Health is not just about being free from illness, it’s about quality of life.
In this second part in our series on the Vancouver Island Health Authority’s Local Health Area Profile for Alberni and the West Coast, we will explore how health is so much more than a physical state of being.
For children, health is about growing up in an environment that nurtures and helps them grow.
School is an undeniably significant part of this equation.
Alberni scored poorly on indicators of child and youth healthy development in the health profile.
More children in kindergarten here ranked as vulnerable for language and communication skills than those in B.C. and VIHA.
There’s no easy answer to the question: Why is this happening?
“We don’t want parents to have guilt,” said School District 70 district principal Stacey Manson. “Parenting is challenging. We know that.”
Statistics suggest much of how children learn and grow is established before they ever set foot inside a classroom.
“What we know about kids is their brain development is very sensitive in the early years; it peaks before they even come to school,” Manson explained.
In fact, children’s social skills, language skills, emotional control, vision and hearing sensitivities reach their peaks before the age of four in most children.
That’s why programs like Here We Come are vital. Here We Come introduces pre-school-aged children to the school environment (accompanied by their parents) and gives parents the chance to connect with service providers if they feel their child might be experiencing physical, mental or emotional challenges.
Here We Come has been around for years but district officials continue to expand the program with the goal of reaching as many families within the school district as possible.
It is one of several StrongStart programs that support mothers from the time their children are infants until they begin attending school.
This includes a free drop-in program with a childhood educator – session topics include parenting skills, active play and a healthy snack.
Once children begin attending school, their fundamental skills are regularly tested.
Alberni’s health profile also revealed that significantly more Alberni Grade 4 and 7 students scored below standard in writing.
Manson said for the 2012-13 school year the district has adopted a new Young Readers Initiative program geared towards providing incentives for children to read more books. The goal is to improve the poor writing standard.
“We know that if we can get as many students reading by Grade 4 as we can, if they become successful readers, they will learn more. It is a strong predictor of success,” she said.
As VIHA Central Vancouver Island medical health officer Dr. Paul Hasselback explained, physical well-being is intimately related to success in school.
Children who are healthy learn better and are generally more successful later on in life. A health concern—anything from a chronic medical condition to poor nutrition—can affect a student’s ability to perform well in the classroom.
“Nutrition is a really good example,” he said. “If a child is insufficiently nourished they may come to school without having anything to eat, and if they are hungry we know they don’t learn as well.”
While there are exceptions to this and every assumption about why kids succeed or fail, health officials now know that ensuring health and proper nutrition for children gives them a striking advantage, both during their school years and beyond.
As Manson explained, educators have been aware of the strong relationship between learning and proper nutrition for years.
That’s why a number of area schools now boast well-used breakfast and lunch programs, including Eighth Avenue School in Central Port, an area identified as having a higher proportion of vulnerable students.
“We have a population that has some vulnerabilities,” Manson said. “It is our obligation to put food in their tummies.”
Another obligation that schools across this province acknowledge is a health-based responsibility is ensuring students receive adequate daily physical activity. The Local Area Health Profile shows there is a lack of such activity in the Alberni Valley.
Obesity and childhood rates of diseases not usually seen in children, such as diabetes, have increased dramatically over the last 15 years, coinciding with an increasing dependence on computers, smartphones and televisions to provide education, information and entertainment.
“This is the first generation in which parents may outlive their children—this is a huge wake-up call,” Manson said.
To that end, a new mandate for elementary schools across B.C., including this school district, will include a half-hour per school day of physical activity, including work on endurance, flexibility and strength.
Children enter school with the goal of graduating and moving on to a successful career. In Port Alberni, fewer adults have attained post-secondary education, which is one of the main indicators of future career success and financial security.
Just 49.9 per cent of adults have attained post-secondary education compared with 62.8 per cent in B.C. and 61.7 per cent in VIHA.
“Our mission is that all children graduate,” said SD 70 superintendent Cam Pinkerton.
Grad rates are statistically complex. For example, 93 per cent of students who begin Grade 12 in an SD 70 school finish successfully.
“The challenge is to get them to Grade 12,” Pinkerton said.
The district’s completion rate— the percentage of students who begin and successfully graduate from high school within a six-year time span—is 67 per cent overall and 37 per cent for Aboriginal students.
“But the trend [for aboriginal students] is up.” Pinkerton explained. “It was nine per cent about 15 years ago.”
He added when the six-year time frame is eliminated, and students who eventually return to school, either to regular classrooms or specialty programs such as those offered by VAST are taken into account, the completion rate rises to 88 per cent—80 per cent for Aboriginal students.
Pinkerton said some students simply do not perform well in mainstream school environments. Others hit roadblocks, such as having children or struggling with physical and/or emotional issues.
“If you have heard the graduation speech of a student who grads after 10 years, you would know the impact,” Pinkerton said. “There has to be a recognition of that.”
He added the Ministry of Education is, for the first time, working to change how it measures educational success and how children are educated.
Personalized learning for the 21st century will incorporate the passions and interests of students and project-based learning.
It focuses more on the needs and interests of the student without sacrificing foundational skills.
Despite a community’s best efforts, some children take the wrong path. Port Alberni’s serious juvenile crime rate, according to the health area profile, is more than twice as high as the rate in B.C.—8.8 per 1,000 population aged 12 to 17 as compared to 4.2 in B.C. and 2.9 in VIHA.
Port Alberni RCMP Cpl. Jen Allan said police are “one partner at the table” when it comes to supporting the overall health of youth here.
School Liaison officer Const. Shelley Schedewitz added when a youth comes in contact with police, recommendations are often made for them to attend drug and/or alcohol counselling sessions, if deemed appropriate.
In many juvenile cases, alternative justice measures are employed to prevent teens from entering a judicial punishment system that can enforce, instead of ameliorate, negative behaviours.
But local police want to do more.
Schedewitz’s role has expanded this year to reach out even more to high risk youths: those who may not attend school regularly and are at risk of falling through the cracks.
“It’s about constantly following up and making them accountable for their behaviour,” Schedewitz said.
It’s in everyone’s best interest.
Allan explained one problem youth can commit many crimes, taking up policing time, creating numerous victims and skewing crime numbers.
At the other end of the spectrum are teens who attempt to harm themselves. The B.C. Adolescent Health Survey conducted every five years by the McCreary Centre Society found that for the first time since 1992, the number of B.C. students surveyed who seriously considered suicide dropped to 12 per cent from 16 per cent in 2008, while the number who attempted suicide dropped to five per cent from seven per cent.
More than 29,000 B.C. public school students in Grades 7-12 completed the survey between February and June 2008.
Many are surprised how many young people grapple with suicide-related thoughts and behaviours.
“This is a reflection of the need of the entire community to develop a social network where people feel connected and have someone to turn to when they feel challenged.” Hasselback said.
Perhaps the most important thing the McCreary Centre society concluded is that “building protective factors such as family, school and cultural connectedness can assist even the most vulnerable youth to overcome negative experiences, can assist young people to make healthier choices and can contribute to more positive health outcomes for all youth in B.C.”
Next week: Supporting those who struggle with mental, physical and emotional challenges.