on, but you do know
something terrible is about to happen.
Although this scenario is fake, these types of feelings are all too
real for many people who live with panic attacks and anxiety disorders.
While they may not actually be facing an external or internal threat,
physical and emotional reactions that occur, often spontaneously, make
them feel like they are. People with anxiety or panic disorders
regularly experience feelings of dread, fear, and panic mixed with
potent physical symptoms (racing heart, nausea, dizziness, and more)
that are linked to the fight-or-flight response, a natural physiological
process with good intentions gone awry. Sometimes there’s a specific,
identifiable trigger, sometimes there isn’t.
Although treatable in many cases, living with an anxiety disorder can
be a challenge, especially for teens, who are also navigating the
already tricky world of adolescence.
“It’s not only just something that’s in your brain. It’s all over your
body. It effects everything you do. It can really change your life,”
says 15-year-old Laura Kiudorf.
The Grade 10 Seycove secondary student has dealt with anxiety for many
years. “It’s not something I’ve made up to get attention. I can’t speak
for everybody but I know that for me anxiety is horrible and you can
feel like you’re going to die. And sometimes I get symptoms like I feel
really sick or really dizzy or my heart’s racing and I don’t even know
it’s because of anxiety.”
Kiudorf’s condition, which also included depression, was so bad she
spent some time in hospital when she was in Grade 8 and missed a lot of
school. From February of that year until the end of the semester she
attended a therapeutic day program at Mountainside secondary in North
Vancouver then started Grade 9 at Seycove the following semester. Last
year, Kiudorf spoke to teachers at the school about anxiety and what it
feels like. She shared her personal experience hoping it might help
instructors get a better sense of what students with an anxiety disorder
face every day.
“It’s just important when you’re in the bad days that you just, you’re
like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to give this one more year,’ and then
hopefully by the time that time comes around you’ll be in a good space,”
says Kiudorf of her struggle to stay in school.
Despite her challenges, Kiudorf is working toward graduation and hopes
to attend a post-secondary program focused on sciences, perhaps nursing
or psychology, but if it wasn’t for the help of a unique program
available to students in the district Kiudorf says she would likely not
be passing any of her courses, and might not even be attending school at
Kiudorf is part of the Choices program at Seycove, and because of it, “this year has been really good,” she notes.
Choices is an intervention piece in place at all North Vancouver
secondary schools that offers a tiered system of support for students
with mental wellness issues, behaviour or social-emotional challenges,
or those experiencing a life crisis point but want to remain in their
As part of the program, Kiudorf is able to complete the regular school
curriculum with her peers and has a full course load, but she can access
the Choices classroom at any point in the day for emotional or academic
support. The staff there know what she’s dealing with and what works
“It really is that kind of team approach to supporting kids in their
mainstream school,” explains Maureen Stanger, district principal of the
North Vancouver Distributed Learning School and head of the Choices
Now in its fifth year, the pilot for the program started at Sutherland
secondary then expanded to Seycove for the second semester of that same
year, and to all the remaining North Vancouver secondary schools the
“I think it’s an amazing program because I actually, believe it or not,
don’t hate school and Choices makes it so if I’m too anxious I can go
to Choices, I can do my work, I can actually attend school on a regular
basis,” says Kiudorf.
Tracing the history of the program, Stanger says it first came up
during the school district’s 2010 budgeting process when several
stand-alone alternate programs in place at the time were evaluated.
“Budget was part of it but really it became more about how can we
service students better and make our alternate programs more efficient?”
A committee was formed to look at options and, after visiting other
districts to observe their approach, the Choices program was designed
for the North Vancouver school district to provide an in-school
“We’ve always had academic supports in place for kids. We’ve always had
learning assistance programs, but this one is a bit different, it’s
like learning assistance on steroids because you’re also working with
behaviour, social, emotional, and mental health as well,” says Stanger.
Previously, alternate programs for students were provided at the Lucas
Centre and Keith Lynn Alternative Secondary School. Those programs have
now been consolidated into a new alternative program at Mountainside
secondary, the former Balmoral school site. However, when the district
was considering re-jigging their alternate programs, the committee
surveyed students and were told many of them would prefer to stay in
their mainstream schools so that they could remain connected to social
groups or play on sports teams. The Choices program was developed with
that in mind.
“Our mandate is to support student learning and support student
success, and we were realizing that some of our students weren’t
graduating because they were going through crisis points in their life
or they had mental health issues that were either undiagnosed or not
supported in their system,” explains Stanger.
Choices currently enrols about 220 students across the six North
Vancouver secondary schools. Students who may be in need of support are
identified by teachers or school counsellors and options are discussed
at a meeting of the school-based resource team (with parent permission).
“The school itself has a lot of power to do interventions and
adaptations even before they suggest Choices support,” says Stanger.
“But then when they get to the point that they see the behaviour or
social-emotional pieces are really interfering for that student they
might recommend Choices.”
What’s particularly unique about the program is the spectrum approach
and continuity it offers with wrap-around services between all the
district’s supports, including academic supports, Mountainside
secondary, and some community supports as well. Each Choices school team
consists of a counsellor, a youth engagement worker, and a Choices
teacher. Students in the program are assigned to one of three tiers.
Tier 1 (the lowest level of intervention in the program) features
support outside of class time. For example, a student may need to check
in with the Choices teacher before classes start in the morning to get
help preparing for the day. They may do some mindfulness or breathing
exercises, or design a plan for success for the day ahead.
Tier 2 offers more intense support. Students in this tier still attend
all of their mainstream classes and can access the Choices classroom at
lunch and after school, but they can also go during class time if
needed. For example, a student with an anxiety disorder may want to eat
lunch with a smaller social circle in a supported way, or may need to
take tests in a less stressful environment.
Tier 2 also offers what Stanger calls an “exit strategy.” Students in
Tier 2 can access the Choices team in a crisis situation, for example if
a student with an anxiety disorder is having a panic attack or is so
anxious he or she can’t even enter their classroom. Having the Choices
classroom as an alternative to going home helps keep the student at
school and provides support to finish academic work.
Tier 3 of the Choices program features even more intense support.
Students in this tier spend a specific block of their regular schedule
in the Choices classroom. During their Choices block, students work on
the courses they are attending in the mainstream program with the
support of the Choices team.
Tier 3 also features a course developed in North Vancouver called Self
Efficacy. The elective course is for students in grades 10, 11, and 12,
and counts towards graduation. Students in Tier 3 can work on this
course during their Choices time. The course is about self-regulation,
mindfulness, and understanding mental wellness issues. It is taught by
the Choices teacher at the school.
“It’s a great course, and our Choices teachers are doing amazing things in that course,” says Stanger.
Each school has a dedicated space for its Choices program that has been
designed to be both comfortable and productive, with group and
individual work areas. Most of the spaces also have some sort of food
facility, such as a mini-fridge, because part of what the district
recognized was that a lot of students who were struggling were hungry.
Eating regularly is an important part of basic physical and mental
wellness. Individual schools may also have a breakfast or lunch program.
The design of the program also includes a conscious decision to allow
movement between the tiers to provide continuity of support and so that a
student doesn’t get stuck in a program that may have stopped working
for them. As a student progresses through grades, they may taper off or
add more support so they can move through the different tiers as
necessary. Choices is not meant to be a full-time program. It’s meant to
be an intervention and a support, adds Stanger.
The tiers offer a spectrum of support intended to intervene early when a
student is struggling so they can remain in their school and graduate.
“Our take on it is we still are an academic program in an academic
school and our goal is to get kids to graduate,” says Stanger. “We’re
not perfect. We’re still evolving. Each year we’re trying different
things, trying to add different layers on there, trying to fix up our
process pieces. I think it’s always going to be an evolving thing.”
A number of students have graduated and gone on to post-secondary
programs after using Choices and Stanger says she doesn’t see the
program going away anytime soon. It’s an important piece of the puzzle
the school district offers that includes a variety of academic support
programs, full-day alternate programming, and online courses.
“It’s this huge community of support trying to give students alternate
pathways to graduation when students need something different,” says
© 2016 North Shore News
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