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Archive for the ‘Student Behaviour Management’ Category

The prevalence and use of electronic cigarettes has increased rapidly over the past decade, particularly among youth.  The extraordinary growth of e-cigarettes has also raised significant public health concerns about the emergence of a new generation of teens with nicotine dependency.  Changes in the design and marketing of vaporizers with the introduction in 2015 of more stylish, sleekly-designed, discreet high-tech devices, known as JUUL, have proven irresistible to teens and become the latest ‘nightmare’ for today’s high school principals and teachers.

School authorities in Canada as well as the United States are coming rather late to the challenge of combating vaping and its associated health risks.  Advance promotion of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation device may have contributed to the initial ambivalent, almost helter-skelter, response.  A May 2019 Ontario Tobacco Research Unit report confirms that schools were caught off-guard by the surge of vaping among never-smokers and responded with interventions once used to combat smoking or imported from the United States, where the craze is far more advanced among youth.

Five years after the arrival of JUUL, public concern has reached a panic stage with the spread of fear over a recent spate of lung-disease cases involving teen users of e-cigarettes. Breathing in flavoured aerosol that contains nicotine was already a worry of doctors, parents and schools.  Over the past few months, some 380 people in 36 different American states have been struck by a mysterious lung infection linked to chemicals inhaled through e-cigarettes, and seven of those affected died.  Shortly after Health Canada issued a September 6, 2019 advisory, a London, Ontario, hospital disclosed that a local high school student suffering from vaping-related illness had been placed on life support before recovering and being sent home. It could become worse in mid-December 2019 when the sale of vaping liquids containing cannabis compounds becomes legal in Canada.

Schools are on the front lines of the current teen health scare. Since entering the Canadian retail market in 2009, e-cigarettes have morphed from a smoking-cessation aid to a full-blown health concern among today’s youth. Ten years ago, Health Canada greeted e-cigarettes with an advisory warning of the dangers of the new nicotine delivery devices, expressing concern over the lack of scientific research to support claims that they were safe for adults and teens. More recently, Canadian health authorities monitoring the spread of e-cigarette use have been echoing the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine research finding that ” e-cigarettes are not without biological effects on humans” and, rather than aiding in cessation, can lead to further dependency.

Vaping devices and products containing nicotine are now flooding the Canadian market and readily available in local convenience stores and gas stations. Since September 1918, JUUL, the San Francisco-based company that controls over 50 per cent of the market, has been selling its sleek devices that look like a computer flash drive and are re-chargable at a USB port. They have proven more popular that the Imperial Tobacco brand Vype, released Canada in the Spring of 2018, and Japan Tobacco‘s Logic brand released in early 2019.

First introduced by Juul Labs in mid-2015 as a smoking-cessation device, JUUL became the so-called “iPhone of e-cigarettes.” The extraordinary sales growth of the product was driven by a variety of effective, wide-ranging and engaging campaigns reaching youth through social media, particularly on You Tube, Twitter, and Instagram. Five million Canadians, mostly aged 15 to 34, had tried e-cigarettes by 2017 and 300,000 reported using it every day. One more recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, reported that the proportion of Canadian teens (aged 16 to 19) vaping rose from 8.4 per cent in 2017 to 14.8 per cent in 2018, a 74 per cent increase. 

The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit conducted an environmental scan of current harm reduction programs and quickly recognized that there were, as of the Spring of 2019, no studies of the effectiveness of such interventions. Most intervention programs were public education and school-based efforts, typically aimed at teaching children and youth about the dangers of vaping in the hope of reducing or eliminating the practice. Three of the programs reviewed were E-Cigarettes: What You Need to Know (Grades 6 -12, Scholastic), CATCH My Breath (Ages 11-18, CATCH), and School E-Cigarette Toolkit (Grades 6-12, Minnesota Department of Health).  The report also examined interventions outside of schools, including community-based initiatives, public health efforts, health-care programs, and public policy strategies such as advertising and promotion restrictions, age restrictions, labelling and health warnings, flavouring restrictions, and safety requirements.

Most of the actual school-based interventions were embedded in existing tobacco control programs and sought to counter the marketing messages of companies claiming it is a safe, smoking cessation activity. The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit recognized the scattered approach being taken and recommended considering interventions that proved successful at reducing rates of regular cigarette smoking among youth. They also identified the need for a more coordinated and planned anti-vaping strategy.

Vaping has overtaken smoking as the favoured health-risk behaviour of high school students.  Some 15.8 per cent of Ontario Grade 9 students vaped in 2017, and only 6.2 per cent smoked cigarettes. As many as one out of every three high schoolers may now be regular users of vaporizers with nicotine-laced fluids. The recent health scares may have jolted users and curbed the growth in usage, but it remains the biggest, mostly unaddressed health issue in our high schools.

Why have health agencies and school authorities been so slow off-the-mark in combating the spread of vaping among adolescents? What more can be done to regulate and curtail the marketing of e-cigarettes among the youth market segment?  Where are the research initiatives aimed at identifying the real health risks for teens of vaping nicotine and cannabis products?  Should vaping cessation programs simply mimic smoking control strategies and programs?  What can be done to develop more effective student-centered vaping cessation programs? 

 

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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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A feature story in the Weekend Globe and Mail on January 6, 2019 has successfully opened the door to far more meaningful public discussion of inclusive education, from province to province, right across Canada. National Education reporter Caroline Alphonso did so by posing the right question and re-framing the whole conversation. “Are inclusive classrooms failing students?” is just the kind of question that breaks new ground by inviting responses from a much wider range of perspectives.

The initial story focused on Grayson Kahn, a 7-year-old- boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the incredible struggles of his mother Lisa Kahn and father Dave to get their son’s needs addressed at John McCrae P.S. in Guelph, Ontario. Diagnosed with ASD in the summer of 2017, Grayson was “excluded” from attending school because of that school’s inability to meet his complex needs.  The story hit a nerve because it highlighted the plight of hundreds children like Grayson either on reduced timetables or excluded in schools across the country.

Most readers were shocked to learn that in the Ontario school system, among the most inclusive and resource-rich anywhere, children like Grayson were being marginalized and poorly served in their public schools. Upon closer scrutiny, they learned that the system-wide philosophy, for decades, has been one that welcomed students with special needs into the regular classroom. It came as news to many that, faced with behavioural problems and regularly disrupted classrooms, principals had resorted to sending children home for part of the week or months on end.

Schools across Canada, since the 1990s, have fully embraced an enlightened model of inclusive education and attempted to implement it right across the board. One of Canada’s province’s, New Brunswick, has gone so far as to adopt the “Zero Project” philosophy in an attempt to integrate every student, irrespective of the severity of their disabilities, into regular classrooms. Leading education provinces, such as Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta, support inclusive education, but recognize the need for a variety of additional support programs and services.

The Globe and Mail feature reopened the fierce debate among competing factions, all of whom are committed to improving inclusive education. Many are asking whether we now have a system of inclusive education in theory but not necessarily in practice. It is becoming more widely recognized that the current model was never designed to accommodate and serve the incredible range of student needs present in today’s classrooms. The rise in the prevalence of children diagnosed with ASD alone is enough to overwhelm teachers attempting to manage their classes, with or without Education Assistants. Many Special Education experts now acknowledge that inclusion is not working and it’s not just a matter of the shortage of EAs or the lack of resources.

The Inclusive Education Debate tends to be polarized around three distinct policy positions, each exemplified in opinion pieces generated in response to the initial Globe and Mail story:

1) Students with Severe Learning Challenges and Complex Needs should not be excluded from regular public schools, especially for prolonged periods, and its a school district’s responsibility to either accommodate those children in regular classes or find viable options (Laura Kirby-McIntosh and Ontario Autism Coalition)

2) Inclusive Education is not working because of inconsistencies in implementation and the rationing of resources in the form of resource supports such as psychological services, para-professionals, and/or education assistants. Hiring more support personnel is the answer to realizing the potential of inclusion ( Gordon Porter and Inclusive Education Canada)

3) Inclusive Classrooms are highly desirable, but can never accommodate the range of needs, especially those with severe learning disabilities and complex needs. For a small proportion of children with complex needs (3 to 5 per cent) school districts need to support or provide the option of  alternative school programs and/or “congregated schools.” (Phil Richmond, Hayley Avruskin and the Congregated School Parent Network)

A growing consensus is forming that the conventional inclusion model, exemplified by the ‘one-size-fits-all’ classroom, has passed the breaking point. In the case of Grayson Kahn and hundreds of children like him, it’s not working now and it’s highly unlikely that simply pouring more resources into that classroom will resolve the problem. What’s surprising, however, is the reluctance of the competing factions to look at more flexible alternative delivery models.

No one, so far, has really gone beyond restating their positions and few, if any, have referenced the findings and recommendations of the Nova Scotia Inclusive Education Commission, published in the March 2018 report, Students First. Produced by Dr, Sarah Shea, Adela Njie, and Monica Williams, it represents a concrete attempt to break the policy gridlock. It differs from most policy initiatives, particularly those promoted by Inclusive Education Canada, in laying the groundwork for a re-invented model which is far more flexible and built around a “multi-tiered continuum of programs, services and settings.” 

Six months ago, Nova Scotia adopted this new Inclusive Education model that embraced inclusive education as a core philosophy, while implementing a re-engineered model based upon a “multi-tiered system of supports.”  All Nova Scotia students would be welcomed in a Tier 1 inclusive classroom and school environment, but students identified with severe learning challenges or complex needs would be provided with greatly enhanced supports through Tier 2 (Small Group), and then Tier 3 (Intensive – Individual or Alternative Program) options.

Educating the Grayson’s in today’s classrooms will require a more realistic, evidence-based, and effective approach to implementing inclusive education. It is time we confronted and tackled the “elephant in the inclusive classroom” and considered a more flexible and responsive way forward.

Why are inclusive classrooms failing so may children?  If our public school classrooms cannot accommodate all children, don’t school authorities have a responsibility to develop alternative support programs and services?  Should school districts be sending challenging students home and leaving families to fend for themselves? Why has the new Nova Scotia model attracted so little attention outside that province? 

 

 

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One of the Doug Ford Ontario education reform proposals that’s attracted relatively little attention is the June 2018 election pledge to ban cellphones in class. In the immediate aftermath of Ford’s election, education observers would be wise to take a serious look at the sweeping promise to “ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.” While it is tempting to dismiss it as just another example of “back-to-basics” thinking, that would be most unwise. That is because it is inspired by openly expressed teacher concerns and policies now being implemented and debated in France, the United Kingdom, and a number of North American school districts.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer is the latest to take action in the form of a National Assembly bill to ban cellphones at school before school resumes in September 2018. Deeply concerned about the phenomenon of “phone-addicted children,” he claims that the bill is a “detox measure” to combat classroom distractions and cyberbullying. More than 90 per cent of French children aged 12 years or older posess a mobile phone and teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to capture and hold the attention of their students.

“Mobile phones are a technological advance but they cannot monopolize our lives, ” Blanquer told LCI TV News. “You can’t find your way in a world of technology if you can’t read, write, count, respect others and work in a team.” Supporters of the French legislation say smartphone usage among children of junior and middle-school age has also aggravated cyberbullying, made it easier to access pornography, and interfered with social interactions in schools. Teachers, caught up in the proposed blanket ban, succeeded in being exempted from the cellphone prohibition.

Since the French cellphone ban was first proposed in December of 2017, school authorities in Britain and Ireland have been debating taking similar measures. The founder of London-based researchED, Tom Bennett, claimed, back in September 2015, that children should not be allowed smartphones until they were 16-years-of-age.  Teachers, he advised, should not allow them unless absolutely necessary, given the many challenges of managing modern classrooms.

The new Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, reports that “pupil behaviour” is “the number one concern of parents” and that steps must be taken to reduce the “low-level disruption,” including the inappropriate use of mobile devices in class. ” I am yet to be convinced of the educational benefits of all day access to ‘Snapchat” and the like, and the place of mobile phones in the classroom seems to me dubious at best.”

One of the most influential studies, “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance, produced in May 2015 by London School of Economics researchers Louis-Phillipe Beland and Richard Murphy, is usually cited by those favouring restrictions or bans on classroom cellphone use. Based upon a study of moblile phone use in high schools in four English cities (Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester) in the Spring of 2013, the researchers found that banning mobile phones produced an improvement in student performance of 6.41% of a standard deviation, and rising to 14.23% among low-achieving students. The net effect of banning mobile phones, according to the researchers, added up to the equivalent of an extra week of school each academic year.

The critical question of whether mobile phones are a necessity or a distraction had resurfaced here in Canada long before an outright ban ended up as a key plank in the Ford Nation education agenda. One very active and informed Ontario elementary school teacher, Andrew Campbell, presented a very thorough review of Ontario cellphone policy and practice on April 14, 2018, at researchED Ontario.  Since the arrival of the Apple iPhone in January 2007, mobile phones have proliferated among children and teens, necessitating changes in school policies. Canada’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, reacted by introducing a system wide ban in April 2007, only to reverse it four years later.

Much  of the mobile phone proliferation was sparked by the adoption of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, formally recognizing their acceptance as tools for learning. While BYOD proved to be bad policy, school systems were simply unable to curtain the technological tide or properly regulate the use of such devices.  In 2013, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) passed a resolution proposing that cellphones be “turned-off and stored during school hours,” unless authorized for use by a teacher. By 2014, some 60 per cent of Ontario schools had adopted BYOD policies and allowed students to use their own devices, in most cases, for cost-efficiency reasons. One Quebec English school board, in the Eastern Townships, went even further, distributing tablets to all students in Grade 5 and up while maintaining a rather open and permissive smartphone policy.

Mobile phone policies have tended to be reactions to technological innovations. Thierry Karsenti, Canada Research Chair on Technologies in Education and professor at the University of Montreal, told Maclean’s Magazine students will find a way to bring phones into the classroom regardless of the rules. A survey of more than 4,000 high school students showed that while 79.3 per cent of respondents owned a cellphone, they did not figure prominently in day-to-day teaching and learning. Cellphones were widely used in and around schools, even though some 88.4 per cent of student respondents claimed that the devices were banned either in class or at school altogether.

Defenders of cellphone use in class tend to cite research based more upon student attitudes than on the perceptions of their teachers. One online survey conducted for Verizon with 1,000 students in grades 6-8 claimed to show its positive effect on student learning.  Students who used smartphones in the classroom were more likely to ‘feel smart,’ be happier, and show interested in pursuing STEM subjects. More affluent students were more likely to be allowed to use smartphones in the classroom.   “Our research supports the fact that mobile technology can inspire and engage students today. We need to meet children where they are and leverage their use of mobile devices to increase their interest in STEM” claimed Rose Stuckey Kirk, President of Verizon

Another September 2014 Stanford University study focussed on “at risk’ students and purported to demonstrate how technology aids in learning when there is at least one device per student and the devices are readily available for multiple uses by the student throughout the school day. A 2017 study conducted by Dr. James Derounian at the University of Gloucestershire found that 45% of students in a small-scale 100 student group believed that the use of phones in classrooms aided in their education, making it easier to access online text resources.

Clearly defined class expectations and procedures are essential if teachers are to see benefits from cellphone use in class. Strict rules, established at the outset, work best and, without them, student attention is hard to establish and maintain. Many of the most effective teachers now use some form of check-in and check-out system for devices. The “Stoplight System, ” developed by two Halton DSB teachers, Troy Tennant and Cindy Cosentino, shows potential and is being mimicked elsewhere in Ontario.

Maintaining good student behaviour is becoming more of a priority and that explains the renewed popularity of restricting mobile phone use by students in schools and classrooms. Tom Bennett’s School Report blog post, June 23, 2018, again identified mobile phones as a major contributor to the discipline challeges teachers face in today’s classrooms. “Low level disruption sounds cute,” he wrote, “but it’s kryptonite for any lesson. It normalises rudeness, laziness, and grinds teachers down over weeks and months. It is no small issue. It is the most common reason for classroom behaviour to disintegrate.”  The Guardian concurs with the stance taken by Bennett and Ofsted boss Spielman.  A recent  editorial argued that schools would be better places for learning without the constant and distracting presence of the devices.

Should schools continue to welcome mobile phones in class? Why has France taken the lead in banning mobile phones at school? Who is promoting and supporting the continued and expanded use of cellphones in the classroom?  Is it possible to enforce a ban on the use of such devices in schools? Where is the evidence-based research supporting the widespread use of mobile phones in class? 

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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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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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