“Iris,” said Ottie. “Will Fish be okay in his new school?”
“I hope so,” said Iris. “I hope so but changes in our routine can be disruptive. The transition may be difficult. It is important that he gets lots of support from his new teachers and friends.”
OTTAWA – In classrooms around the world, Iris the Dragon, Ottie Otter and the rest of their Riverbank animals are changing the way schools talk about mental health.
“They were so much more at ease to talk about their issues or their friends’ issues. We were able to take away some of the stigma,” says teacher Judy Brierley.
Brierley was one of the first teachers to use the Iris the Dragon Units of Study, a children’s mental health awareness program that supports character education by building resiliency and a caring disposition through a comprehensive literacy approach. The program was produced by Iris the Dragon, a registered Canadian charity and producer of books about mental health and wellness.
As a veteran teacher at a Section 23 school in the Upper Canada District School Board, Brierley is all too aware of the mental health challenges children can face.
“This is certainly a tool that allows these kids to be more open. It’s safe.”
According to the Mental Health Association of Canada, 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder. Furthermore, only one out of five children who need mental health services receives them, while up to 70 per cent of young adults living with mental health problems report that symptoms started in childhood. In Canada, suicide is among the leading causes of death in teens and young adults.
Doctors, teachers and parents are realizing that waiting until the teen years to talk about mental health is too late and with children spending the bulk of their time at school, school boards are struggling to figure out how to address mental health issues.
“We’re realizing it’s a topic that needs to be addressed younger and younger,” says Brierley.
And so a dragon from Perth, Ontario has started breathing her positive fire into elementary schools, giving teachers the resources they need to help kids deconstruct bullying, learn to self advocate and develop healthy minds.
Jessica Grass, an educator who has worked with Iris since its inception and helped to develop the Units of Study, says that learning how to share feelings and thoughts at an early age is an important step in long term mental health.
“There are a few programs that address mental health in the education sector and for whatever reason, publishers and teachers are still reluctant to talk and teach something that they feel requires a certain type of professional to deliver,” states Grass. “What Iris wanted to do was enable teachers to start the conversation around mental health in the classroom.”
Iris’s story started more than 15 years ago. Author Gayle Grass started on a journey to find the appropriate resources to help her son recover from a mental health crisis following his first year of university. She spent four years navigating what felt like an antiquated mental health system. The challenges lead her to put her observations and life lessons into the Iris the Dragon children’s book series.
The beautifully illustrated books use a fairy tale format and cover such topics as anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, stigma and the challenges of military families.
“Dragons are powerful and misrepresented in some cultures as dangerous fire breathing creatures,” explains Grass. “Selecting a character that has had to challenge people’s past perceptions and assumptions was an appropriate fit.”
The books have been medically vetted and endorsed by doctors and mental health professionals with the University of Ottawa, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), Columbia University, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), Sick Kids and the Stollery Children’s Hospital.
In 2013, the book He Shoots! He Scores! was the subject of an empirical study commissioned by the MHCC in conjunction with Queen’s University. The results showed that reading the book dramatically reduced stigma and stereotypes amongst boys and girls aged 11 to 14.
By mid 2014, the books will have reached over 800,000 children around the world according to statistical data collected from teachers using Iris the Dragon in class.
Creating formal lesson plans for teachers was the next logical step for the organization.
“From a school board perspective, educating kids about mental health is very important because mental health issues are one of the biggest factors that lead to behaviour problems or dropouts from school,” says Doctor Michael Cheng, a Child and Family Psychiatrist with CHEO. “Iris the Dragon, with the school component, gives school boards a great way to educate kids about mental health issues.”
The SMART Board enabled program offers multi level instruction and contains activities that can be incorporated into all subjects including languages, music, art, health, technology, drama and math. Teachers who have used it often point to its flexibility and ease of use.
“What’s so nice is that it fits right in to the curriculum. It’s so user friendly in how it’s set up,” applauds Brierley. “It’s so nice to have something laid out so well and that we can use right away.”
Brierley has read her students, ranging in age from nine to 12, all of the Iris books and completed every activity in the Units of Study. Her school board now has a copy of the Iris program in all of its 85 schools.
She recalls that the program’s KWL chart activity was particularly impressive. Students had to write down what they knew, wanted to know and learned about mental health. The first two sections had very little but when it came to writing down what they had learned…
“They were flipping the pages and writing on the back!”
Most importantly, Grass says the program is fun and engaging. Through the many activities and games, students provide their own relevant examples, problem solve, develop communications skills and reflect on the importance of one’s mental health. It provides a starting point to talk to children about mental health and ensures teachers are not afraid of these discussions.
“Often when reading Iris the Dragon books, students shout out, ‘That sounds like me!’ and ”I feel like that!’ It’s those connections that make you know that you are reaching children and making them understand that they are not alone in their thoughts and feelings.”
For more information about Iris the Dragon, visit