By Christopher Sun, Writer, British Columbia School Trustees Association
As a high school teacher at an inner city school in Chicago, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl wonders how she can change the lives of her at-risk students.
Inspired by those kids and wanting to find effective ways to help, she went back to school, focusing on social and emotional development of kids in childhood and adolescence.
“I was working with a lot of kids with problems and experiencing a lot of trouble,” Schonert-Reichl recalled. “I became interested in looking at what kind of changes and things that could be done to make their lives better.”
And that she did. In 1991, she moved to Vancouver and became a researcher and professor at UBC. Twenty-four years later, she is now a renowned expert in social emotional learning and internationally well-known for her work on mindfulness and the Mind Up program, which she continues to work on. Schonert-Reichl is also a highly sought-after speaker, travelling extensively to speak about her research. A Google search of her name brings up news articles about her work published throughout Canada, United States, Asia, Europe and South America, along with her connection to the Dalai Lama.
In September, the mother of two teen boys became the director of the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), which she and colleague Pippa Rowcliffe will give an overview about at this year’s BCSTA’s Trustee Academy on November 27.
“For the past decade, HELP has been receiving funding from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Family and Development and Ministry of Education to collect data on a child’s well-being,” Schonert-Reichl said, explaining Early Development Instrument (EDI) data is collected from all Kindergarten students in B.C., via teachers completing an assessment on their student’s social capacity, emotional maturity, health, cognitive development and language. “We collect all that data, report it back to schools, and with the data, we map it across the province. You can then look at the trends of a child’s well-being across the province.”
Interestingly, data collected about a Kindergartener’s social and emotional health can predict how a child will fare in the future, such as graduating high school, obtaining stable employment as an adult and if they will have contact with the police, Schonert-Reichl explained.
A report card on the effectiveness of any intervention in the lives of those at-risk kids identified in Kindergarten can then be followed up with the Middle Development Instrument (MDI) data, which is collected through self-reporting questionnaires that Grades 4 and 7 students fill out. Currently, HELP has 250,000 EDI data and 35,000 MDI data from B.C. school children, allowing researchers to track how students are doing socially and emotionally as they age and progress through the school system. In the past few months, the Ministry of Health has allowed HELP to link EDI data with health records.
One item gleaned from HELP’s data collection is that a child’s success at school involves having an “important adult” at the school.
“What we know from the research is a child’s connectedness to school has a lot to do with having an important adult in school,” Schonert-Reichl said. “If they have two or more, they do much better overall and they are considered to be thriving.”
However, more than 40 per cent of students reported they do not have an adult at school who is important to them.
A teacher contacted Schonert-Reichl about this finding a few years ago, wanting to know how to change this. Through geographic information system mapping of the data, the teacher was pointed to a nearby school where a majority of students said they had at least one adult at the school was important to them. The teacher spent a day at that school, making observations from how students are greeted in the morning to the fact that the staff all genuinely get along. She reported her findings back to her school, resulting in higher connectedness in future MDI data.
HELP is currently developing a version to collect data on Toddlers called TDI and is hoping to develop one for youths in Grade 10, to be known as YDI.
“We can then really look at child development through their school years,” Schonert-Reichl said.
“When I was in Mexico City last week [for a conference], I was with [systems scientist] Peter Senge from MIT, and he said there was nowhere on earth that has the amount of data we have. BC leads the way.”
And that is one reason why Schonert-Reichl is speaking at this year’s Trustee Academy, to inform and showcase the amount of research HELP has about BC’s students, which is accessible to educators.
“We have a six-person team and their full-time job is to think about ways to communicate our findings,” Schonert-Reichl said. “We’re not about keeping it all up in ivory towers.”