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Archive for August, 2018

The Putting Children First report, produced by the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and released August 16, 2018, drew attention, once again, to the challenges facing children and youth caught up, province-to-province, in Canada’s crazy quilt child welfare system. Commissioned by professional social workers, it tended to focus on the mounting caseloads and shortage of resource supports. It, quite rightly, highlighted the growing needs and plight of children and youth in care and the ‘battle fatigue’ affecting those entrusted with their care. Where it fell short is in proposing a larger, more pro-active role for engaged parents and provincial child welfare advocates.

“We’re damaging children every single day, ” says Debbie Reimer, Director of the Kids Action Program and a CASW executive board member, based in Kentville, Nova Scotia. “The needs of families and children are more complex and becoming more complex every day, ” she told Star Metro Halifax, “and so there wasn’t any sort of thing that jumped out as particularly surprising.” What is surprising is that, in a Canadian province without a Child and Youth Advocate Office, the depth of these concerns has to be expressed in reports emanating from the Ottawa-based CASW.

Child welfare workers are under stress everywhere, and that is conformed in the recent CASW report.  Some 75 per cent of social workers surveyed nation-wide testify to the existence of “unmanageable workloads” and some 72 per cent claimed administrative responsibilities prevented them from spending adequate time with clients. The report also did a good job outlining how demanding caseloads, the complexity of issues, and the “unsupportive work environment” contributed to various trauma, burnout, and high turnover in the ranks.

The report demonstrates the tremendous value of a report giving voice to professional concerns about the everyday stresses faced by front-line professionals in the child welfare system. Some 3,195 Canadian social workers completed the survey, representing about 10 per cent of the total workforce, so the results are reasonably reliable and to be taken seriously. It also reflects the direct feedback from some 19 members of an expert panel, representing recognized leaders in the field, but including no one from Nova Scotia. 

Surveying the 100-page CASW report, two discoveries jump out at you. First and foremost, the focus is almost exclusively on the crushing demands faced by professionals and the contention that they are “leaving in droves” because of the adverse working conditions. Second, and by no means least, the relative absence of input from Child and Youth Advocacy Offices across the country, with the exception of the former Manitoba Child Advocate, 2011-2017.

The almost total absence of comprehensive, reliable data on the needs of families and children is particularly striking in the report.  It is clearly acknowledged that practitioners have “limited knowledge about the needs of families, of youth and children living with their familiy, or of foster families and kinship caregivers.” More unsettling is the open admission that child welfare authorities have “little information about how youth and children in care are doing in their placements, how they are progressing in school, what are their health needs or their talents, aspirations and accomplishments.” The CASW also conceded that child welfare officials do not actually know “what services and programs are effective and for whom those programs are effective and what conditions are optimal to achieve effectiveness,” (CASW 2018, 78).

The CASW report, Putting Students First, is very effective in voicing the concerns of social workers on the frontlines and strongly suggests that professionals, overburdened with heavy caseloads are too often reduced to policing and enforcing family protection orders. Nowhere in the report is this state of affairs analyzed in terms of its direct impact upon families and children and youth under care. Nova Scotia social worker Reimer provided a more satisfying explanation of the actual impact. If scocial workers are “leaving in droves, ” she claimed, it’s because “their jobs feel less like supporting families and more like disinterested policing. ” What are practitioners actually concerned about, at least in Nova Scotia? In Reimer’s words,  “They are saying that right now the system is reactionary, punitive and under resourced.”

Social work professionals have raised the alarm bells, but the voice of parents and the public is strangely absent from the whole public discussion. It is clearly a big part of the problem in Nova Scotia and perhaps elsewhere in Canada. In the case of Nova Scotia, it is likely compounded by the fact that no one in the provincial government has a clear mandate to oversee the protection and support of children and youth.

The province of Nova Scotia is finally, after five years of lobbying efforts, finally considering the creation of a self-standing Child and Youth Advocacy Office. The current Deputy Minister of Community Services, Lynn Hartwell, is beginning to see the light and told a N.S. Assembly Legislative Committee in January 2018 that something was in the works. While the provincial Ombudsman’s Office currently has responsibility for youth in care, Hartwell sees the need for a more active presence.

Hartwell remains exceedingly cautious and sounds reluctant to open the purse strings:  “That level of interaction has given us some comfort that there’s been a child advocacy-type role, but what I’ve learned and what I’m understanding is that role of child advocate in other jurisdictions goes beyond sort of an ombudsman-type role,” she said. “Someone who’s really advocating for public policy that is child-focused, child-friendly and so on.”

“So we absolutely are looking at it. People will know here that with everything else going on, we’re trying to determine, ” Hartwell told the Committee, “is this the best place for limited resources or is it somewhere else? So I think the onus is on us to finalize that review and then bring it forward.”

The recent CASW report may be just what is needed to light a fire under provincial officials in Nova Scotia and elsewhere.  If “children’s lives are being damaged every day, ” surely one would expect more of a sense of urgency. Perhaps the passive resistance has more to do with the general aversion of governments everywhere to independent bodies mandated to secure the needed supports for children and youth, to oversee the effective use of resources, and to ensure proper public accountability in child welfare services. 

What deeper problems are raised by the recent Canadian Association of Social Workers report on the state of child welfare services? Are the tremendous pressures and stresses experienced by frontline practitioners a symptom of bigger problems? Where is the voice of parents and families in this whole debate?  How can a province, in this day and age, continue to function without a particular office or agency entrusted with the welfare and protection of children? 

 

 

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Hundreds of children in Canada’s Ocean Playground” (aka Nova Scotia) entering school for the first time  in September 2018 will be prevented from using the playground equipment in their own schoolyards.  In Atlantic Canada’s largest school district, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), parents were only alerted to the new rules affecting children under 5 years in June 2018 newsletters that advised them about “risk management advice” about the use of playground equipment during the school day. The news provoked quite a reaction and prompted Halifax playground expert Alex Smith to post a stinging July 2018 critique headed “Look- Don’t Play” on his widely-read PlayGroundology Blog.

The Halifax school district, like many across Nova Scotia, used the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) standards for outdoor play as a rationale for barring all Junior Primary and Senior Primary (not only ages 3-4 children , but also those age 5), from using the school playground equipment.  School administration had been alerted to the potential problem back in the fall of 2017 at the time of the announcement of an expanded provincial Pre-Primary program. Instead of introducing kids to the joys of outdoor play, principals and teachers will be occupied trying to keep them off the equipment.

Nova Scotia is not alone in ‘bubble-wrapping kids’ on school playgrounds. It is just far more widespread because most of the province’s schools are only equipped with older, off-the shelf, equipment with CSA safety restrictions. Instead of phasing-in the introduction of Pre-Primary programs with playground upgrades, the N.S. Education Department has plowed full steam ahead without considering the importance of providing purpose-built kindergarten play areas.

Vocal critics of school and recreation officials who restrict child’s play are quick to cite plenty of other Canadian examples. Back in November 2011, a Toronto principal at Earl Beatty Elementary School  sparked a loud parent outcry when she banned balls from school grounds. One Canadian neighbourhood, Artisan Gardens on Vancouver Island, achieved international infamy in a June 2018 Guardian feature claiming that the local council had “declared war on fun” by passing a bylaw banning all outside play from the street, prohibiting children from chalk drawing. bike riding, and street hockey.

Such stories make for attention-grabbing headlines, but they tend to miss the significance of the changing dynamics of play in Canada and elsewhere. Protecting kids at all times has been the dominant practice, but fresh thinking is emerging on the importance of “free play” in child development. Alex Smith of PlayGroundology is in the forefront of the growing movement to replace “fixed equipment play” with “adventure sites” and “loose parts play.” While aware that child safety is a priority, the “free play” advocates point to evidence-based research showing the critical need for kids to learn how to manage risk and to develop personal resilience.

School superintendents advocating for the retention and revitalization of recess can be allies in the cause of ensuring kids have regular play time.  Some school district officials, however, seem to thrive on “over-programming kids” and see recess as another time to be planned and regulated. Typical of the current crop of North American senior administrators is Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY). Providing a decent school recess, in his view, is just another solution to the “mental health issues” affecting many of today’s schoolchildren. Makes you wonder how ‘liberated’ kids would be on those playgrounds.

Larger Canadian school districts in Ontario have managed to avoid the CSA playground standards debacle.  The five-year Ontario implementation  plan for Full Day Junior Kindergarten, starting in 2010-11, included funding to redevelop playgrounds for children ages 3.8 to 5 years. In the case of the York Region District School Board, outdoor learning spaces in their 160 elementary schools were gradually converted, school-by-school into natural “outdoor learning spaces” with fewer and fewer high risk climbing structures. Outdoor creative play and natural settings were recreated, often in fenced-in junior playground areas. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), targeted funding allowed for similar changes, over 5-years, in some 400 schools.

Converting all elementary school playgrounds can be prohibitively expensive for school districts without the resources of these Ontario boards. Instead of investing heavily in the latest “creative play equipment and facilities,” playground experts like Alex Smith recommend taking a scaled-down, more affordable approach. Many of Halifax’s after school Excel programs adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK children’s play advocate Tim Gill three years ago.  His message to school officials everywhere: “Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity!” 

What message are we sending to children entering school when they are barred from using playground equipment?  Should expanding early learning programs be planned with a program philosophy integrating indoor and outdoor play?  Is there a risk that we are robbing today’s kids of their childhood by over-protecting them in schools? When does ‘bubble-wrapping’ children become a problem? 

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Mindfulness has enjoyed a tremendous boom in the past decade and has recently begun to spring up in Canadian school systems. Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, are hotbeds for promoting “student well being” through broad application of ‘mindfulness training’ and its step-child ‘self-regulation ‘ beginning in the earliest grades. Under the former Liberal Government of Kathleen Wynne, the heavily promoted Student Well Being Strategy’ attempted to integrate ‘mindfulness’ through what is known as the MINDUP curriculum.  The recent change in government presents a rare opportunity to critically examine the whole initiative, its assumptions, research base, and actual impact upon schoolchildren.

“Student Well Being” has acquired something of an exalted status in Ontario schools ever since the appearance of a fascinating November 2016 policy paper,’ entitled “Well Being in Our Schools, Strength in Our Society.’ The whole concept of  Student Well Being was rationalized using a popular narrative promoted by its leading Ontario advocates, Dr. Jean Clinton, a McMaster University clinical psychiatrist, and Dr Stuart Shanker, a York University psychologist who doubles as the CEO of the MEHRIT Centre, a Peterborough-based organization holding a patent on the term “Self-Reg” and marketing “self-regulation’ in schools.  While labelled an “engagement paper,” the educators and the public were invited to “provide your insights and considerations on how best to promote and support student well-being throughout Ontario’s education system.

Promoting “Student Well Being” sounds like the educational equivalent of motherhood, so it has, to date, attracted little close scrutiny. That may explain why the whole provincial strategy sailed through the normal process of review and was immediately embraced by educators, particularly in elementary schools. Few Ontario educators, it seemed, were troubled by the initiative and parents were, as usual with curriculum initiatives, presented with a fait accompli.

Growing concerns among leading researchers in the United States, the U.K., and the Netherlands about the widespread adoption of positive psychology, the implementation of the Goldie Hawn Foundation’MINDUP program, and the mindfulness and happiness movement. failed to register.  Judging from Ontario Ministry of Education and school board conferences held in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the provincial school system was totally enamoured with an approach that promised salvation and relief from stress, anxiety, depression, bullying, and today’s frenetic school life.

What could possibly be wrong with making Student Well Being a system-wide priority? It sounded harmless enough until you bore down into what it actually entails and begin to examine the promotional videos and classroom resources generated by the initiative. An early warning was issued by British Columbia teacher Tina Olesen  in November of 2012 on the Scientific American Blog. Her concerns about the potentially harmful effects of Hawn’s MINDUP program were prophetic. Early studies in British Columbia (K.A. Schonert-Reichel 2008 and 2010) extolling the virtues of MINDUP curriculum have now come in for heavy criticism, challenging the validity of the findings.

Mindfulness and meditation recently took a big hit in “Mind the Hype,” a January 2018 peer-reviewed article in Perspectives on Psychological Science. An interdisciplinary team of scholars, led by N.T. Van Dam, found that the benefits of “mindfulness and meditation” have been over-hyped and that the research evidence to support its widespread use is mostly shoddy. They are very critical of the “misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology” that pervade much of the evidence behind the benefits of mindfulness. They focus in particular on the problem of defining the word mindfulness and on how the effects of the practice are studied.

“Mindfulness has become an extremely influential practice for a sizable subset of the general public, constituting part of Google’s business practices, available as a standard psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and, most recently, part of standard education for approximately 6,000 school children in London,” the authors wrote. They also pinpointed a number of flaws in the supporting research, including  using various definitions for mindfulness, not comparing results to a control group of people who did not meditate and not using good measurements for mindfulness.

“I’ll admit to have drank the Kool-Aid a bit myself. I’m a practicing meditator, and I have been for over 20 years,” David Vago told Newsweek. A research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, he is one of the study’s authors. “A lot of the data that’s out there is still premature,” he said. Educators are not the only ones overstating the benefits of mindfulness.  “You go into Whole Foods today, and there will be three magazines with some beautiful blonde meditating on the cover,” Vago said. “And they’re labeled ‘Mindfulness, the New Science and Benefits’ in some shape or form.”

Mindfulness has spawned a completely new “mental health and happiness” industry. Mindfulness and meditation are a popular practice that brings in around $1 billion US annually, according to Fortune. The booming industry includes apps, classes and medical treatments.  That’s what concerns Canadian mental health researchers such as Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health, at Dalhousie University. “Being happy all the time without feeling any stress,” he reminds teachers, is not normal.  Contrary to the claims of Mindfulness promoters, Kutcher points out that  “Anxiety Disorder is not the same as being stressed before an exam.  Handling such normal stress is, in fact, essential to being in good mental health.”

Where’s the research to support mass application of Student Well Being training based upon mindfulness?  Two leading University of Wisconsin  researchers , Richard J. Davidson and Alfred W. Kaszniak, addressed the problem squarely in their October 2015 American Psychologist research review.  Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based interventions, they found, lack a proper research base. “There are still very few methodologically rigorous studies, ” they concluded,  that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in either the treatment of specific diseases or in the promotion of well-being.”

Studying the effectiveness of Canadian social and emotional learning (SEL) school programs is still in its infancy. One of the first such studies, conducted by Dr. John LeBlanc of Dalhousie Medical School and a team of researchers, systematically assessed over a dozen school-based SEL programs, including both “evidence-based” and “non-evidence based” programs. Five evidence-based programs (PATHS, Second Step, Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, The Fourth R), and 6 non-evidence-based programs (DARE, Lion’s Quests: Skills for Adolescence, Options to Anger, Room 14: A Social Language Program, Stop Now and Plan (SNAP), Tribes) were identified.

A systematic literature search was conducted for all evidence-based programs, and each program underwent qualitative analysis using the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) approach. Implementation recommendations were then developed for all 13 programs. PATHS and Second Step received the strongest recommendations for school-based implementation, due to high quality empirical evaluations of the positive outcomes of these programs. Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, and The Fourth R showed promise and received provisional recommendations for implementation. Those five programs were recommended for use in Nova Scotia public schools. Eight other noteworthy programs were discussed. but deemed to require empirical evaluation before evidence-based recommendations can be made. Based upon the evidence gathered in subsequent Dalhousie Medical School studies, MINDUP would also fall into that category – not yet suitable for school implementation. The research study or toolkit for educators underlined the critical need for proper program evaluation to ensure that such SEL programs are “cost effective and yield maximal benefits for students’ behaviour.”

Why did the Ontario Ministry of Education adopt Social Well-Being in January 2017 as a system-wide priority?  Where is the evidence to support the implementation of a mindfulness-based initiative in schools across Ontario? Were Ontario parents ever properly consulted on this provincial curriculum initiative?  Given the recent research findings, is it time to halt the Student Well Being Strategy and to seriously look at the wisdom of proceeding on the current set of assumptions? 

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