Students in La Cañada High School's peer support class learn how to maintain their mental health and uplift others' well-being. (Photo courtesy of Daryl Bilandzija)
La Cañada High School

Minds Matter: La Cañada peer support class uplifts student well-being

Many La Cañada High School students use words like “a bubble,” “privilege,” or “grades” to describe their school. These words are often used lightly, sometimes simply to make conversation, but they hide a much quieter pain — often expressed behind closed bathroom doors on campus. It’s where many go to cry, and too many times, it seemed like no one heard them.

Last year, under the initiative of 2018 graduate Nolan Sheow, the peer support class was approved by the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board. Sheow was passionate about peers — who could be, in some aspects, more capable and understanding — helping other peers. 

In his senior year, he conducted an independent school project to research peer support programs and advocate their need on campus. At LCHS, students can research a topic separate from the regular curriculum and receive credit as an independent project course.

At the end of the semester, Sheow presented his project to three faculty members. He asked the right people, as they all shared an interest and background in student mental health.

“Let’s do it,” they said. 

One of these teachers was Lucy Pelletier, who was involved in an intervention program for students failing five or more classes at her previous school. It would be so easy to pass them off as hopeless, but not for her. 

Pelletier said she discovered that these students didn’t lack skill. They were carrying an overwhelming weight of emotional stress that crippled their academic performance, so she worked with them to overcome it. Pelletier and Rachel Zooi now teach peer support class.

Pelletier said peer supports want to create a more empathetic environment at LCHS.

“We are so focused on ourselves and how the world and other people around us affect us, and that’s understandable. But we want to focus a little bit more on other people, on how our world is affecting others, so we can help make it better… and perhaps make the environment a little less stressful,” Pelletier said.

The peer support class certainly reflects this environment. On the last day of the week, the sound of boiling water, the aroma of hot chocolate, and the sound of shuffling feet as students decide whether they want cinnamon or earl grey tea fill the room. 

It’s Friday check-ins. As everyone gathers in a circle, with warm mugs cupped in their hands, each person dumps out what they’re going through: the good and the bad.

“I want you to see each other [beyond] the surface level — more than, ‘Oh yeah, I have period three with that person.’ I want you to see each other as humans with layers and thus understand each other and yourselves better. By the end of the school year, you’ll know everyone really well, maybe even too well,” she said with a laugh.

The course flows from theoretical learning to hands-on experience. Students first address questions like “Where does morality come from?” and “How does one work toward cultural competence?” 

Peer supporters then study the psychology behind subjects like implicit bias and decision-making. Through understanding themselves, peer supporters learn to understand others. To apply this understanding to concrete skills, peer supporters do what their name suggests: support their peers. 

A peer supporter will work to make a fellow student feel heard, guide them to understand themselves better, and equip them with skills to resolve conflict and make better decisions.

Already, peer supporters are making a difference. Last year, the peer supporters discovered there were times when students experienced an unbearable amount of stress. 

The peer supporters led Socratic seminars with LCHS teachers — both talked, and both listened. Teachers explained their teaching methods, students voiced their stress, and together, they discussed how they could show more care. 

“They saw each other as more than just teachers and students, but as human beings. It was amazing,” Pelletier said.