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Archive for the ‘Student Well Being’ Category

Taking time to really get to know students sounds like good common sense for teachers.  The best teachers, in every school, have always done so while challenging students with high expectations, engaging learning activities, and an intellectually stimulating curriculum. The philosophy, espoused in Dr. David Tanters 2018 Nelson Educators textbook, The Third Path, prescribes something completely different for today’s individualistic and anxiety-filled generation. It also appears to have turned the heads of the educational thinkers mobilizing under the banner of Ontario ASCD, a northern frontier branch of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

The central tenets of the The Third Path have also given rise to the “Third Path” movement to promote Relationship-Based Education (RBE).  That movement elevates “teaching through relationships” to a “core value” and proposes a third way forward – what amounts to a 21st century fusion of academics, well-being, and mindfulness.   The “Relationship-based Approach to  Well-Being and Achievement” teacher education program, funded by Nelson Education, features conventional workshops, You Tube videos, podcasts, and weekend conference retreats.

The Third Path pedagogical catechism envisions an imagined educational universe with three distinct paths: Path 1 (academics); Path 2 (well-being); and Path 3 (relationships). Prospective teacher-supporters are exhorted to “Do different, not more. Go deeper, not wider.” The Third Path integrates everything by “shifting the classroom focus from tasks to relationships, from check-lists to check-ins.” Then, the hook: “It views education as a journey of human development, not just for the student, but for the educator too. The Third Path focuses on the how of education.” All of this sounds, feels and looks strange and familiar at the same time.  Strange in its aspirational almost spiritual tone; yet with the familiar ring of romantic progressivism.

The Relationship-Based Approach

Focusing on the student-educator relationship is the first step in “following the Third Path.”  “Caring, intentional and responsive relationships are at the heart of learning and growth.” The focus is almost exclusively on the individual student, and “understanding each student, and truly knowing their strengths, struggles, and needs.”

The Eight Conditions

Third Path educational theory rests upon eight hierarchical conditions that are said to support student well-being and academic achievement. Together these conditions are supposed to “create an environment for students to flourish”:

1. Safety: Students need to feel emotionally safe in order to explore and learn

2. Regulation: Students need regulating relationships and supportive environments.

3. Belonging: Belonging comes from all the moments of connection with others.

4. Positivity: Every student has unseen potential. Positive feelings lead to optimal functioning.

5. Engagement: Engagement is about being fully open to learning, connected to others, able to take on complex challenges, and reach accurate conclusions.

6. Identity: School is important for students’ exposure to a variety of ways of being, and for them to develop a stronger sense of who they truly are.

7. Mastery: A feeling of accomplishment is essential to help motivate students to continue to learn.

8. Meaning: Meaning is a powerful force for ongoing motivation and personal fulfillment.

Surveying this rather dogmatic theoretical framework, encumbered with the label “The Third Path,” informed and engaged educators are bound to wonder if they and their students are being “led along a garden path” to the promised land. The fact that the theory is backed by teachers’ testimonials in the George Lukas Foundation’s education e-magazine Edutopia does little to assuage your natural skepticism about “magic beans” in education.

The principal author of The Third Path, Dr. David Tranter, Professor of Social Work, Lakehead University, is touted as the Third Path movement’s guru and guarantor of the authenticity of its research basis. It all originated, it turns out, in 2014 when the Ontario Ministry of Education released Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario, and identified “well-being” as one of the envisioned new pillars of the system.  That was a tribute to the influence of Dr. Stuart Shanker, a York University professor championing “mindfuness” and “self-regulation” as the latest classroom management panaceas.

Tranter’s claim to being a leading researcher rests principally upon a February 2016 Ontario Ministry of Education research note focusing on “self-regulation” and why “stressed students struggle to learn’ in our classrooms. The short, 4-pager, summarizes the academic literature in favour of mindfulness theory and its educational step-child “self-regulation.” “For students who experience ongoing stress,” Tranter concludes, ” learning self-regulation can be a difficult challenge; teachers have an opportunity to make a tremendous difference in these students’ lives.” Virtually all of his references are to the work of leaders in mindfulness research, including Stuart Shanker and John Ratey, author of Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain (2008).

Critical education analysts quickly spot that Third Path theory carries an implicit bias against teaching knowledge and focusing on student achievement. On the cover of the book and between the covers, Path 2 (Well-Being) precedes Path 1 (Academics/Achievement) in order of precedence. Upon closer scrutiny, Path 3 (Relationships) is actually code for student-centered individualized teaching drawing heavily upon mindfulness and self-regulation practices.

All educators today should be skeptical of such simple formulas for success in connecting with, and effectively teaching,  students. Something like “The Third Path” with a strong whiff of mindfulness should raise cautions.  Mindfulfulness has not only gone mainstream, it has emerged as the magic elixir of our present age.

Presented as a peculiar hybrid of science and meditative discipline, its real founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, inventor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), claims that mindfulness has “the potential to ignite a universal or global renaissance.” He has bigger ambitions than just conquering stress. Mindfulness, he claims, “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next two hundred years.”

Mindfulness is a recognized therapeutic strategy for individuals properly diagnosed with severe anxieties or debilitating stress. While the leading researchers know its limitations,it has now become a cure-all being introduced and spread to the broader mass of adults through self-help magazines and workshops and to students through the schools. Although derived from Buddhism, it has mass appeal to people seeking spiritual answers outside the church.  Some of the simplified versions. in the hands of amateur enthusiasts, amounts to little more than “concentration training” for hefty professional service fees.

The Third Path movement in Canadian education did not emerge fully formed, out of nowhere.  It’s a small piece of a booming global wellness industry worth over $4-billion. More than 600,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variation of “mindfulness’in their titles, such as Mindful Teaching, Mindful Schools, Mindful Parenting, Mindful Finance, and, believe it or not, Mindful Dog Owners. There is, of course, a Mindfuness Coloring Book, for kids as well as smartphone apps, bells, bracelets, and beauty products. Millions of dollars are being raked-in by educational celebrities on the speaking circuit and by facilitators at adult workshops. Mindfulness based programs have now proliferated in schools, district-after-district, particularly in Ontario, British Columbia, and the Maritimes.

A team of respected British psychiatrists registered major concerns in December of 2016 in a widely-read scientific research paper published in the journal of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The proliferation of academic literature on mindfulness was, in their view, sustained by incomplete or inconclusive evidence-based research and “pervaded by a a lack of conceptual and methodological self-criticism.” Their two primary concerns were:

(1) the uneven benefits of mindfulness meditation: While “some people may benefit” from the meditation, “others will not be affected in a substantive way, and a number of individuals may suffer moderate to serious negative effects.”

(2) the insufficient of inconclusive evidence for its benefits, particularly when mindfulness-based interventions are compared with other activities or interventions.”

“Something has gone wrong with the science of mindfulness,” the British psychiatrists maintained.  “Orange robed gurus” had been replaced by “white-collared academics” who speak of the benefits of “being in the moment.” It was, they contended, “a social phenomenon” most likely “rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements.”

Mass application of mindfulness worried the British psychiatrists. While the psychiatrists stopped short of condemning the practice, they urged “caution” about “its widespread use as a therapeutic technique”  (i.e., McMindfulness)  and warned against the”assembly -line’ approach based on “a reductive understanding of the human mind.”

Much of this mindfulness obsession might turn out to be another passing phase and possibly a harmless one providing comfort and meaning to some.  What’s worrisome is the scientific evidence mounting of its potential to do harm if mass applied to larger populations, including students and teachers.

What’s driving the Third Path movement surfacing in Canadian schools?  Does “Relationship-Based Education” simply mean “get to know your students” or is it code for “Mindfulness” practice?  How much of the Third Path is inspired by Mindfulness and Self-regulation?  Are leading psychiatrists on the right track– has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? 

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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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Two of North America’s better known school change theorists, Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, have just published a fascinating article in Education Canada (December 2018) entitled “Well-being and success: Opposites that need to attract.” Looking back over Ontario’s implementation of the ‘Student Well-Being Agenda’ since 2014, the two Boston College consultants hired to both guide and review that agenda sound wistful but they do identify a few of the potential pitfalls. The article’s sub-title even hints at the now visible contradictions.

From 2014 to 2018, Hargreaves, Shirley and their Boston College research team were hired by the Ontario Directors of Education (CODE) to work with ten of Ontario’s 72 school boards to “understand the work they were doing on the ground” to implement the Ontario Ministry of Education’s educational change agenda.

The mandated provincial reform agenda embraced “four pillars”: achieving broadly defined excellence; securing equity for all students; promoting well-being (and positive feelings about learning); and establishing public confidence in the system.  Their mandate was to assess how the four pillars were being implemented and not whether they represented the right direction for the province. 

Hargreaves and Shirley are very skillful promoters of Ontario’s public school system. They are leading education change theorists and Ontario under the Kathleen Wynne Government might be described as “their baby.” “Canada is a global leader” in educational change, they confidently state, and that is why Ontario and Alberta are Exhibits A and B at education summits around the world. The latest iteration of Ontario educational boosterism even comes with a newly-minted slogan – “Leading from the Middle” (LfM)  It is, we are informed, spreading worldwide to Singapore, New Zealand, and Scotland.

The notion that Canada’s education leaders, including Education Deputy Ministers and Regional Superintendents, “lead from the middle” is quite a stretch.  So is the claim that “LfM” was “invented in Ontario” because the two leading promoters were professors at Boston’s Lynch School of Education.

“Leading from the Middle” is hard to pull-off when you are the CEO of a school system.  You can talk that way and spout the right words. Schools and school districts embracing “LfM,” we are told, do not just ” join up the dots” between policies at the top and practice at the bottom.” Instead, they lead “from the middle” with “shared, professional judgement, collective responsibility for initiating and implementing change” with “systemic impact that benefits all students.”

Ontario, Hargreaves and Shirley would have us believe, is moving from an “Age of Achievement and Effort” to an “Age of Learning, Well-being and Identity.”  That conclusion was reached after interviewing some 222 educators and Ministry officials implementing that agenda.  There was no hint in the CODE report (issued early in 2018)  of a coming storm (the Doug Ford hurricane)  let alone an upheaval that would stall this movement in its tracks.

Hargreaves and Shirley, based upon their Ministry-approved research, offer a number of conclusions, presented as incontestable truths: 1) Improved well-being increases achievement; 2) Academic achievement is crucial for well-being; and  3) Well-being has its own value and complements academic achievement. In sum, their research confirms the wisdom of Ontario Ministry directives from 2014 to 2018.

Most of the research actually cited in the Education Canada article is that conducted by advocates for, or contributors to, the Student-Well Being agenda. No one will be surprised to see the approving citations to work of Carol Campbell and others in Empowered Educators in Canada (2017), Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The new psychology of success (2007); and Leah M. Kuypers, Zones of Regulation (2011).  All conform nicely with the prevailing policy trends from 2014 to 2018.

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Dark clouds are spotted on the otherwise sunny horizon. The two CODE consultants sense that marrying student well-being with academic achievement may appear, to some, as contradictory. Then comes a warning : “In testing times, be wary of cheap shots that are easily made against well-being or achievement. On one hand, we don’t want a school system that is obsessed with well-being to the point where young people live in a superficial and self-indulgent world of undemanding happiness. That path leads to a nation of narcissistic adults who feel that success and earned expertise are unimportant., and all that matters is the needs and opinions of themselves and others who happen to agree with them.”

That passage concludes with a telling comment: “True well-being doesn’t come without sacrifice and struggle, perseverance, and empathy for others.” That’s quite an admission from two of the chief proponents of the Ontario “Student Well-Being agenda.’

The warning is counterbalanced by an obligatory reference to the wisdom of pursuing student achievement and well-being together. Unless I’m wrong, there’s also a grudging acknowledgement that student achievement still comes first and when it doesn’t educators default to more comfortable habitats – whether it’s worshiping the “god of self esteem” (1968 to 1992) or the new secular religion of “mindfulness” and “self-regulation” (2009-2018).

The prophecy that ends the Hargreaves-Shirley research summary is already coming to pass in Ontario education. The Well-Being policy agenda is now imperiled.  “Back to fundamentals” education and heavy investments in student well-being initiatives do not mix. “When budget cuts loom,” they note, “initiatives in yoga or meditation, or support roles in counselling and similar areas” are seen as dispensable, compared to literacy and math.

What are Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley really saying in their retrospective on Ontario’s recent obsession with “Student Well-Being” and “Success for All”? Did Ontario really “invent” Leading from the Middle? How plausible is it for Regional Superintendents to “lead from the middle’?   If student achievement is paramount, then why not cite the academic literature that demonstrates its primacy? How much of the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne education policy agenda will actually survive the Ford Revolution in Ontario politics? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Putting Children First report, produced by the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and released August 16, 2018, drew attention, once again, to the challenges facing children and youth caught up, province-to-province, in Canada’s crazy quilt child welfare system. Commissioned by professional social workers, it tended to focus on the mounting caseloads and shortage of resource supports. It, quite rightly, highlighted the growing needs and plight of children and youth in care and the ‘battle fatigue’ affecting those entrusted with their care. Where it fell short is in proposing a larger, more pro-active role for engaged parents and provincial child welfare advocates.

“We’re damaging children every single day, ” says Debbie Reimer, Director of the Kids Action Program and a CASW executive board member, based in Kentville, Nova Scotia. “The needs of families and children are more complex and becoming more complex every day, ” she told Star Metro Halifax, “and so there wasn’t any sort of thing that jumped out as particularly surprising.” What is surprising is that, in a Canadian province without a Child and Youth Advocate Office, the depth of these concerns has to be expressed in reports emanating from the Ottawa-based CASW.

Child welfare workers are under stress everywhere, and that is conformed in the recent CASW report.  Some 75 per cent of social workers surveyed nation-wide testify to the existence of “unmanageable workloads” and some 72 per cent claimed administrative responsibilities prevented them from spending adequate time with clients. The report also did a good job outlining how demanding caseloads, the complexity of issues, and the “unsupportive work environment” contributed to various trauma, burnout, and high turnover in the ranks.

The report demonstrates the tremendous value of a report giving voice to professional concerns about the everyday stresses faced by front-line professionals in the child welfare system. Some 3,195 Canadian social workers completed the survey, representing about 10 per cent of the total workforce, so the results are reasonably reliable and to be taken seriously. It also reflects the direct feedback from some 19 members of an expert panel, representing recognized leaders in the field, but including no one from Nova Scotia. 

Surveying the 100-page CASW report, two discoveries jump out at you. First and foremost, the focus is almost exclusively on the crushing demands faced by professionals and the contention that they are “leaving in droves” because of the adverse working conditions. Second, and by no means least, the relative absence of input from Child and Youth Advocacy Offices across the country, with the exception of the former Manitoba Child Advocate, 2011-2017.

The almost total absence of comprehensive, reliable data on the needs of families and children is particularly striking in the report.  It is clearly acknowledged that practitioners have “limited knowledge about the needs of families, of youth and children living with their familiy, or of foster families and kinship caregivers.” More unsettling is the open admission that child welfare authorities have “little information about how youth and children in care are doing in their placements, how they are progressing in school, what are their health needs or their talents, aspirations and accomplishments.” The CASW also conceded that child welfare officials do not actually know “what services and programs are effective and for whom those programs are effective and what conditions are optimal to achieve effectiveness,” (CASW 2018, 78).

The CASW report, Putting Students First, is very effective in voicing the concerns of social workers on the frontlines and strongly suggests that professionals, overburdened with heavy caseloads are too often reduced to policing and enforcing family protection orders. Nowhere in the report is this state of affairs analyzed in terms of its direct impact upon families and children and youth under care. Nova Scotia social worker Reimer provided a more satisfying explanation of the actual impact. If scocial workers are “leaving in droves, ” she claimed, it’s because “their jobs feel less like supporting families and more like disinterested policing. ” What are practitioners actually concerned about, at least in Nova Scotia? In Reimer’s words,  “They are saying that right now the system is reactionary, punitive and under resourced.”

Social work professionals have raised the alarm bells, but the voice of parents and the public is strangely absent from the whole public discussion. It is clearly a big part of the problem in Nova Scotia and perhaps elsewhere in Canada. In the case of Nova Scotia, it is likely compounded by the fact that no one in the provincial government has a clear mandate to oversee the protection and support of children and youth.

The province of Nova Scotia is finally, after five years of lobbying efforts, finally considering the creation of a self-standing Child and Youth Advocacy Office. The current Deputy Minister of Community Services, Lynn Hartwell, is beginning to see the light and told a N.S. Assembly Legislative Committee in January 2018 that something was in the works. While the provincial Ombudsman’s Office currently has responsibility for youth in care, Hartwell sees the need for a more active presence.

Hartwell remains exceedingly cautious and sounds reluctant to open the purse strings:  “That level of interaction has given us some comfort that there’s been a child advocacy-type role, but what I’ve learned and what I’m understanding is that role of child advocate in other jurisdictions goes beyond sort of an ombudsman-type role,” she said. “Someone who’s really advocating for public policy that is child-focused, child-friendly and so on.”

“So we absolutely are looking at it. People will know here that with everything else going on, we’re trying to determine, ” Hartwell told the Committee, “is this the best place for limited resources or is it somewhere else? So I think the onus is on us to finalize that review and then bring it forward.”

The recent CASW report may be just what is needed to light a fire under provincial officials in Nova Scotia and elsewhere.  If “children’s lives are being damaged every day, ” surely one would expect more of a sense of urgency. Perhaps the passive resistance has more to do with the general aversion of governments everywhere to independent bodies mandated to secure the needed supports for children and youth, to oversee the effective use of resources, and to ensure proper public accountability in child welfare services. 

What deeper problems are raised by the recent Canadian Association of Social Workers report on the state of child welfare services? Are the tremendous pressures and stresses experienced by frontline practitioners a symptom of bigger problems? Where is the voice of parents and families in this whole debate?  How can a province, in this day and age, continue to function without a particular office or agency entrusted with the welfare and protection of children? 

 

 

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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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Mindfulness has enjoyed a tremendous boom in the past decade and has recently begun to spring up in Canadian school systems. Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, are hotbeds for promoting “student well being” through broad application of ‘mindfulness training’ and its step-child ‘self-regulation ‘ beginning in the earliest grades. Under the former Liberal Government of Kathleen Wynne, the heavily promoted Student Well Being Strategy’ attempted to integrate ‘mindfulness’ through what is known as the MINDUP curriculum.  The recent change in government presents a rare opportunity to critically examine the whole initiative, its assumptions, research base, and actual impact upon schoolchildren.

“Student Well Being” has acquired something of an exalted status in Ontario schools ever since the appearance of a fascinating November 2016 policy paper,’ entitled “Well Being in Our Schools, Strength in Our Society.’ The whole concept of  Student Well Being was rationalized using a popular narrative promoted by its leading Ontario advocates, Dr. Jean Clinton, a McMaster University clinical psychiatrist, and Dr Stuart Shanker, a York University psychologist who doubles as the CEO of the MEHRIT Centre, a Peterborough-based organization holding a patent on the term “Self-Reg” and marketing “self-regulation’ in schools.  While labelled an “engagement paper,” the educators and the public were invited to “provide your insights and considerations on how best to promote and support student well-being throughout Ontario’s education system.

Promoting “Student Well Being” sounds like the educational equivalent of motherhood, so it has, to date, attracted little close scrutiny. That may explain why the whole provincial strategy sailed through the normal process of review and was immediately embraced by educators, particularly in elementary schools. Few Ontario educators, it seemed, were troubled by the initiative and parents were, as usual with curriculum initiatives, presented with a fait accompli.

Growing concerns among leading researchers in the United States, the U.K., and the Netherlands about the widespread adoption of positive psychology, the implementation of the Goldie Hawn Foundation’MINDUP program, and the mindfulness and happiness movement. failed to register.  Judging from Ontario Ministry of Education and school board conferences held in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the provincial school system was totally enamoured with an approach that promised salvation and relief from stress, anxiety, depression, bullying, and today’s frenetic school life.

What could possibly be wrong with making Student Well Being a system-wide priority? It sounded harmless enough until you bore down into what it actually entails and begin to examine the promotional videos and classroom resources generated by the initiative. An early warning was issued by British Columbia teacher Tina Olesen  in November of 2012 on the Scientific American Blog. Her concerns about the potentially harmful effects of Hawn’s MINDUP program were prophetic. Early studies in British Columbia (K.A. Schonert-Reichel 2008 and 2010) extolling the virtues of MINDUP curriculum have now come in for heavy criticism, challenging the validity of the findings.

Mindfulness and meditation recently took a big hit in “Mind the Hype,” a January 2018 peer-reviewed article in Perspectives on Psychological Science. An interdisciplinary team of scholars, led by N.T. Van Dam, found that the benefits of “mindfulness and meditation” have been over-hyped and that the research evidence to support its widespread use is mostly shoddy. They are very critical of the “misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology” that pervade much of the evidence behind the benefits of mindfulness. They focus in particular on the problem of defining the word mindfulness and on how the effects of the practice are studied.

“Mindfulness has become an extremely influential practice for a sizable subset of the general public, constituting part of Google’s business practices, available as a standard psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and, most recently, part of standard education for approximately 6,000 school children in London,” the authors wrote. They also pinpointed a number of flaws in the supporting research, including  using various definitions for mindfulness, not comparing results to a control group of people who did not meditate and not using good measurements for mindfulness.

“I’ll admit to have drank the Kool-Aid a bit myself. I’m a practicing meditator, and I have been for over 20 years,” David Vago told Newsweek. A research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, he is one of the study’s authors. “A lot of the data that’s out there is still premature,” he said. Educators are not the only ones overstating the benefits of mindfulness.  “You go into Whole Foods today, and there will be three magazines with some beautiful blonde meditating on the cover,” Vago said. “And they’re labeled ‘Mindfulness, the New Science and Benefits’ in some shape or form.”

Mindfulness has spawned a completely new “mental health and happiness” industry. Mindfulness and meditation are a popular practice that brings in around $1 billion US annually, according to Fortune. The booming industry includes apps, classes and medical treatments.  That’s what concerns Canadian mental health researchers such as Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health, at Dalhousie University. “Being happy all the time without feeling any stress,” he reminds teachers, is not normal.  Contrary to the claims of Mindfulness promoters, Kutcher points out that  “Anxiety Disorder is not the same as being stressed before an exam.  Handling such normal stress is, in fact, essential to being in good mental health.”

Where’s the research to support mass application of Student Well Being training based upon mindfulness?  Two leading University of Wisconsin  researchers , Richard J. Davidson and Alfred W. Kaszniak, addressed the problem squarely in their October 2015 American Psychologist research review.  Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based interventions, they found, lack a proper research base. “There are still very few methodologically rigorous studies, ” they concluded,  that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in either the treatment of specific diseases or in the promotion of well-being.”

Studying the effectiveness of Canadian social and emotional learning (SEL) school programs is still in its infancy. One of the first such studies, conducted by Dr. John LeBlanc of Dalhousie Medical School and a team of researchers, systematically assessed over a dozen school-based SEL programs, including both “evidence-based” and “non-evidence based” programs. Five evidence-based programs (PATHS, Second Step, Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, The Fourth R), and 6 non-evidence-based programs (DARE, Lion’s Quests: Skills for Adolescence, Options to Anger, Room 14: A Social Language Program, Stop Now and Plan (SNAP), Tribes) were identified.

A systematic literature search was conducted for all evidence-based programs, and each program underwent qualitative analysis using the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) approach. Implementation recommendations were then developed for all 13 programs. PATHS and Second Step received the strongest recommendations for school-based implementation, due to high quality empirical evaluations of the positive outcomes of these programs. Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, and The Fourth R showed promise and received provisional recommendations for implementation. Those five programs were recommended for use in Nova Scotia public schools. Eight other noteworthy programs were discussed. but deemed to require empirical evaluation before evidence-based recommendations can be made. Based upon the evidence gathered in subsequent Dalhousie Medical School studies, MINDUP would also fall into that category – not yet suitable for school implementation. The research study or toolkit for educators underlined the critical need for proper program evaluation to ensure that such SEL programs are “cost effective and yield maximal benefits for students’ behaviour.”

Why did the Ontario Ministry of Education adopt Social Well-Being in January 2017 as a system-wide priority?  Where is the evidence to support the implementation of a mindfulness-based initiative in schools across Ontario? Were Ontario parents ever properly consulted on this provincial curriculum initiative?  Given the recent research findings, is it time to halt the Student Well Being Strategy and to seriously look at the wisdom of proceeding on the current set of assumptions? 

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