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Helping Children Thrive

The middle years of childhood, from ages six to 12, are incredibly important to a child’s healthy development. Health and well-being during the middle years are powerful predictors of how kids will adjust and succeed as teens and adults. Despite the range of life experiences that have critical and long lasting effects on kids, including access to physical activity, regular meals with family members, to having a supportive network of adults in school, and community environments, measuring success has traditionally been limited to academic performance.

UBC is advancing knowledge about the psychological and social worlds of children during middle childhood and the impact of the middle years on outcomes throughout the life course. The Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), a leading Canadian interdisciplinary research institute based at the School of Population and Public Health in UBC’s Faculty of Medicine is spearheading this work by focusing on advancing our knowledge of child development.

Researchers at HELP have worked with schools, students, families and community groups to develop a ground breaking population level tool for measuring well-being in children aged six to 12. The Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) is a self-report questionnaire completed by children in Grade 4 and Grade 7.

The survey is the first in Canada of its kind to give children a voice about their experiences inside and outside of school. Taking a “whole child” approach, the MDI measures social and emotional well-being, as well as connectedness to adults and peers and physical health, recognizing that all of these factors are important to healthy development, academic achievement and career success.

The MDI provides action-oriented information that is helping to guide policymakers, schools, program planners, and community members in creating environments that help children in their community thrive.

“It’s about research really making a difference,” said Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, the Principal Investigator of the MDI and HELP’s Interim Director. As a result of the data from the survey, she said, “school districts, schools, and communities are beginning to change their policies.”

Data from the MDI has shown, for example, the importance of relationships with supportive adults across home, community and school environments to a child’s development. Based on this information, a Vancouver elementary school now identifies students in Grades 6 and 7 who have vulnerabilities or lack family support that, as a result, may put them at risk when they transfer to high school. A program was initiated to connect them to a teacher in their future secondary school. These teachers spend time getting to know each student and are there with them when they transition schools in Grade 8, including helping them find their locker, setting up their schedule and providing consistent support.

Since HELP was founded at UBC in 1985, the impact of its research has rippled out from BC across the country and internationally. HELP’s founding Director, Dr. Clyde Hertzman, passed away in 2013, leaving a legacy of connecting research to communities to help children and families thrive.

The MDI is one example of HELP’s community-driven research. Developed in 2006 in partnership with the United Way of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver School Board, it was tested extensively in BC school districts.

The Coquitlam School District has participated since 2010 and, according to Marna MacMillan, the District’s Safe Schools Focus Kindergarten to Grade 12 Coordinator, the information that the MDI provides has given parents, teachers, administrators, students, and policymakers a positive focus for ongoing collaborative discussions on how best to support students. As a result, Coquitlam has seen a rising number of school goals that include a social and emotional focus.

“This has had a positive influence on the culture and climate in schools, the ongoing professional learning that staff and administrators engage in and the positive connections between schools, parents, and community,” said MacMillan.

Based on its success in B.C., the MDI is now being implemented across Canada. In addition, it is being piloted in Australia and Peru. It has the potential to help reimagine education that incorporates social and emotional learning in communities around the world.

“For me, personally, it is so fulfilling to think that we have helped people to shift their thinking about what the purpose of schooling is based on these data,” said Schonert-Reichl.