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Archive for the ‘Healthy Schools’ Category

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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Smoking in and around high schools has become ‘cool, once again. Over the past year, vaping has overtaken cigarette smoking as the surreptitious habit of choice among teens as well as undergraduate university students. While smoking e-cigarettes is officially outlawed on school property, that has not stopped a dramatic rise in the popularity of vaping among high schoolers. In the case of Ontario, a 2017 provincial survey revealed that more students in Grades 7 to 12 self-reported vaping (18 per cent) than smoking tobacco cigarettes (12 per cent).

The latest vape innovation, the Juul, now dominates the United States teen market and is beginning to spread into Canada. Inhaling multi-flavoured vapors with nicotine is now much harder for school administrators and teachers to detect. The small, sleek device, or juul, which can be easily mistaken for a portable USB drive has cornered the market for e-cigarettes and vaping products, particularly in affluent school districts where students can afford the latest gadgets and stimulants. Concealing bulging vaporizers was tough, but these low-profile, sleek designs allow students to easily conceal their habit and to escape detection not only in in the usual spots (bathrooms, back hallways, and under stairwells), but even in classrooms.

Like most teen crazes, vaping and ‘julling’ caught on far faster than school officials realized and became well established before authorities saw the scale of the problem. School principals are scrambling to contain the practice and trying to stamp it out.  “I think it’s everywhere, and my school is no different, ” Connecticut principal Francis Thompson recently told Education Week. Then he added, “I think it’s the next health epidemic..”

Vaping with the stealth devices, while less prevalent, is reportedly rising in and around Canadian high schools. “Everybody’s doing it, ” a Grade 9 student in Windsor-Essex County told Windsor CBC News in early April 2018.  Teens in Ottawa high schools featured in a May 2018 Canadian Press news story confirmed that it was now “cool” to smoke again, albeit with vaporizers and in well-known hiding spots. In Sydney, Cape Breton, students at Sydney Academy were well-aware of students vaping in class undetected, and fellow students suspended for smoking who were actually vaping on school grounds.

The new federal legislation, the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, passed in May 2015, may help to clarify the legal position of school principals trying to cope with the latest craze. Bill S-5 (2018) may improve the quality and regulation of  vaping products and it does restrict use to adults. Federal regulations, expected within six months, will reduce the number of flavours used in e-cigarettes, banning those designed to mimic ‘confectionary,’ cannabis, or energy drinks, and designed to hook young people on these devices.

Defenders of e-cigarettes continue to maintain that they are a safer alternative to tar-producing tobacco cigarettes. Tobacco experts at Public Health England tend to support such claims, as confirmed in a February 2018 UK government report. Whether vaping is effective in promoting smoking cessation is far from clear in studies to date.

School policies banning smoking have been updated to include vaping, but the new stealth devices are making it harder than ever to enforce, especially when the juul looks so much like a USB stick and can be easily concealed by student users. The latest fear expressed by school principals and teachers is the prospect of vaporizers being used to deliver cannabis, circumventing school detection and regulations. When cannabis is legalized across Canada, October 17, 2018, we shall see whether it further complicates the job of policing and eliminating vaping on school grounds.

Why is vaping replacing tobacco smoking as the nicotine product of choice in and around schools?  Will the American juul craze become more widely accepted and entrenched among teens here in Canada? Should we be focusing so much on stamping out vaping or on convincing students to stop smoking, whatever the substance? Will the legalization of marijuana only compound this problem for teachers and school administrators? 

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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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The public cries of “crisis” are in the air, especially when it comes to child/teen mental health in the schools. Britain’s government-appointed Mental Health Champion, Natasha Devon, rang the latest alarm bell in The Telegram (April 29, 2016) claiming that the “child mental health crisis is spinning out of control.” In issuing her “Mental Health Manifesto” for Britain’s schoolchildren, Devon frequently cites a scary figure to buttress her public claims — the statistic that “rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.”

TeenDepressionUKNot everyone accepts her public pronouncements at face value — and a few are looking more deeply into the nature, definition, and prevalence of the so-called “child public health crisis.” Devon’s further claim that it constitutes an “epidemic” has sparked even more skepticism. Is this the proverbial twenty-first century equivalent of “crying wolf” or just a manifestation of our contemporary tendency to ‘pathologize’ social-psychological trends?

One of Canada’s leading teen mental health experts, Dr. Stan Kutcher, devotes his life to educating teachers, students and families about mental health disorders, but he is very skeptical about overblown claims. When asked about the purported “crisis” at St. Francis Xavier University a few weeks ago, he startled a local newspaper reporter with this statement: “there is no mental health crisis for crying out loud.”

Dr. Kutcher was not minimizing  the severity of the problem, but rather questioning the veracity of some of the recent public claims. “We have the same proportion of mental illness in our society now that we had 40, 50, 60 years ago,” he explained. “There is no epidemic of illness, there is better recognition of illness, which is good but what we’re seeing now is an epidemic of ‘I think I have a mental disorder when I’m just really feeling unhappy,’ and that is a direct reflection of poor mental health literacy.”

Like many health professionals, Dr. Kutcher sees the popular media as contributing to the public misunderstanding about the nature and prevalence of mental disorders. He’s critical of those who exaggerate the “crisis” and equally concerned about others too quick to dismiss
it as a ‘teenage fad.’“Now the depression happens in adolescents and depression is a serious disease and if you have depression you need the proper treatment for depression, but feeling unhappy, that’s not depression,” he said.“So I think a lot of people have become confused with all the talk about mental health and mental illness without the literacy to understand what they’re talking about.”

TeenMentalHealthDrStanStress and distress is not all bad, according to Kutcher. “People do have daily distress, that is normal, ubiquitous, necessary and good for you,” he said.“And all of us are going to have a mental health problem like the loss of a loved one, moving to a new city, losing your job – those are substantive challenges in our lives and we need extra help for that. But those two things aren’t mental illnesses and they don’t need to be medicalized, they don’t need medications, they don’t need specialized psychotherapy, they don’t need access to the mental health care system.They can be dealt with, the first one, mental distress, by yourself with your friends. The second one with special support, sometimes counselors, sometimes your clergy, whoever.”

As the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health at Dalhousie University Medical School, Kutcher’s assessment carries considerable weight and he makes the critical distinctions that the popular media tend to completely miss: “Mental illnesses are different; they need specialized treatment like a treatment for any illness. But one of the challenges we have is that socially we’re tending to confuse mental distress and mental health problems with mental illness. So, because I feel unhappy today I feel like I should have therapy, because I take umbrage at what you said to me I have an anxiety disorder, that’s not true at all.”

Dr. Kutcher seems to dispute the whole approach taken by Britain’s Mental Health czarina and ‘body health’ counsellor, Natasha Devon. While Devon and her Self-Esteem Team (SET) target standardized tests and exams as “stress-inducers,” Kutcher and other specialists, including Dr. Michael Ungar, see value in competitive activities in developing “resilience” in teens.  Dr. Kutcher puts it this way: “We have to be very careful to differentiate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in real life which we have to learn to deal with and overcome, and for which we don’t need treatment, and those things which actually require treatment.”

Mental health disorders are serious and providing more accessible, effective and sustainable services should be a top public policy priority, inside and outside of schools. “Teenage angst,” as Ella Whelan recently pointed out, “is not a serious mental health issue.” It is important to carefully consider all public claims for their veracity and to be skeptical of mental health charities seeking to “normalize mental illness.” We must also recognize that “not all of the kids are all right.” Nor are mental health services accessible or available when and where they are needed in and around the schools. Therein lies the real problem.

What ‘s driving the public call to address the “child mental health crisis” in schools? Are school authorities and educators equipped to make the critical distinction between normal ‘mental health stresses’ and serious disorders requiring treatment?  Is there a danger that those ringing the alarm bells are ‘pathologizing’ teenage anxieties and stress?  Is it possible to identify and support those in serious personal crisis while recognizing that competition and stress develops ‘resilience’ and is part of healthy preparation for life? 

 

 

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“Tear yourself away from the Saturday cartoons, boys, it’s time to go outside and play.” That oft-repeated mother’s admonition still rings in my ears. Today, sixty years later, with millions of children seemingly hypnotized by computer and video games, that parental lesson has now been appropriated by the big brands and is being repeated with much greater urgency.

MinecraftFatherSonA ‘Brand War’ is now underway for the minds of children.  Global technology colossus Microsoft essentially conquered home play rooms and has just launched Minecraft Education for schools.  A “Dirt is Good” Movement, funded by Unilever’s laundry products division, Persil, has even enlisted TED Talk superstar Sir Ken Robinson in its latest campaign to win parents and kids back from the virtual world with an appeal for the forgotten pleasures of outdoor play.

One of Britain’s most astute education observers, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c (2013), was among the first to spot the emerging societal trend. In his recent online commentary, “Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt” ( April 4, 2016), he identified the fault lives in the contemporary war for the hearts and minds of children.

“The story starting to unfold,” Robinson pointed out, was one of “global brands tapping into progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell a product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning.” The ultimate objective, he added, was to woo us into “letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with (Lego) bricks…”

After reviewing the “Dirt is Good” media campaign and the recent Microsoft Minecraft Education launch promotion, Robinson’s critique appears to be deadly accurate. A report, Play in Balance, commissioned by Unilever’s Persil division, polled 12,000 parents of 5-12 year olds worldwide and provides the fodder for the “Dirt is Good” campaign.

ChildUtopiaThe Persil-funded survey (February and March 2016) results were startling: In the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of parents reported that their children preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside. Almost one-third of children in the UK play outside for 30 minutes or less a day and one in five do not play outside at all on an average day. Children spend twice as much time on screens as they do playing outside.

Sir Ken Robinson’s interpretation of the survey’s lessons is far more problematic. “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning — there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”

That sounds a lot like the competing narrative advanced by global technology advocates like Sky Academy, the British high-tech learning firm espousing ‘human potential’ and ” the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock the potential in young people.” In announcing the impending launch of the Minecraft Education edition, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft VP of Worldwide Education, championed it as the next stage in the “immersive learning experience” which would “open the door to a classroom and a world of possibilities and learning infused with curiosity.”

MinecraftJuneauClassMicrosoft Education does not seem to be deterred in the least by Sir Ken Robinson and the “Dirt is Good” defenders of outdoor play. After spreading to millions of homes worldwide and 7,000 schools in 40 different countries, Minecraft Education edition will be rolled out in June 2016 in 11 languages and 41 different countries, and will allow teachers to download the program for free, in exchange for product marketing feedback. Corporate promotion touts the product as one that will “help to educate children on social skills, problem-solving skills, empathy and even help to improve literacy.”

The latest phase in what is generally termed “21st Century Learning” is starting to look a lot like an attempt to revive the now faded ‘romance’ of educational progressivism. Instead of learning from the past and its lessons, the ‘Brand War’ for children’s minds seems to be devolving into a tug of war between contending versions of play-based theory.  In pursuit of play learning, it amounts to a familiar contest between those who want our kids to play inside and those who want them to play outside. Whether it’s outside or inside, one can only hope that they will be learning something of enduring value, deeper meaning, and measurable substance. 

Who –and what — is winning the ongoing war for children’s minds?  Is “play theory” making a comeback in today’s “Brand Wars” being waged in and around children and schools?  What are the risks inherent in turning children’s education over to the big brands? How can the concept of “wholesome outdoor play” compete with “digital Lego” and virtual sports?  Most importantly, what — if anything– have we learned from our educational past? 

 

 

 

 

 

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Every weekday morning, students across the nation arrive at school and file into their classrooms. Most students are ready and prepared to learn, but increasing numbers are reportedly anxious, “stressed-out” and hyperkinetic. Teachers everywhere find today’s students distracted by mobile devices and texting, wrestling with family issues, bothered by bullying, easily excitable, or simply anxious about academic expectations.  Child psychologists and parenting experts provide plenty of advice on how to help “stressed-out” kids cope in our schools and homes.

YogainClassBCMore children and teens claim to be “stressed” than ever before, but — strangely enough– the research evidence to support such assumptions is spotty at best. One of Canada’s leading authorities on teen mental health, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, observes that they are under “different kinds of stress” and perhaps less resilient than in the past. Why some kids can “handle the pressure” of competition while others “fall apart” is now attracting more serious study. Close observers of classroom culture are also noting the recent trend toward promoting the philosophy of “mindfulness,” including “Breathe In, Breathe Out” daily yoga exercises.

Stress is a normal part of everyday life and resilience is what allows students to not only survive, but to thrive.  The idea that “all stress is bad,” Dr. Kutcher insists, is a popular myth and “completely untrue.” In a March 2011 interview with CBC-TV health reporter Kelly Crowe, he clearly explained why without resorting to inaccessible medical terminology:

“Stress is useful for us, it helps the body tune itself, it is a method by which we learn how to adapt to our environment either by changing ourselves or by changing our environment.  There is good stress, which is positive, it helps kids learn how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, and start all over again. That’s part of resilience.  That’s part of learning how to deal with life, but sometimes there’s also stress that is bad for you and part of the deal is understanding which is which.”

When does stress become harmful to children and youth? Here’s Dr. Kutcher’s answer, based upon the best research:

“Stress which is very prolonged or very intense can be harmful to people and the times in life when that stress comes on can also be more harmful than other times.  For example early in life; severe and prolonged stress early in life such as maltreatment or abuse can have impact not only at that point in life but also well into adulthood because of its impact on brain development. Severe and prolonged stress is not good for you.”

Reading recent news articles endorsing “Mindfulness in Class” and “Self-Regulation” made me wonder if advocates of such approaches made any distinction between types of stress, and whether “competition” was, once again, a bad word in elementary classrooms.  One Grade 5 class in Abbotsford, BC, taught by Julie Loland, addressed the problem with a “Mindfulness” initiative. In her “high needs” school, Ms. Loland utilized Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Buddhism-inspired strategies to calm the children down and get them to focus on learning. “I felt kids came to school and were not ready to learn; they were battling stressful life situations,” she said. “Many students didn’t care about learning” and simply came to school to escape “their poverty.”  Regular yoga exercises were introduced to ensure “kids were open to the learning of the day.”

A Toronto region school, Massey Street Public School in Brampton, is implementing Dr. Stuart Shanker’s prescription from Calm, Alert, and Learning, a variation of “Mindfulness” known as “self-regulation.” In teacher Shivonne Lewis-Young’s Grade 3 and 4 classes, children sit on a blue carpet and padded balls rather than at desks and the day begins with passing a “talking stick” and asking each child “how do you feel today?”  Calming the kids down and teaching them how to control their behaviour with “self-regulation zones” is seen as the panacea. “It appears to be working” anecdotally, according to The Globe and Mail’s Education reporter, Caroline Alphonso.  It definitely makes the kids feel better, but where’s the evidence that it’s building confidence, strengthening resilience, or improving their grades?

More discerning education analysts and researchers, particularly in Britain, consider such “feel-good” strategies as mostly  harmless as school-based elementary-level experiments but possibly detrimental if scaled-up to a system-wide initiative.  Utilizing them in socially-disadvantaged schools might be doing more harm than good by further “degrading” the curriculum and lowering student performance expectations.  On this score, Dr. Kutcher has some further advice:  “We’re not here as a species and still surviving those millennia because we couldn’t adapt to stress. On the contrary, our brains are wired to adapt.  I don’t think we actually do anybody a service and we may actually do young people a disservice by trying to protect them from stress and trying to make everything nice and everything rosy and having a Pollyannish approach to life.  I don’ t think that does anyone any good.”

Respecting the pupil and challenging them to do their best remains the soundest, proven, and research-based approach, especially for kids who come to school with few social advantages.  School classrooms are populated by “Warriors” and “Worriers” and some of that outlook and attitude, whether high motivation or paralytic anxiety, is definitely parent-driven. American psychiatrist Douglas C. Johnson of UCLA, San Diego, a leader in the OptiBrain Center Consortium, specializes in training pilots and favours “stress inoculation” as a strategy: “You tax them without overwhelming them. And then you allow for sufficient recovery.”  That, Johnson claims, ‘helps diffuse the Worrier’s curse.’

If that sounds a little harsh and perhaps overly competitive, then Dr. Kutcher’s approach might be more palatable. “We have to learn how to deal with stress,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that giving kids techniques… or showing them how to deal with it is a bad thing. I think it’s probably a good thing but doing it over and over again and providing cocoons for kids I don’t think works.”

Are kids more stressed today or are we just more sensitive to it in our schools and homes? Do educational prescriptions such as “Mindfulness” and “Self-Regulation” help or hurt today’s students? Where’s the evidence that calming them down sharpens their intellect and produces improved performance? Is there any danger that mainstream elementary classrooms are becoming “therapeutic” rather than educative in their focus? 

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Luke MacDonald, the leading champion of Sparks Fly,  is in the business of helping people to get active and healthy.  Since 1996, he’s been promoting a series of Youth Run projects and volunteering with Phoenix House as a community outreach dimension of of his own Halifax sports equipment shop, Aerobics First.  After 34 years in business, he’s now turned to promoting  stationary “spin bikes” and “self-regulation” as the way of reaching and re-engaging today’s ‘stressed-out,’ distracted school children.

LukeMacDonaldSparksFlyLuke is in the vanguard of the Canadian ‘self-regulation’ movement. Building on the research connecting improved mental concentration with physical exercise, the Run for Life Foundation (www.runforlife.ca) has developed the Sparks Fly program. With the support of private donors, Sparks Fly has placed child-sized spin bicycles into classrooms across Canada, including more than a dozen within the Halifax Regional School Board.

Here’s how it works: Students are encouraged to hop on the bike if they are having difficulty focusing on their lessons. The idea is that children learn to identify when they are having difficulties with attention, and then use physical activity as a stimulant to engage the parts of the brain that help with this cognitive skill. At Dalhousie University, a research team is also conducting a study to determine the optimal dose of exercise to promote improved cognitive functioning, focusing on university-age students.

The Sparks Fly spin bike project  has a practical, utilitarian objective — to help “stressed-out.’ distracted children focus and perform better in school.  “The ideal situation is that the bikes remain in the classroom,” Luke told The Chronicle Herald  during last year’s Fitness Week. “So when a student is feeling anxious, they just have to get on the bike. A little bit of movement can calm them, and they learn that.”

Halifax healthy living activist MacDonald experienced an epiphany, of sports, when he was awakened to its intellectual origins in the ‘self-regulation’ movement. Inspired by a powerful address by York University’s Dr. Stuart Shanker at “The Collision” conference in Waterloo and Dr. John Ratey’s book, The Spark, he was completely hooked on the initiative that attempted to marry physical activity with ‘self-regulation’ principles in elementary schools.

Self-regulation is the latest manifestation of neuroscience and it’s catching on as the latest panacea to grab the attention of today’s stressed children and high speed screenagers.  In an August 2014 Toronto Globe and Mail feature, social trends reporter Erin Anderssen was drawn to neuroscience as “a subversive solution.” “Cut math class,” she wrote, ” to dance–or walk, skip, play catch — the theory being that whatever gets the heart pumping will get the brain humming as well.”

Aerobic fitness is now touted by RunForLife.ca as one of the best ways to develop a child’s ability to self-regulate.  In simplest terms, self-regulation is the ability to stay calmly focused and alert.  Its research-based origins can be traced back to the famous 1989 “Marshmallow Test”  where only 30 per cent of four-year-olds left alone in a room for a few minutes could resist eating the tasty treat.

EurekaMindfulnessSelf-regulation is now being promoted as an educational alternative to “behaviour management” and is increasingly favoured by so-called progressive, child-centred elementary school educators. “Self-regulation,” in Shanker’s words, “does not involve making an effort to inhibit impulses” but rather “to reduce the stressors affecting the nervous system.”  It’s so widely accepted by Ontario child psychologists that it’s actually enshrined as “a measurement outcome” on the latest provincial school report cards.

Student learning initiatives based upon neuroscience now enjoy a patina of  scientific research respectability. Growing numbers of education observers are beginning to question the legitimacy of “self-regulation” in the context of its actual brain research origins.  A January 2014 Time Magazine feature, written by Kate Pickert, identified the movement as an outgrowth of what is termed “The Mindful Revolution,” the popular science of “finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.’  She and a number of North American scholars see self-regulation as a recent mutation of “Mindfulness,” a Stress Reduction curriculum (MBSR) developed in 1979by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Much of the rationale for ‘self-regulation’ echoes Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR neuroscience theories and some of its proponents make it sound like a “New Age retread” of previous prescriptions for stress.  Mindfulness is definitely rooted in Eastern philosophy, while it is being presented as “secular” in our schools.  Dr. Catherine Gidney at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University is currently exploring the historical context surrounding the implementation of mindfulness in Canadian classrooms. In doing so she documents some of pedagogical and spiritual concerns and objections that have been raised about this phenomenon.  A few other education scholars have also pointed out the laser-like focus of mindfulness on “the here and now” and its implicit lack of respect for wisdom and learned experience.

American writer and skeptic Dan Hurley, writing in New York Times Magazine (January 14, 2014), has also pointed out a few of its “unwanted side-effects.”  While presented as a virtual cure-all for “split focus’ distractibility, more recent research demonstrates that it sharpens focus , but actually impairs “implict learning,”  making it more difficult to ride a bicycle, speak grammatically, or read people’s facial expressions.  More concerning, it is being shown to inhibit “mind wandering” and the sort of “mind vacations” that often lead to epiphanies and Big Ideas.

Educators are always looking to improve upon current student behaviour management strategies. If Self-Regulation becomes dominant practice,  we may succeed in incorporating more physical activity and securing more attentiveness.  It’s fair to ask whether we will also be producing more placid kids — sacrificing intellectual risk taking, academic learning time, and perhaps a little creativity in our classrooms.

What explains the rise and spread of Self-Regulation as the latest educational panacea for modifying children’s behaviour in the schools?  How is the self-regulation movement connected to Eastern philosophy and should that be a matter of concern in essentially sectarian state schools?  What impact are Sparks Fly and comparable programs having on teaching and learning in elementary schools?  Is there any danger that Self-Regulation may actually curb creativity and historical-mindedness by inculcating “willpower” and stamping out “mind wandering” ?

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