Using classroom techniques and digital portfolios to improve student mental health and self-esteem


Cari Wilson

Cari Wilson, Innovation and Technology Lead Teacher for West Vancouver School District in Ontario, works with children for whom coming to school is an act of courage, and/or for whom school is the only safe place in their lives, where they are fed and can relax.

Wilson is well aware that students now experience heightened levels of anxiety compared with 10 to 15 years ago, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 24. So she has a variety of strategies for making her classroom a safety net for students, from simple classroom management techniques to a digital portfolio system that encourages student self-reflection and contact with parents.

Wilson described these strategies in the Webinar, Mental Health and Self-Esteem through Digital Portfolios.

The classroom techniques she advocates are simple, yet powerful. She plays calming music when students arrive. Every school day she has at least two moments of one-on-one contact with each student, calling each by name when they arrive, and saying good-bye to each with a fist-bump or elbow-bump. The name of each student is on the wall in the classroom and Wilson encourages students to help decorate the class.

Cari uses a Hoberman sphere to illustrate breathing slowly in and out as a calming exercise

She gives the class frequent physical activity breaks, such as dancing to a silly video or running a lap around the playground, which she calls “super important to help kids self-regulate.” When a student gets agitated, she uses a Hoberman sphere (which expands and contracts) to illustrate taking slow, deep breaths in order to calm down.

Wilson has a predictable schedule each day, but occasionally permits some flexibility and explains to students that schedules can change and it’s OK. She makes sure to be fully mentally present when in class (not thinking of home life or paying bills, etc.) so she can really listen to students and take in what they are saying.

Getting to know each child is key, says Wilson. One exercise which helps with this is a yarn web. (See example video here.) Wilson sits in a circle with the students and has a large ball of yarn. She says something about herself such as “I have a dog,” and asks the students with dogs to raise their hands. Winding an end of the yarn around her finger, she tosses the yarn ball to a student with a hand raised and that student winds the yarn around their finger. The student then says something about him- or herself, and passes the yarn to another student who identifies with that, and so on.

Wilson also says that communication with parents, particularly regarding assignments, is key to building a safety net for kids. To facilitate this she uses FreshGrade, which is free to use and can be found at FreshGrade is different from Google Suite in that it permits comments from parents and other staff members, thus permitting communication between home and school. It also encourages self-reflection from students, including describing their goals and their thoughts about assignments and how they did.

For students who cannot yet read or write, Wilson advises using having students use emojis to express their emotions about an assignment. She also suggests videotaping the student to record their thoughts, perhaps one or two a day, then uploading it into FreshGrade. On iPhones, Apple Clips works well for this. (Wilson suggests using an old cell phone for these videos, if you have one.) Videos can also be created with iPads, if you have them, and it’s easy enough so that even first-graders are able to learn to record themselves talking about what they are thinking.

In the webinar, Wilson cited several instances in which using a digital portfolio increased the student’s self-esteem. One boy was new to the school and was being bullied by other students. Teachers and staff used the digital portfolio system to give him encouraging comments, which he could refer back to at any time. Eventually he was able to make friends and did much better in school.

Another student had high-achieving parents who were often away on business. The student appeared to concentrate more on her appearance than schoolwork. Through the digital portfolio system, the parents informed the teacher that the student was discouraged because she felt she worked hard in school but wasn’t doing well. After a conference with the parent and student, the teacher used the digital portfolio system to provide constructive feedback so the student could improve her work.

Wilson uses FreshGrade with about 60 students and, with the formative assessment it provides, finds that it is not onerous because it cuts down on time grading papers, She uses it to send out videotaped instruction to the class as a whole, so parents can see who she is.

If you have questions about using FreshGrade, you can contact Wilson at or follow her Twitter account at @kayakcari. You can also find out more about FreshGrade through following the @FreshGrade Twitter account.


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