LIFESTYLES

Against the odds

A frozen 2½-year-old is brought back to life

MARK NICHOLS March 14 1994
LIFESTYLES

Against the odds

A frozen 2½-year-old is brought back to life

MARK NICHOLS March 14 1994

GROUND ZERO

COVER

For many Canadian children, charity begins at school

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

Donna Jansen was trained to teach art in elementary schools. But during the past three years she has spent almost a quarter of her time guiding children in the fine art of appropriate behavior. After receiving training from a speech pathologist, Jansen began leading a social skills class for needy students at Corvette Junior Public School in Scarborough, Ont. In 90-minute sessions, Jansen and educational assistant Mary Kennedy direct small groups of students, ages 6 to 8, through simple exercises on such basic subjects as listening while others speak and settling disputes with words rather than fists—lessons that some of the children have failed to learn at home. Sitting in her classroom, Jansen describes one student who would not even raise her head to make eye contact and still seldom speaks or responds to either students or teachers. At home, the child’s mother rarely speaks to her. A young boy, meanwhile, shows a lively imagination and intelligence—but has trouble focusing on his work. His mother has had abusive relationships with several partners and he often speaks of the violence at home. “I could do this full-time,” says Jansen. “There is a long waiting list to take the course and the sad part is that many kids who need help will never get it.”

supply. “Many parents either lack the energy or the knowledge to nurture their kids properly,” says Fran Newman, a Trenton, Ont., teacher and author of Children in Crisis. “Because of that, kids’ behavior has deteriorated incredibly, especially in the past five to seven years. Teachers have to deal with students who are crying, withdrawn or constantly fighting. Kids are the curriculum now.” Butler, a 34-year veteran of Scarborougharea classrooms, has watched that deterioration with growing alarm. Five years ago, he decided to do something about it: for the final posting of his career, he asked for a transfer to Corvette, a difficult school that many teachers preferred to avoid. Soon after his arrival, he arranged transfers for teachers who wanted out and recruited those with an interest in disadvantaged children. Now, most staff members are young, several have survived tough backgrounds and all have special training in dealing with troubled children.

Located at the heart of a neighborhood in which single parents, recent immigrants and low-income families are the majority, Corvette is a school at which the term “back to basics” has a meaning all its own. According to principal Peter Butler, between 50 and 70 per cent of the students come from disadvantaged homes. In many cases, half the class time is spent dealing with children who are disruptive, or simply too anxious and withdrawn to concentrate. “A lot of the kids here don’t communicate—they just punch each other, because they are taught at home to duke it out,” Butler says. ‘Teachers are not social workers, but they are spending more and more of their time training kids how to be good citizens.”

Such situations are by no means limited to schools like Corvette. Health professionals estimate that at least 18 per cent of Canadian schoolchildren have emotional and behavioral difficulties severe enough to interfere with their schoolwork. Their problems range from hunger to sexual abuse; in their homes, money or affection—or both—are in short

COVER

Under Butler’s guidance, a raft of new programs has also been put into place. “Clive”— Children Living in a Violent Environment— brings students and their families together

with professional counsellors. A special drama class uses role-playing to help children learn to resolve conflicts peacefully. “It blows kids’ minds,” says Butler, “when they realize they have choices like that.” In the library, a student mural depicting aspects of the black experience is testament to the school’s determination to instil pride in its students.

With Butler’s encouragement, there has also been a sharp increase in the number of field trips. The outings, which include ice skating and visits to the zoo, are crucial for children who spend too many weekends playing Nintendo and eating pizza. “People sometimes ask why we spend so much time taking our kids to activities,” Butler says. “But we are filling in for parents with incredibly limited skills in raising children. How can you teach a child to write when they have nothing to write about?”

One of Butler’s biggest frustrations is knowing that many parents are virtually unable to provide quality care for their children. “Many are just trying to keep their heads above water economically,” he says.

“Some have recently arrived from war zones like Sri Lanka and Somalia. It takes a long time to recover from . V y trauma like that.” And when «

parents are under stress, ^

says Butler, it almost invari*•*’ T ably is handed down to their * children—whether they are \Jg~' slapped for small misdemeanors or simply parked in r ’ front of a television for hours on end. A sign placed prominently in the school’s front door assures parents that they are “always welcome.” But according to Butler, the vast majority never visit the school or contact the teachers: “Most are too busy with their day-to-day problems. Others just don’t give a damn.”

If there is one abiding symbol of the emotional hunger at Corvette, it is the children who arrive at school having missed breakfast or without a lunch. For four years, Jansen, Kennedy and eight other teachers have run an informal breakfast club that feeds about 35 children every day. Huge bags of muffins are donated by a local dough-

nut shop—whose owners insist that teachers pick up the food at the store’s back door to avoid an avalanche of similar requests. Some children help prepare pancakes; others take on cleanup duty. But it is the club’s social aspect that keeps most children coming back. “Seventy-five per cent come for companionship,” Kennedy says. “We give out a lot of hugs and some kids get really angry when one of us isn’t here. It’s an unstructured, family type of feeling and it’s a place where they won’t be rejected.”

Experts in early childhood education have known for at least 20 years that young children who battle neglect and abuse rarely excel academically. Recently, Alan Pence, a professor at the School of Child and Youth Care at

the University of Victoria, uncovered evidence that such early disadvantages are played out in recurring patterns well beyond the primary years. Pence’s conclusions are based on a follow-up study, still being completed, of work that he began in 1983. At that time, Pence had tested children aged 2 to 4 from 120 Victoriaarea families. He found that children from lowincome homes, in which parents had minimal education and provided poor-quality care, had developmental difficulties in language. Pence’s follow-up study included about half of the original group, the majority of whom are now in Grade 8. It showed that most of the children who had fallen behind at an early age were still lagging academically—performing particularly poorly in language skills, as well as being

weak in a variety of other areas. “There does appear to be a critical period in the early years before school,” says Pence. “Children who fall behind then are more likely to have trouble later on.” Adds Pence: “There is a level of atriskness in those children that is very difficult for the schools to ever fully counter.”

Many educators have long suspected what Pence has shown to be true, and some of them are looking for ways to give disadvantaged preschoolers a head start. In the early 1980s, former kindergarten teacher Mary Gordon decided she had seen too many children arrive at school already trailing behind their peers. In 1981, she helped set up the Toronto Board of Education Parent Education Program. Its aim: to nip the problem in the bud by coaching the parents in basic child rearing. From classes in six low-income neighborhoods, the program has mushroomed to include 32 schools. Lessons cover fundamental skills in raising children, such as how to deal with a crying baby. A lending library of toys and books creates resources for low-income families. And parents are taught such elementary skills as how to use a telephone book and look up a movie in the newspaper. “We found that if we offer parents early support,” says Gordon, “we can change the outcomes for their children.”

But the most crucial aspect of the program, Gordon says, is its emphasis on reading. Children from disadvantaged families often arrive at school not knowing even the most basic building blocks of literacy. As well as teaching preschoolers that books are read from front to back and left to right, facilitators explain that reading involves words and spaces, and that pictures often provide clues to the story. Those lessons end up benefiting the whole family. “It is amazing how the parents are turned around,” says Gordon. “They gain selfrespect and that in turn is passed on to the children. These things do not depend on IQ.” Gordon’s program has been widely praised by teachers and routinely attracts observers from across Canada, the United States and Australia. But despite the ray of hope it provides, many caution that real change will require more than just a smattering of special projects and the hard work of dedicated teachers. Also needed is a massive shift in social values. Psychiatrist Paul Steinhauer of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto says that governments should provide more high-quality child care to help the growing number of parents who must work to make ends meet. As well, he adds, all parents need to take stock and determine whether they are able to spend more time with their children, particularly in the early years. ‘Taking a child to a psychiatrist when they already have entrenched problems is like trying to make an 18-wheeler, going 100 km an hour, do a U-turn,” he says. ‘We have a much better chance of raising happy, successful children if we get them off on the right foot in the first place.”

PATRICIA CHISHOLM