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Posts Tagged ‘Dr Stuart Shanker’

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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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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