Archive for the ‘Psychology of Pandemics’ Category

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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Any hope for a definite end to the protracted COVID-19 Pandemic is gradually disappearing. The latest Omicron surge looks unstoppable in Canada and, in province-after-province, rates of infection and transmission are setting new records. Some solace is provided when we seize upon signs of fewer serious cases requiring lengthy hospitalization and leading to death.

A fundamental psychological shift is underway with profound implications for children, families and schools. “When will the Pandemic end?” is giving way to “How can we learn to live with COVID?” Confronting a rampant Omicron spread, necessity is giving birth to a new line of thinking. Leading global thinktanks were the first to confront “the new normal” and it’s now being embraced by those once thought least likely to change their scripts, Canada’s provincial public health officers.

The shift from big- P “Pandemic” to little-e “endemic” was forecast by health science experts specializing in epidemic diseases and policy wizards commissioned to forecast social trends. A decade ago, medical researcher Sander L Gillman, produced a rather obscure book, Diseases and Diagnoses: the Second Age of Biology (2010), connecting the dots between “Moral Panics and pandemics” and forecasting a global “pandemic killer” potentially worse than the 2009 H1N1 influenza. Four months ago, the American public policy thinktank McKinsey & Company got out front of us by daring to produce a policy research paper with the rather audacious title “How the world can learn to live with COVID-19.”

The Big Shift on COVID-19 has now arrived and is seeping into public discourse. The latest episode of CBC-Radio’s The House (January 8, 2022), hosted by Chris Hall, provided a virtual clinic on the profound re-orientation now underway. The dramatic and uncontainable spread of Omicron in January of 2022 has prompted Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang and a growing group of health experts to change tbeir approach to COVID-19 – and to publicly acknowledge that the populace is going to have to get used to living with the virus. Nowhere is that shift more profound than in our strategy of protecting children and teens in and around K-12 schools.

Nova Scotia’s public health chief, nationally recognized for his ‘tough’ COVID-19 regulations from March 2020 to December 2021, has changed his tune. “We are going to have to…move away [from  eradication], and accept that the virus that causes COVID is going to be around with us,” Dr Strang stated on air. Our new goal, he claimed, should be to “manage” COVID-19 based upon “having good levels immunity from both vaccination and infection…[so] that we no longer have to have these wide restrictive measures and…this huge focus on trying to identify as many cases as possible.”

That’s a seismic shift and Dr. Strang is not alone in changing their whole approach. Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that the goal now is to “slow the spread because it cannot be stopped.”  Dr. Strang’s opposite number in Newfoundland and Labrador Dr Janice Fitzgerald has also come to that conclusion. Health care policy expert Katherine Fierlbeck of Dalhousie University offered a succinct explanation for the change. People eventually “get tired of top-down governance,” she said on CBC’s The House, and to retain public trust requires more transparency, including fuller disclosure of the evidence used in making decisions, its limitations, and the tradeoffs between potential benefits and harms.

Convincing school-age parents and educators in our K-12 schools is proving to be a formidable late-pandemic challenge. Pandemics like COVID-19 tend to evoke and provoke extremes in people, clearly revealed in UBC psychologist Steven Taylor’s October 2019 book, The Psychology of Pandemics. While some people in the broader education community are resilient and cope fairly well with the uncertainties, a significant proportion of others, especially parents of younger school-age children and educators, reflect what Taylor terms the “cave syndrome.” Fearful of COVID-19 spread, they become “excessively anxious” spinning a protective web at home and resistant to sending their kids back to school until absolutely every potential hazard and germ has been removed from that environment.


Much of that hyper-vigilance is reflected in a new wave of child-protection parent advocacy. Examining the social media traffic produced by one such parent Facebook group, Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, an online community of 22,700 parents and friendly educators, provides plenty of evidence of the mass psychology. That group, coordinated by Stacey Rudderham, and a small group of engaged parents, has led the charge in alerting parents to every potential “exposure site,” identifying all manner of lapses in school-level public health precautions, and signs of potential mass outbreaks.  Public spokespersons for the group  have even challenged the credibility of Dr. Andrew Lynk and his IWK Children’s Hospital team.

The N.S. Facebook group built its membership by creating an early warning system for school-level exposures and attracting hundreds of concerned parents. Over the past 22-months, Rudderham’s group has also supported the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, several times, in pushing for school closures as “circuit breakers.”  Organized pressure group activity, going back to March 2020, helps to explain why Nova Scotia, with comparatively low case counts until recently, has closed schools for a total of 21 weeks, second only to Ontario in North America.

Echoing NSTU president Paul Wozney in early January 2022, the Facebook group “deplored” plans to return to in-person schooling, calling into question the repeated assurances of Dr. Strang and public health officials. That strategy worked, because recently-elected N.S. Premier Tim Houston relented to the public pressure, extending the holiday break, for the second time, and into a third week.  In short, Dr. Strang’s CBC Radio The House comments was actually aimed at changing the channel in his home province.


Watch for the Big Shift underway in public health policy. When it arrives in your province, you can expect it to mimic the public policy “management” strategy mapped out by global think tanks. You can expect provincial leaders and public health officers to (1) define the new normal; (2) monitor progress through “disease surveillance”; (3) limit illness and death; and (4) slow transmission, responding to identified “hot spots.” 

It will not be easy to convince stressed out parents suffering advanced “COVID-fatigue” that the dreaded COVID is here to stay and we have to learn, somehow, how to cope with the changed landscape, both inside and outside of schools.  It will also take far more than a few media briefings and targeted comments drawing upon the McKinsey & Company playbook on how to “manage” our way from Pandemic to endemic.

*An earlier version appeared in The Hub.com

What are the profound psychological effects of the Pandemic – and does it qualify as a Moral Panic? If the Omicron surge is unstoppable and the virus is present everywhere, are schools (with proper supervision and layers of protection) the safest places for children and teens? Is it a matter of necessity being the source of invention?  Will provincial public health authorities succeed in calming heightened public fears and helping us to adjust to the changed epidemiological conditions?

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