Illustrations By Michele Perry

Reading, writing, arithmetic—and stand-up comedy?

An innovative mental health program is teaching GTA kids to open up about their lives with humour. Here’s why

Getting out of bed in the morning is a challenge for many older kids. On top of the weird things happening to their body clocks, they might be facing peer pressure, tensions at home or the stress of an overscheduled life. But for some grade 4 to 12 students in the GTA, much-needed motivation comes in a creative package—an at-school workshop on how to make classmates laugh.

Stand UP for Student Well-Being teaches confidence and nurtures mental health through humour, and culminates in an annual showcase component. The program has been implemented by four different Ontario school boards and has served more than 1,850 students so far. For those involved, this means performing a stand-up routine for an audience of peers. That might sound terrifying. But most students report that the performance is at the very least a relief—and, more commonly, a pure thrill.

Program founder Sue Stephenson is a fan of what she calls “helpful humour.”

The retired—or, as she prefers to say, “recharged”—teacher and principal notes that “a lot of the humour that kids experience [at school] is put-downs and bullying. We spend time focusing on healthy, helpful humour.”

For Stephenson and the rest of the team behind the program, that means teaching students how to communicate with tension-breaking humour, rather than using jokes and jabs that can cause hurt feelings. It’s the core tenet of Stand UP: helping kids learn confidence through comedy in a way that underlines the importance of mental health. And mental health is a big concern for this demographic. According to Canadian initiative Transformational Research in Adolescent Mental Health, 75 percent of mental health problems begin before the age of 25.

Stephenson, an experienced educator and principal, started Stand UP in 2012. As co-author of Laughing Matters, a resource for students and teachers on integrating educational comedy into their classrooms and curriculums, she understood the potential of engaging students in this way. “I could see that a focus on happiness and humour was missing in schools,” she says. “The times were very serious.”

In its current iteration, Stand UP is a six-week program that pairs “comedy coaches” with students. The coaches are professional comedians who volunteer their time. Students learn how to tell their own stories, using humour and levity. They script a two-minute routine, which is presented to a small group of peers. Some participants go on to do a comedy showcase for their entire grade cohort. Presentations are graded according to students’ storytelling and public speaking abilities.

Ellen Walton, a Grade 7/8 teacher at North Kipling Junior Middle School in Etobicoke, believes that giving students the opportunity to discuss their own lives in front of their peers is the most impactful aspect of the program. “At that age, students aren’t as willing to share about their lives, ” she says. “They’ll talk about gaming, what they bought, what they watched. But not things that other people might not value, such as personal anecdotes about their parents or siblings. And putting value on their lives is a boost to their mental health.”

Students are encouraged to talk about their families, their backgrounds and, most importantly, their feelings. “We teach them that there’s no wrong feeling, and there’s no wrong way to have a feeling,” says Stephenson. Students are encouraged to find the “bright side”—or at least the funny side—to the things they’re going through. Add to that the challenge of writing for performance, and students receive the opportunity not just to foster life skills such as resiliency and public speaking, but to internalize the idea that their individual lives have worth and their emotions, validity.

Walton has overseen Stand UP in her classrooms for four years, and says the biggest change she has witnessed in her students is a spike in confidence. She sees typically quiet kids really come out of their shells and share incredible and moving stories. Stephenson recalls one parent from Belleville who told her that their son Ryan, who had previously never enjoyed school, would get up early in the morning to practice his routine in front of the mirror.

Such stories have made Walton reflect as a teacher, too. “When kids are sitting in a class and they don’t have that opportunity, you don’t see [what they’re capable of] or even know that it’s there to nourish.”

The feedback from students is mostly, “Why aren’t we doing this more?”, she continues, even though they sometimes have to push through initial feelings of discomfort and nerves.

And for Walton—and the other teachers involved in the program—there’s a benefit as well. “From a selfish perspective, every year, I get to laugh and be made aware of things that I never knew about,” she says. “It’s really fun.”

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