International students at schools in Canada are reporting unprecedented levels of social anxiety and other mental health concerns as they have returned to face-to-face classes in the wake of the pandemic.
Several presenters at the Canadian Association of Public Schools – International conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia on May 14-16 urged programs to be proactive in supporting student wellness.
“We need to be teaching friendship skills and social strategies,” said Yingling Elaine Lou of the Calgary Board of Education.
“We must connect shy students to peers and encourage students to get involved in extra-curricular activities. This should be a nudge – not a push,” Lou urged.
During the pandemic, many international students experienced increased loneliness as classes were shifted online and opportunities for social activities were reduced.
When students were finally allowed back in classrooms, they lacked social skills. As a result, the rate of anxiety and depression increased.
“One good thing that came out of the pandemic was the recognition of the need to improve supports for international students,” StudyInsured counsellor Katarzyna Kucia said.
International students already face challenges in leaving their families behind, coming to a country with a different culture and having to make new friends.
In the higher education sector, it was found earlier in 2023 that international students were not getting the right mental health support, as news surfaced of some even dying of overdoses.
In her presentation, Samantha Morneau of Student VIP Insurance focused on the needs of K-12 students with “neurodivergent” needs, such as autism, ADHD and learning challenges.
“This should be a nudge – not a push”
Often, international students with such conditions are not diagnosed prior to arrival in Canada – educators may not be prepared to assist them, Morneau said, in achieving academic success.
“If possible, include homestay families with experience with neurodivergent youth in your homestay network so that you are able to place students in supportive homes,” she recommended.
Morneau urged international programs to offer training and support for host families in dealing with these students.
One of the key challenges facing K-12 programs in Canada is a shortage of homestay hosts. Last year, a number of school districts were forced to cap enrolments because they could not provide housing to everyone who applied.
While the situation has eased this year, the vast majority of programs are still reporting that they can’t find enough hosts.
Rhonda Teramura of the Campbell River School District in British Columbia urged attendees to review their host compensation to make sure that families can cover their food costs – which have jumped more than 20% in the last two years.
In addition, Teramura said that schools need to dedicate both time and money to host recruitment. Her district hired a social media marketing company to develop a campaign to advertise on Facebook to garner more host applications.
Campbell River also uses radio ads and word of mouth to recruit hosts.
“Our social media campaign has resulted in double the number of host applications and the money invested has been well worth it,” she told the audience.
“Include homestay families with experience with neurodivergent youth”
Lenka Kubasova of BONARD also emphasised the need for more high-quality homestays if Canadian school districts want to achieve their recruitment targets.
Conference delegates were reminded of the importance of personal connections, even when programs have dozens or even hundreds of students.
Alexandra Humphries of the St. James-Assiniboia School District in Manitoba told the story of a student whose flight from Japan was delayed by seven hours and who began to worry that no one would meet her at the Winnipeg airport.
Humphries was there to greet her – even though she had to wait hours for the student. Said the student: “Your smile made me feel so relieved when I arrived.”