Archive for March, 2023

Trauma-informed education spread rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s now ascendant in Canadian K-12 education. Its origins go back more than two decades and were identified by British sociologist Frank Furedi in his powerful book, Therapy Culture, better known in the UK than here in North America.  Widely viewed as “an unambiguously positive development,” the therapeutic ethos and its offshoot “trauma-informed practice” (TIP) have, according to American policy analyst Robert Pondiscio, extended the reach of education into students’ lives and expanded the role of teachers.  While it’s recognized and openly debated in the United Kingdom and the United States, the phenomenon remains largely unexamined in Canada’s disaggregated provincial school systems.

One of the most trenchant critiques of contemporary social trends, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s 2019 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, tackled the contradictions inherent in education at all levels from pre-school to the universities. What the authors clearly identified was the “coddling of the mind” and the desire to weave a protective web of “safetyism” around today’s generation of students. Fierce critics of the rise of therapy culture in education like Furedi go much further, claiming that therapy culture draws sustenance from “trauma-informed” approaches, implants a culture of fear, and gives credence to claims that most students are vulnerable and need protection.

There’s mounting evidence to support the claim that education is now enveloped in social therapy culture. Over the past five years or more, public concerns about the effects of trauma—especially relative to school-aged students—have increased exponentially.  Fueling much of the discussion is a screening tool that was developed in the mid-1990s, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) scale. It’s adoption as an early years intervention is a prime example of the priority now assigned to diagnosing and treating “trauma” affected children and introducing elementary school programs incorporating “mindfulness,” “self-regulation,” and suicide prevention.  Few of these initiatives or programs have been properly evaluated and validated as effective in the field of teen mental health, and mass application in congregate settings carries certain identified risks

Overdiagnosis of children and teens with broadly-defined “mental health issues’ may well be an unrecognized problem. More than two-thirds of American students, according to Health and Human Services survey data, reportedly suffer one traumatic event before their sixteenth birthday. In the case of Canada, leading experts like Rosalynn M. Record-Lemon and Maria J. Buchanan, routinely claim that statistics show 76.1% of Canadians will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Many and perhaps most children and adults, before COVID-19, were said to be facing “psychological trauma” and life situations that “overwhelm the individual’s capacity to cope.” Maltreatment, family violence, bullying, natural disasters, illnesses and personal loss were linked to “pervasive psychological, physical and developments impacts.” All of this is commonly used as a rationale for the widespread adoption of Trauma-Informed Practice (TIP) in publicly-funded schools.

Two recent metadata reviews of trauma-informed approach in schools have damaged its claim to be evidence-based practice. The best-known study, conducted by St. Louis University social work professor Brandy R. Maynard and her research team, under the auspices of Campbell Reviews, examined some 9,102 potential research articles, and identified only 67 of the articles were independent research studies. None of the 67 articles met evidence-based research criteria:  49 articles did not use random controlled trials or quasi-experimental design methods; 12 did not examine the effects of a trauma-informed approach; and the remaining five examined only one aspect of a trauma-informed approach. These authors reached a rather stark conclusion:  no school-based, trauma-informed research studies over the past ten years that were conducted using sound research methodologies such that the programs investigated could be objectively determined to be effective in addressing the trauma-related needs of school-aged students.

An authoritative research March 2019 article in Review of Research in Education reached similar conclusions. When three Kentucky researchers, M. Shelley Thomas, Shantel Crosby and Judi Vanderhaar, studied trauma-informed practices in schools over two decades, they found plenty of initiatives dedicated to reforming teaching practices, school climate, teacher training and ongoing professional development. “Empirical work” was “less established,” little of it came from education researchers, and, again, there was a lack of evidence demonstrating “the effectiveness of school-based supports” or their consistent application in schools.

The theoretical gaps, research deficiencies and questionable effectiveness of social-justice-centred trauma-informed school programs has also been exposed in a literature review in the 2021 International Journal of School Social Work. The three New Mexico University researchers, favourably disposed to such approaches, concluded that “the current theory of impact linking trauma-informed work and social justice work is not supported by evidence.” What was missing was “a socio-ecological model of trauma’ (SAMHSA 2014)” integrating psychological strategies into a broader initiative demonstrating an “understanding of families and staff as well as students.”

The Pandemic education crisis was accompanied by a profound catharsis transforming school systems, over two school years, for months on end, into protective spaces adhering to COVID-19 public health directives, and focused on providing a semblance of rough equity and support for students from disadvantaged or marginalized communities. In Ontario, it’s even spawned a new educational administration venture into “trauma-sensitive school leadership.”

What comes next? As families and schools gradually recover from “learning loss” and the collateral psycho-social effects, the almost exclusive emphasis on trauma-informed practice will likely subside. When it does, let’s hope that we see a revival of the effective schools movement holding out the promise of more focused, meaningful, purposeful and effective teaching and learning.

What explains the proliferation and staying power of “Trauma-Informed Education” in Canada’s provincial school systems?  Will it survive the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where is the evidence-based research in support of school-wide “trauma-informed” approaches? Should we be targeting such interventions where they will make a difference?

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Fists and knives have re-appeared in Canada’s high schools in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns. Back in June of 2022, Ottawa parent Sarah Murray went public after Nepean High School officials left her in the dark, then hushed-up a washroom beating administered to her son by local bullies. What really upset her was the school’s policy of keeping quiet about “traumatic experiences.”

Nor is it safe to be milling around in front of some high schools. A 15-year-old Grade 10 boy made national headlines in February 2023 when he was shot during lunchtime outside Toronto’s Weston Collegiate, ran inside and was comforted by teachers, before being rushed to the nearest trauma centre. Such incidents are no longer isolated events.

While school shootings are still rare, regular and ongoing violence in and around schools is getting worse. Ontario’s  high school teachers’ union president Karen Littlewood finally blew the whistle, calling for help from provincial and local authorities to help insure that schools, and classrooms are safe.

As the advocate for 55,000 educators in hundreds of high schools, Littlewood expressed alarm, not just for the well-being of students, but for the safety of teachers, mental health support personnel, child and youth workers.  While GTA disturbances attract the most attention, she reported that its now widespread in the wake of the COVID-19 school disruptions. “These incidents were happening across the province, she said, and it’s now reached “a crisis level.”

 The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, is – as usual- ground zero and the most graphic illustration of how dangerous today’s schools have become for students, teachers, and education support workers.

There’s “no easy fix” to the problem of school violence, according to the hard pressed TDSB communications point man, Ryan Byrd.  That’s likely because, as a TDSB committee heard in December 2022, the prevalence of violence is alarming. School shootings attract cameras, but some 622 young people between the ages of 12 and 29 were reportedly victims of stabbings between January of 2021 and November 2022.

Classroom teachers are alarmed enough to be speaking up out-of-school. A particularly effective, well-articulated Thomas B. Fordham Institute commentary, written by Daniel Buck, a young American teacher with 7-years’ experience, touched a nerve, attracting thousands of Twitter views and retweets. Many of the retweets were sparked by “Teachers Unite,” an outspoken voice for teacher advocacy in Canada.

“Soft-on-consequences discipline” was a critical factor contributing to unruly “student behaviour” diving fellow teachers to quit the classroom and proving to be “terrible for teachers.” “While most discussion about student behaviour…focuses on its impact upon students,” he wrote, “too often the effects on teachers are simply overlooked. They’re collateral damage that rarely gets a mention.”

Amid fears of a national U.S. teacher shortage, the National Education Association now claims that half of all American teachers have reported considering or actively planning to quit because of deteriorating school climate and safety.  So far, it has not reached that crisis point in Canada’s provincial school systems.

Workplace violence is a growing problem in Canada’s schools, judging from a series of credible reports from province-to-province. “Biting, kicking and verbal abuse” are so prevalent in Manitoba schools that the provincial Workplace Safety and Health Department recently classified schools as one of the “high-risk industries” along with foundries, sawmills and demolition sites. CUPE Manitoba president Gina McKay, representing 6,000 school support workers identified the scope of the problem. “We’ve known systemic issues,” she told CTV News Winnipeg, “and they’re building.”

Teachers in British Columbia have also been alerted to the extent of time lost through injuries incurred in school workplaces. A 2021 Work Safe BC online report, entitled “Time-loss claims in public school districts,” documented 16,812 claims registered by teachers, teaching assistants, and administrators between 2011 and 2020. It’s recently emerged as an issue raised by the BCTF in its representations and contract negotiations.

A Nova Scotia Freedom of Information request tore the lid of the hidden problem in that province’s schools. The resulting January 2022 story in the Halifax Chronicle Herald revealed that some 11,240 violent incidents were reported during the 2020-21 school year, at a time when school was closed for several weeks as a result of COVID-19 health measures.

Nova Scotia Education Minister Becky Druhan claimed that the 2020-21 incident numbers were on a par with other years, but that’s not entirely accurate. Violent incidents were twice as common in the aftermath of the spring 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, and most of the incidents affected grades 5 to 9, not primary to grade 6, as reported in the FOIPOP release.

After the initial information leak, Nova Scotia Education has kept school violence rates and student behaviour data under wraps. Bullying incidents are reported as a matter of provincial policy and, over two years, 2020-21 and 2021-22, some 2,072 incidents were recorded from primary to grade 9, confirming that 67 per cent happened in grades 6 to 9, at the junior high level. Violent acts, sexual assaults, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse are not reported to the public.  

In Nova Scotia, as in Manitoba, the education sector accounts for an alarming proportion of workers compensation claims. While the overall number of workplace violence claims in Nova Scotia is highest in the “Health/Social Services” sector, the “Education Services” sector is second highest. Over the past decade, the Workers Compensation Board of Nova Scotia (WCBNS), reported that the “Educational Services” sector had the highest per cent rate of claims due to violence. The 10-year average of violent claims was 11.28 per cent of its employees, peaking at 16.32 per cent in 2019.  

Violence is now commonplace in today’s classrooms, hallways, fields, and parking lots. Regular disturbances, low-level disruptions, and verbal abuse tends to go unreported, in most case out of fear of reprisals or because there are so few disciplinary consequences.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Nova Scotia, a middling province widely regarded as a bell weather for national education trends. A recent blog report posted by Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education (January 25, 2023) rings true. “School staff report being discouraged from documenting incidents of violence,” the advocacy group claimed. When recording cannot be avoided, the post continued “the process is difficult and the mechanism for reporting, featuring drop-down menus, limits a full and accurate reporting of incidents.”

The Nova Scotia violent incident reporting system is also full of holes when it comes to accountability and tracking at the school or system level.  Privacy protocols are strictly upheld and prevent victims from being named in perpetrator’s reports, precluding long-term tracing of patterns incidents over time. Most troubling of all, educators report (off-the-record) that there is no established reporting standard to ensure the consistency of teacher documentation.

Reporting protocols and data collection practices in Nova Scotia are widely varying from school district to school district, and even from school to school. Some school principals discourage teachers from reporting violent incidents (which might reflect badly on a school’s reputation); others insist on filling in the information for their teachers. Educational assistants and child support workers are often victims, but – in most cases — have to rely on regular teachers or administrators to report such incidents.

Hair-raising stories of school violence in schools, once contained and concealed by school principals and education districts, are now quickly and readily shared on social media. Local parent and teacher advocacy groups, such as Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, provide a conduit for gathering and circulating intelligence gathered by parents and teachers at the school level. Candid student mobile phone photos and videos end up on Facebook and Twitter, some depicting troubling personal attacks, teachers’ verbal abuse, and mistreatment of kids with learning challenges.


Mental health experts and professors have now coalesced around a consistent position on the wisdom of keeping kids in school after the pandemic.  “Schools should be the first to open, and the last to close” is the predominant policy direction, especially since the August 2021 release of the Royal Society of Canada’s research report on “Children and Schools during COVID-19 and Beyond,” published by University of Ottawa education psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt and a team of leading researchers.

Many Canadian parents, health professionals and child psychologists harbour quiet doubts about how safe, secure and healthy schools really are in the wake of the COVID-19 disruption and its aftermath. “While acknowledging the important role that schools can play in students’ access to food and other needs,” NSPPE recently pointed out, “many parents and child experts objected strongly to the portrayal of schools” as ‘safe spaces.’

The recent rash of highly-publicized violent incidents provides us with a much needed reality check on the everyday realities of today’s school culture, especially in middle and senior grades, where violence, bullying, sexual harassment, racial incidents, and negative mental health experiences are far too common for students, teachers and education workers.

 Students do belong in school but not in unsafe and dangerous classrooms. Now that normalcy is slowly returning, it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that those schools and classrooms are safe for the pandemic generation of kids.*

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, Saturday February 25, 2023. 

What’s behind the recent resurgence of violence in Canadian schools? Is it really new or just a return to the turbulent conditions pre-pandemic?  How much of the student-on-student and student-on-teacher violence is attributable to so-called “progressive’ school discipline?  Why is data on dangerous workplaces easier to access than regular reports of student violence and misconduct? Is it time to ask –Who’s running the schools?  

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