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Archive for the ‘Child Mental Health’ Category

Biting, kicking, spitting, scratching, punching, throwing objects, and threatening harm are on the rise in Canadian elementary classrooms from coast to coast. More and more educators are not only reporting the violent incidents, but being hurt on the job in our classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds. Whole classrooms are being evacuated to allow disruptive children to calm down. That escalating crisis was recently highlighted in a fine September 7, 2019 piece of investigative journalism by The Globe and Mail’s national education reporter Caroline Alphonso.

Her investigation of how school districts are actually managing children with behavioural challenges and complex needs is eye-opening for those unfamiliar with teaching on today’s frontlines. Periodic surveys of teachers and education assistants have identified an escalating crisis, but — until now–provincial school authorities and local school districts have been slow to collect the data and most reluctant to share violent incident report information with parents or the public. Indeed, Alphonso and her Globe team found it impossible to secure the data from some provinces and major metropolitan school districts.

The facts are gradually emerging and harassment and violence against educators is becoming commonplace.  One September 2019 study, conducted by University of Ottawa researchers Darcy A. Santor, Chris Bruckert, and Kyle McBride, showed a sharp spike in the level of violence teachers face in Ontario elementary schools. In a December 2018 online survey of 1,600 educators, they found a seven-fold increase in reported incidents over the past 12 years. While only 7 per cent of Ontario elementary teachers reported experiencing bullying in 2005, some 54 per cent now report encountering violence perpetrated mostly by students, but also by parents, and administrators. Furthermore, some 72 per cent reported experiencing explicit verbal insults, putdowns, or obscene gestures from a student during 2017-18.

Out of ten provincial ministries of education, only Nova Scotia provided Alphonso and the Globe and Mail with comprehensive data.  In the 2014-15, school year, there were 631 recorded incidents of violence against an educator by a student, and the following year, 2015-16, there were 683, the vast majority of which occurred in the elementary schools. The Ontario government turned down the Globe and Mail Freedom of Information request and other provinces either claimed not to have data or unable to access it without going through school boards or other government agencies.

Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union (NSTU) president Paul Wozney expressed concern over the problem and provided what amounted to a worst case scenario. In Nova Scotia, one classroom was evacuated 12 times in a month — and students were forced to find sanctuary in another room until the disruptive child calmed down. He also reported that Nova Scotia educators, like their New Brunswick counterparts, were now wearing bite-resistant sleeves and Kevlar vests in certain high risk classrooms.

What can be done to address the problem? Most teacher union surveys and research reports, including the University of Ottawa study, are stronger on diagnosis than on prescription. The most common policy solutions, investing in more classroom resources, more teaching assistants, or more specialized professional development, are predictably in every set of recommendations and strongly favoured by school districts, teachers’ unions, and parent education funding lobby groups.

Two of the detailed University of Ottawa study findings got short shrift and deserve closer scrutiny.  Workplace violence is likely being under-reported because of fears of blame (from administration) and reprisal ( from students) in “an organizational culture” which is “ill-equipped to deal with the issue.” More importantly, in school boards which espouse “progressive discipline” under provincial mandates, there are “few consequences for students’ harassing or violent behaviour” (p. 34).

Digging deeper, it’s clear that two fundamental components of prevailing student behaviour philosophy and practice need to be seriously re-examined and likely replaced with more effective strategies: the cure-all of Positive Behaviour Supports Programs (PEBIS) and the misapplication of school restorative justice. From province-to-province, right across Canada, few educators seem to be either aware of, or attuned to, growing evidence that positive, progressive discipline has unanticipated negative long-term consequences for school principals and frontline teachers in classrooms.

Clamouring for more resources, increased staff levels, or better training has not worked, to date, so it’s surely not the ultimate answer. It’s time to adopt a completely new strategy, more in tune with the latest research on student behaviour and effective school management.  School leaders and principals need significant training in creating a culture of respect and responsibility and it’s time to look at alternatives to progressive, positive discipline and its step-child, restorative justice. It’s captured nicely in one of the University of Ottawa study recommendations calling for the “consistent application” and “implementation of student consequences that are appropriate and effective”(p. 35).

Why are teachers and education assistants facing increased violence in elementary schools?  How much of the increased student violence is the result of the rising incidence of students with severe learning challenges and complex needs? Will investing more in the prevailing student behavour programs make any real difference?  Is it time to rethink school leadership and to properly equip principals and teachers with strategies and programs that are research-proven and far more effective in ensuring safe, secure and purposeful learning for everyone? 

 

 

 

 

 

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Today’s public school teachers are expected to serve a number of masters — provincial education authorities, regional school boards, students and parents, and teachers’ federations. Traditionally, under Canadian education law,they have been seen to stand in loco parentisto have within the area of their responsibility the same authority over students as would a reasonable, kind and judicious (careful) parent and to be expected to act, at a minimum, in that manner.  Today, Canadian education law expert Dawn C. Wallin has noted that teachers act more and more as “educational state agents.”

The initial expectation of teachers acting in loco parentis has been substantially supplemented and, in some cases supplanted, by legal duties and requirements of teachers acting as agents of the state. The role of parents has also changed, as governments have come to play a more active role in shaping the framework and terms of engagement in family-school relations. The raging controversy over Ontario sex education curriculum reform in June and July of 2018 has, once again, brought the struggle for dominance in this “contested terrain” to a head.

Fundamental questions supposedly laid to rest with the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum have resurfaced, much to the chagrin of former Queen’s Park education insiders, politically-active teachers, and allied health professionals.  Who speaks for the majority of today’s parents? For which parents, in urban school settings –and rural/small town school settings?  And in which of Ontario’s diverse range of etho-cultural communities?  Do “teachers know best” what today’s children and teens need to know about sex, gender identities, and leading healthy lives? 

The Doug Ford PC Government, judging from Education Minister Lisa Thompson‘s latest statement, is preparing to review the 2015 health curriculum and to maintain the 2014 status quo until the Ministry of Education has conducted a new round of parent consultations. That’s a watering down of its 2018 “For the People” election promise to revert back to the 1998 curriculum, but still honours a commitment made to the public. The revised policy position makes considerable sense, since only some 10 per cent of the curriculum deals specifically with sex education and is really in contention.

Much of the populist opposition to the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum is rooted in the deep distrust engendered by the final term Kathleen Wynne Liberal Government. For those swept up in Ford Nation, it was a glaring example of Ms Wynne’s ideological adherence to costly progressive solutions, close connections with well-healed downtown Toronto do-gooders, condescending manner in telling parents what was good for their children, and preference for moving forward without listening enough to everyday concerns. 

Ontario’s 2015 sex education curriculum was always based upon what might accurately be termed a ‘forged consensus,” patched-together after Premier Dalton McGuinty ditched the proposed 2010 reforms in the face of fierce opposition from Catholic parents and boards as well as vocal social conservatives. Current claims that the Wynne round of consultation was all-inclusive does not stand up to close scrutiny. Her government relied heavily upon the usual OISE-Toronto insiders and appendages, well-known progressive education experts, 2,400 teachers, and some 4,000 parents drawn from the notably friendly confines of elementary school PACs.

Manufacturing consent can work to block populist educational ventures, as it did in staving-off British Columbia traditional schools, but it relies upon marginalizing opposing forces and can unravel after achieving the target objective. Shaming old-fashioned “moral traditionalists” and labelling “Christian fundamentalists,” and hidden “homophobes” might have worked again. It was the groundswell of new Canadians, mainly Asian, Middle Eastern, and East Indian, families with more conservative values in Toronto’s suburbs like Thorncliffe Park and the GTA, that upset the best-laid plans of the Liberal-dominated Ministry of Education.

‘Common sense’ seems to be is short supply, possibly because the term bears the stigma of the earlier incarnation of Ontario conservatism during the wrenching and divisive Mike Harris years. That’s a shame because it’s exactly what Ontario needs right now to resolve the sex education conundrum.

With respect to sex education, finding a more stable, common sense resolution starts with a different assumption – that parents are every child’s first educators and have to be meaningfully engaged because they are sill primary responsible for raising and rearing children, albeit in close partnership their child’s teachers. Acknowledging the critical role of parents and families is the first step to winning over skeptical traditional and ethnic minority parents and setting Ontario on the road to a more satisfactory resolution.  It’s also a good reminder that the teacher is, after all, still expected to act in loco parentis and, where possible, with the consent of parents and families.

Any new Sex Education task force should be composed of a new set of players, as much as possible independent of the ideologues and activists on both sides. It should be carefully constructed so as to achieve a legitimate balance, involving liberal and conservative-minded parents, recognized scientific authorities, and respected members of religious communities. Sorting out the differences will not be easy, but will only happen if proponents of more conservative views, rooted in character education, morality, and modesty in sexual matters have a legitimate place at the table.

Reforming the sex education curriculum now means listening harder and working to resolve the fundamental objections over a few critical pieces of the sex education program and applying an more nuanced “age-appropriate” lens to the contentious components.  Imposing a state-mandated curriculum without further consultation is out-of-the question. That’s why there’s so little consistency in what is taught and when, from province-to-province across Canada.

Without a consistent federal presence in education, assessing the state of sex education province-to-province can be quite a challenge.  The best we have is a fairly reliable survey conducted in 2015 for Global TVNews , illustrating the full spectrum of variations in ages when the key topics are introduced:

Proper Names of Body Parts: British Columbia and Manitoba required children know in kindergarten, while PEI and New Brunswick wait until Grade 6.

Sexual Orientation:  It was taught in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia in Grade 3, but Newfoundland only taught LGBT awareness in grade 9 (Manitoba had no clear agenda.)

. Sexual Consent: Nova Scotia introduced the topic in 2011, in advance of Ontario. It is also part of the Quebec curriculum, but it makes only a passing reference to reproductive rights, described as the risk of “going through an unwanted pregnancy.”

Sexually Transmitted infections (STis) and Prevention: Taught in Nova Scotia starting in Grade 5 but New Brunswick avoided the topic until Grade 10.

Birth Control:  Taught in Grade 6 in BC and in Grade 9 in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. While N.S. taught STI prevention in Grade 5, it waits until high school to introduce birth control.

When Ontario introduced Gender Identities and LGBT concerns in 2015, they were in the vanguard with Nova Scotia and Quebec, but  in some provinces like Saskatchewan it was still not mentioned at all. Alberta followed Ontario with sex ed curriculum changes that included sexual consent, sexual orientation, and cyberbullying/ sexting.

Love and Intimacy: The only province to teach love, attraction and intimacy is Quebec. Its curriculum is closely aligned with teaching human biology and makes a clear distinction between love and the purely physical aspects of puberty and reproduction.

Central to the newly-announced Ford sex education curriculum review will be a careful study of the readiness of children to learn certain topics in the early grades, Children can and should be taught the biological facts in the early grades, but it’s hard to justify teaching sexual preferences before children understand the nature of sexual desire. Warning young children about sexual pornography, internet porn, and sexting cannot be postponed, nor can teaching about same-sex couples when children see that for themselves among parents in their own school.

A Ford Government sex education curriculum will, in all likelihood, leave teaching more contentious and contested topics until the later elementary and junior high years. Exploring the full range of sexual desire in all its diversity is still best left to adolescence. Newly created teaching resources such as the “Genderbread Person Charts” fall into that category and should not be employed when students are simply too young to fully understand the complexities of gender identity, sexual preference, and biological sex types.

Teaching about sexual fluidity remains a radioactive topic, especially when the biological science is so contested and there is still a risk of doing harm by exposing young children to unproven, possibly harmful theories. In the case of one Sacramento, California, charter school kindergarten, a teacher’s well-intended strategy to demonstrate transgenderism backfired badly when children came home in distress, with some five-year-old boys left “afraid they were turning into girls.” Children can be taught to accept and respect peers who are different without applying labels at such an early age.

Parent knowledge, wisdom and counsel are critical in finding a better way forward and one, as Calgary professor Yan Guo reminds us, that respects the very real diversity among families in contemporary Canadian society. It presents a fresh opportunity to find a more flexible approach, making reasonable accommodations consistent with differing community and family values. State-mandated sex education without accommodating differences does not accord so well with the time-tested “Canadian way” of finding a workable consensus.

Should sex education curriculum be essentially family-centred or state-mandated on the basis of changing child rearing theories and practices? What’s wrong with an “age-appropriate revision” postponing certain topics to the later grades? Is it still possible for Ontario to proceed with most of the 2015 curriculum revision, with the exception of a few hotly-contested topics? How prepared are we to take the time to get it right by accommodating more of the unresolved concerns, and especially those expressed by new Canadian families from other religious, cultural and family traditions? 

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Teachers are talking and raising alarm bells about the impact of marijuana legalization on students and our high schools – and the real daily challenges that lie ahead. This is a head’s up – we should all be listening to those on the front lines of education.

Seven American states and the District of Columbia have followed the early adopter, Colorado, in legalizing the recreational use of cannabis and the movement is spreading to other states. Four of the seven states legalized its use in November 2016, and the Canadian government has established its implementation date later this year.

Looking across Canada, province after province has been announcing its implementation policy, focusing almost exclusively on the control and regulation of the previously illegal substance, provoking fierce debates over who will reap most of the the exise tax windfall and  whether cannabis will be sold in government stores or delegated to heavily regulated private vendors. All of the provincial policy pronouncements claim that the policy will be designed to protect “public health and safety” and safeguard “children and youth”  from the “harmful effects.”

Marijuana legalization policy across Canada is a top-down federal initiative driven largely by changing public attitudes and conditioned by the current realities of widespread use of marijuana, purchased though illicit means. Setting the age of restriction, guided by the proposed federal policy framework, has turned out to be an exercise in reaching a “compromise” rather than heeding the advice of leading medical experts and the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). The CMA proposed age 25 and then accepted age 21 as more “realistic.” It’s going to be 18 year-of-age in Alberta and Quebec, and 19 years-of-age in most other provinces. Getting it “out of high schools” was a critical factor in bumping it up to age 19 in most provinces.

Every Canadian province is complying with the federal legislation, but — in our federal system – it’s “customized” for each jurisdiction. The Canadian Western provinces, Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan have opted for regulating private retail stores, while Ontario and the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I.), are expanding their liquor control commissions to accommodate retail sales of cannabis.

My home province, Nova Scotia, tends to find the “middle ground” in public policy and has done so once again. That’s why Nova Scotia provides perhaps the best point of entry into the Canadian situation.

On top of chronic absenteeism, ‘accept all excuses’ policies, and bureaucratic paperwork, most of Nova Scotia’s high school teachers will soon, as of September 2018, be battling a spike in marijuana use and greater peer pressure to smoke pot on the mistaken assumption that it is “harmless” at any age.

In the scramble to meet the federal July 1, 2018 implementation date, provincial authorities, in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, are grossly underestimating the potential harm to student health, safety, and life outcomes. That much is clear after carefully examining the best background research, the October 6 to 31 survey consultation, and the December 7 policy pronouncement.

The Nova Scotia government, guided by the steady hand of Minister Mark Furey, has done a reasonably good job in responding, under tight timelines, to the immediate challenge of establishing a strict control and distribution regime, albeit dependent upon the traditional public sector apparatus and the NSLC stores.

The essential problem is that control and regulation is only half of the challenge – and it sends out implicit signals that, after the failure of the ‘war on drugs,’ softened public attitudes will now dictate policy, irrespective of the health harms inflicted on children and youth.

One in five young people between 15 and 24 years of age, according to a recent national study, report daily or almost daily use of cannabis. They also see marijuana as “much safer than alcohol and tobacco” and “not as dangerous as drunk driving.” Few either know about or seem concerned over the clear linkage between heavy use and early onset psychosis.

Three major education policy concerns are not being addressed, all of which are identified in the current research on the harmful effects of marijuana on children and youth up until age 25.  With the legalization of marijuana, evidence-based policy needs to recognize that:

  • Heavy marijuana use can, and does, damage age 13 to 18 brain development: A 2016 Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse study confirmed the direct link to loss of concentration and memory, jumbled thinking, and paranoid psychosis.
  • Marijuana users perform more poorly in quantitative subjects requiring precision, like mathematics and senior science: Clear evidence was presented in 2017 by Dutch researchers Olivier Marie and Ulf Zolitz that ‘liberalizing’ rules also led to decreased academic success among Maastricht University students, and particularly for struggling students.
  • Legalization of marijuana increases the number of teen users: Early initiators increase their use significantly and overall reported use rises by about 10 per cent to one out of three teens, including previously low-risk students (New York University 2014, Oregon Research Institute 2017).

Medical researchers and practitioners have warned us that legalization carries great dangers, particularly for vulnerable and at-risk youth between 15 and 24 years of age.

One of the leaders in the medical field, Dr. Phil Tiboo, initiator of Nova Scotia’s Weed Myths campaign targeting teens has seen the evidence, first hand, of what heavy use can do at the Halifax QE II Infirmary Early Psychosis clinic. We will pay a price for not heeding the warnings of Dr. Tiboo about popular and rather blasé notions that marijuana is “harmless” to teens and “recreational use” is somehow “fun” and “healthy.”

One glaring example of the mixed messages was the November 2017 CBC Nova Scotia televised debate, entitled “Joint Venture,” a media production that actually made matters worse. It was all framed as a “cool” public policy about to propel us into the “green frontier. Watching and listening to the four panelists must have been terribly upsetting for doctors and high school teachers. Ill-informed comments went unchallenged, and no one spoke for educators who have daily encounters with students “high” on drugs.

High school principals and staff are facing a real test with the legalization of marijuana.  The old line of defense that using marijuana is illegal will have disappeared. Recreational marijuana will be more socially acceptable. The cannabis industry will be openly marketing its products. High school students who drive to school will likely get caught under new laws prohibiting motor vehicle use while impaired by drugs or alcohol. Fewer students will be abstainers when it is perfectly legal to smoke pot when you reach university, college, or the workplace.

We have utterly failed, so far, in getting through to the current generation of teens, so a much more robust approach is in order.  “Be firm at the beginning” is the most common sage advice given to beginning teachers. Clamping down on teen marijuana use during and after school hours will require clarity and firm resolve in the year ahead – and the support of engaged and responsible parents.

Legalization of recreational marijuana is bound to complicate matters for Canadian high schools everywhere. Busting the “Weed Myths” should not be left to doctors and health practitioners. When it comes to meeting this serious challenge, let’s get behind those on the front lines.

What’s really driving the move to legalize the recreational use of marijuana?  Where does that leave education authorities, school principals and high school teachers?  What works, if anything, in deterring teens in the absence of a law prohibiting open public use? Is it possible that teaching in high schools is about to get far more challenging? 

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Seeing some 400 teachers and school service providers flooding into the Halifax West High School auditorium on July 20, 2017 was an eye-opening experience. In the middle of the summer, they committed time to a two-day conference focusing on child and teen mental health. Led by Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Mental Health Academy was filling a real need in the school system.

With the news full of stories warning of a “mental health crisis,” teachers in the K-12 system are feeling anxious and more conscious than ever of their role in the front lines of education.  What Dr. Kutcher’s Academy offered was something of a tranquilizer because he not only rejects the “crisis” narrative, but urges classroom practitioners to develop “mental health literacy” so they can “talk smart” with students and their parents.

The fifth edition of the Mental Health Academy, initiated in 2006 by Dr. Kutcher, studiously avoided adding further to the noise and sought to advance teacher education in mental health using evidence-based research and programs.  Stress can be good and bad, Kutcher reminded us, and we need to be able to distinguish among the three types of stress responses identified by the Harvard Center for the Developing Child: positive (daily), tolerable (regularly) and toxic (extremely rare).  Instead of pathologizing “stress” as “anxiety,” what children and youth need most is “inoculation” to help build a more robust stress immune system.

While the incidence of teen mental health problems is not appreciably different than it was fifty years ago, we are far better equipped to respond to the challenges in and around schools. The MH Academy amply demonstrated how much more we know today about adolescent brain development, school staff self-care, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance addictions, and teen suicide.  Educating teachers about that research is the real purpose of the Academy.

Mental health disorders are serious and teachers are well-positioned to assist in early identification. About 1 in 5 people may experience a mental disorder during adolescence. If left unrecognized and untreated, they can lead to substantial negative outcomes in physical and mental health, academic and vocational achievement, interpersonal relationships, and other important life experiences. Despite this tremendous burden of mental health disability, youth requiring proper care still do not receive it from childhood through to adulthood.  Lack of knowledge, presence of stigma, and limited access to care all serve as barriers to addressing mental disorders and alleviating the daily challenges.

Promoting Mental Health Literacy (MHL) is Dr. Kutcher’s mission because it is an essential component of improving individual and population health and mental health outcomes. As most mental disorders can be identified by age 25, schools provide the ideal location in which to implement interventions that can be demonstrated to improve mental health and life outcomes.  Good MHL programs tend to exhibit four components: : understanding how to obtain and maintain good mental health; understanding mental disorders and their treatments; decreasing stigma; and enhancing help seeking efficacy (knowing when, where, and how to obtain proper care.

A recent Canadian study of some 10,000 educators, cited by  IWK Health researcher Dr. Yifeng Wei at the Academy, found that over 90 per cent of teachers lacked adequate preparation for responding to mental health issues.  That is startling when one considers the fact that the survey uncovered some 200 different mental health programs being implemented in over 1,000 Canadian schools.

Systematic evidence-based reviews of the most popular mental health programs are not that encouraging.  Four such programs, including two based upon “mindfulness, “Learning to Breathe,” and “Mind Up,” analyzed using the GRADE System, were found to be mostly ineffective and judged not ready for widespread implementation in schools. “Good intentions,” Dr. Wei stated,” do not translate into beneficial outcomes for children and teens.”

One curriculum resource, the Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide, researched and developed by Kutcher and his research team at Dalhousie’s Medical School, shows more promising results. It’s not a “packaged program,” but rather a full curriculum taught by the usual classroom teachers in Canadian secondary schools. Survey data collected before, immediately after, and 2 months after implementation of The Guide showed that students’ knowledge improved significantly when the program was delivered by their regular teachers.  Embedding a classroom resource, delivered by usual classroom teachers in usual school settings is proving to be far better than utilizing any number of the commercially-marketed mental health programs.

What’s contributing to the widespread public perception that we are experiencing a “mental health crisis” in and around our schools?  Why are classroom teachers so motivated and committed to responding to mental health issues?  Why are education authorities and school districts so quick to snap up the latest program in mental health, student behaviour modification, and suicide prevention?  What’s the secret of the recent success of the the Canadian Teen Mental Health Curriculum Guide? 

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Principal Daniel Villeneuve of Saints-Anges Catholic Elementary School in North Bay, Ontario, is among the first wave of Canadian school leaders to take a stand against fidget spinners, the latest craze among children and teens world-wide. On May 23, 2017, he visited class after class to advise his students that the hand-held gadgets were being banned from school grounds. Marketed as a “stress reliever” for anxious or hyperactive kids, the spinners had become a “major distraction” interfering with teaching and learning affecting everyone in the classroom.

FidgetSpinnerCloseUpThe North Bay principal’s letter to parents, issued May 24, 2017, directly challenged the claim of the commercial product’s marketers that a fidget spinner “helps people focus and concentrate.”  He was crystal-clear about the real “issues with this toy”: 1) it makes noise; 2) it attracts attention; 3) most kids require two hands to make it spin; and 4) it distracts the user and others. For this reason, it was “banned from the school and the day care” and “must remain in the student’s school bag at school.”  What he didn’t say was perhaps obvious – it was driving teachers crazy and making teaching almost intolerable.

Most Canadian school authorities and far too many principals were simply asleep at the switch, compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom, New York State, Southern California, and New Zealand.  By May 10, 2017, 32 per cent of America’s 200 top rated high schools had banned the spinners from their premises. With the exception of a few Western Canadian school boards, provincial educational leaders seemed to be taken-in by the latest student pacifier and the pseudoscience offered in support of such panaceas. How and why did it get so advanced, and take so long, before a few courageous school principals saw fit to weigh in to put a stop to the classroom disruption?

Fidget spinners, since their invention in the 1990s, have been used with some success to assist in teaching students severely challenged with autism. “We call them fidget tools because they really are tools,” Edmonton autism specialist Terri Duncan told CBC News. “Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information. Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It’s a little bit different for every child.” They are one of a series of such tools, including fidget cubes, squishy balls, fuzzy rings, tangle puzzles, putty and even chews — colourful, tactile objects to meet the special needs of ASD children.  Fidget spinners, she adds, “can prevent kids from chewing on their fingers, from picking at their hands, picking at their clothes” and actually help them to concentrate more in class.

Serious problems arise when the fidget spinners are employed to simply relieve everyday stress and anxiety. One leading clinical psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Crosbie of Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, sees value in the gadgets for treating autistic children, but is not a fan of their widespread use in classrooms.  In her words, “it’s too distracting” and “draws attention” to the user, disrupting the class. She and many other clinicians now recommend that schools limit their use to special education classes or interventions.

School authorities in Maritime Canada appear to have initially accepted the claims of the marketers and been swayed by their special education program consultants.  Self-regulation, championed by Dr. Shanker, has made inroads in elementary schools, many of which embrace “mindfulness” and employ “stress-reduction” strategies.  In the region’s largest school district, Halifax Regional School Board, the policy decision was left up to individual schools and frustrated teachers took to social media to complain about the constant distraction and ordeal of confiscating spinners to restore order. New Brunswick’s Anglophone school districts seeking to accommodate learning challenged students in inclusive classrooms accepted spinners as just another pacifying tool to complement their wiggle stools. In rural school communities such as Nova Scotia’s Shelburne and Pictou counties and towns such as Summerside, PEI, the craze popped up in schools totally unprepared with policies to deal with students fixated with the gadgets.

Prominent education critics and teacher researchers are now having a field day exposing the pseudoscience supporting the introduction of fidget spinners into today’s regular classrooms.  A Winnipeg psychologist, Kristen Wirth, finds little evidence testifying to their positive results and claims that it is a “placebo effect” where “we feel something is helping, but it may or may not be helping.”  Canada’s leading teen mental health expert, Dr. Stan Kutcher, sees “no substantive evidence on spinners” and warns parents and teachers to be wary of the out-sized claims made by marketers of the toys.

British teacher Tom Bennett, founder of researchED, is more adamant about the “latest menace” to effective teaching and learning in our schools.  The latest fad – fidget spinners – he sees as symptomatic of “education’s crypto-pathologies.”  Teachers today have to contend with students purportedly exhibiting “every trouble and symptom” of anxiety and stress.  Misdiagnoses, he claims, can lead to children feeling they have some insurmountable difficulty in reading, when what it requires is tutorial help and ongoing support.

“Many children do suffer from very real and very grave difficulties,” Bennett points out, and they need intensive support. When it comes to “fidget spinners,” he adds, “we need to develop a finer, collective nose for the bullshit, for the deliberately mysterious, for the (purely invented) halitosis of the classroom.”  In spite of the inflated claims of the marketers, “magic bullets and magic beans” won’t provide the solutions.

Why are today’s schools so susceptible to the inflated claims of marketers promoting the latest educational gadget?  Do popular inventions like the fidget spinner answer some inner need in today’s fast-paced, high anxiety, unsettled popular culture?  To what extent have Dr. Stuart Shanker and his student behaviour theorists made us more receptive to tools which are said to relieve stress and promote “self-regulation” in children?  Why do so many education leaders and school principals go along with the latest trend without looking deeper at its research-basis and broader impact? 

 

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A model Grade 6 classroom in Sherwood Park, Alberta, now comes fully equipped with every imaginable solution to coping with fidgety kids, including spin bikes, exercise balls, rotating stools and stand-up desks. The latest classroom pacifiers, ‘Wiggle stools,’ are being hailed as a godsend by a harried Grade 2 classroom teacher in a Sackville, NB.

jumpyclassroomsherwoodparkSchools across Canada went to great lengths to re-engage fidgety students in what will likely always be known as the Year of Self-Regulation. Coping with today’s restless generation of kids now requires every conceivable pacifier, including spin bikes, exercise balls, wiggle stools and stand-up desks.

That is why in any Canadian survey of the top five K-12 education issues in 2016, coping with today’s antsy students would top the list.

Mindfulness and Self-Regulation

High anxiety educators have also embraced the latest panacea known as ‘mindfulness’ and are going whole hog into ‘self-regulation’ of their students.  It’s the brainchild of American advocate Jon Kabat-Zinn who transformed ‘Buddhist mindfulness’ into teaching practice and his Canadian apostle York University’s Stuart Shanker. That approach has emerged in 2016 as the latest wave in what has been characterized as a pseudoscience reform movement.

wobblechairsdallastx“It helps with their focus, helps with their creativity, helps promote problem-solving, gives them some way to self-regulate as they have a place to burn-off energy or to gain energy as they need it,” Alberta teacher Kurt Davison told Global TV News Edmonton. Eleven-year-old Connor Harrower heartily agreed: “In other classes, I’m sitting at desks and I’m bored.”

Teacher Misconduct and Discipline

A CBC-TV Marketplace investigation into ‘Teacher Discipline’ in Canada’s provincial school systems aired in April 2016 and immediately drew attention to glaring weaknesses in  professional evaluation, regulation, and discipline. It revealed that only two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, provide public access to teacher discipline records, and most of the others continue to conceal information from parents and the public, including cases of serious misconduct, incompetence and sexual abuse

Fewer than 400 teaching certificates were revoked in Canada (outside Quebec) over a ten year period from 2005 to 2015, which represented one in every 5,780 teacher certificates each year. In the U.S., the revocation rate was about 30 per cent higher. According to the most recent data from the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, the American figure in 2015 was one certificate out of every 4,360.

The Marketplace investigation raised a fundamental question: If your child’s teacher was punished for a serious offence such as sexual, physical or verbal misconduct, would you be able to find out about it? Depending on where you live, the answer was ‘probably not.’

Chronic Student Math Woes

Ontario students, like those in most Canadian provinces, continued to struggle mightily in mathematics. Grade 4 Ontario students lagged behind their counterparts in Kazakhstan, Lithuania and 25 other jurisdictions in mathematics, landing them in the middle of the pack in the 2015 TIMSS assessment, a U.S.-based global study of math and science.

Those startling TIMSS results came on the heels of a dismal showing from Grade 3 and 6 students on the latest provincial test by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), with scores dropping to the lowest levels in more than 15 years. Only 63 per cent of Grade 3s met the acceptable standard, dropping to half in Grade 6.

Math standards advocates such as Teresa Murray of @FixONTmath claimed that pumping $60-million more into a math strategy might not make much of a difference without a return to teaching the fundamentals in the early grades.

B.C. ‘Class Composition’ Court Ruling

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) won a critical Supreme Court of Canada decision in November 2016 that ended a union legal battle that began in 2002. That ruling immediately restored clauses removed from the B.C. teachers’ contract by the Gordon Campbell Liberal Government dealing with class size, the number of special needs students in a class, and the number of specialist teachers required in schools.

The BCTF court victory was forecasted to have far-reaching ramifications for contact negotiations across Canada. Teachers in Nova Scotia embroiled in a contract dispute of their own took heart from the decision prohibiting the ‘stripping’ of ‘working conditions’ and denying teachers the right to bargain on those issues.

PISA 2015 Test Results Fallout

Crowing about the showing of Canadian students in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report was widespread and the current Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC), P.E.I. Education Minister Doug Currie, was first-off-the mark on December 6, 2016 to hail the student results in the three subjects tested: science, reading and math.

The real devil was evident in the details and more clearly portrayed in the OECD’s own “Country Profile” for Canada. Yes, 15-year-olds in three Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec) achieved some excellent results, but overall Mathematics scores were down, especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and students in over half of our provinces trailed-off into mediocrity in terms of performance. Our real success was not in performance, but rather in reducing the achievement gap adversely affecting disadvantaged students.

Final Words of Wisdom

Looking ahead to 2017, we can find some solace in the April 2016 comments of Dr. Stan Kutcher, one of the world’s leading experts on teen mental health. “We are not facing a mental health crisis in schools,” he pointed out, but we do have to learn to distinguish between “the daily slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and those “more serious conditions requiring treatment.”

Why and how did Canadian elementary schools become so enthralled with “mindfulness” and “self-regulation”?  What critical education issues were either obscured or ignored in pursuit of pseudo-scientific cures for today’s classroom challenges? What will be the legacy of turning the younger grades into therapeutic classroom environments? What does all of this portend for Canadian K-12 education in 2017 and beyond? 

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