Anita Khanna Director, Social Action & Community Building Family Service Toronto
Anita Khanna is the Director of Social Action and Community Building at Family Service Toronto, a United Way-supported agency that helps promote the health and wellbeing of children and families. She’s also the National Coordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition that works to build awareness and support for ending child poverty. Imagine a City spoke with Anita for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn what happens when kids don’t get the best start in life.
1. What sort of supports do children require in order to get the best start in life?
Prenatal programs, access to nutritious food, a stable home environment and opportunities to develop language, cognitive and social skills are just some of the supports that help children start life on a high note. Community connections are also important. From a very young age, children pick up on whether their families are reflected and respected in their community. Whether a family is racialized, Indigenous, are newcomers, LGBTQ+ or led by single parents, they need to be appreciated and accepted.
2. How important are the early years (ages 0-6) when it comes to childhood development?
The early years are the most important time in our life for brain development, learning, behaviour and health. These years are crucial to a child’s future wellbeing, self-esteem and physical and mental health. Spending quality time with family, one-on-one interaction with caregivers and educators in childcare settings, stimulating learning opportunities and affirmation of one’s value are vital in laying a solid foundation.
3. Across Canada, 1 in 6 Children live in households that struggle to put food on the table. How does poverty create gaps, or inequities, when it comes to the early years?
Side effects of poverty related to inadequate or unsafe housing, stress within a household and a lack of proper nutrition have a major impact on a child’s health, as well as their performance in school. If a child moves from school to school because of an unstable housing situation or because their parents are precariously employed, it puts a lot of stress on the child.
4. What are some of the lasting effects across a child’s life-span when they don’t get the best start in life?
Limited access to stimulating learning opportunities can delay literacy and vocabulary development. Disruptions in school may occur because a child is unable to focus because of poor nutrition. Both of these scenarios can lead to lower levels of education and can be precursors to having difficulty securing work as an adult. Constant stress can also lead to long-term physical and mental health conditions. Not only can these issues persist into adulthood, but sometimes they can never be undone.
5. What role can the non-profit sector play in ensuring children (includingthose living in poverty) get the best start in life?
The non-profit sector plays a vital role in helping children get a strong start in life. Creative play and literacy programs, as well as after school supports are often the first things that come to mind, however, wide-ranging supports for families are also important. Employment programs, parent groups and newcomer settlement supports can help families find more solid footing, helping to address core issues they face as a result of living on a low income. Non-profits are nimble and close to the ground and we should ensure community members have a voice in shaping programming. We should also keep track of emerging trends and requests from the community to help shape our services and inform our advocacy for social justice. It is important that we raise our voices to talk about policy and program changes that can improve the lives of the families we work with every day.
6. How can investing in children make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic and physical wellbeing of our community?
Children are sponges that reflect the environment they’re in, and as the next generation of thinkers, workers and creators a lot is riding on their wellbeing. Activities that boost confidence and encourage problem solving help kids develop important skills and confidence. When we foster those skills, and adequately support their families through smart public policies, we help build children up for success. Ultimately, healthier children grow into healthier adults. Investing in children’s well-being and reducing poverty is a foundational investment in strengthening our communities and our country.
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We recently reached out to several mental health experts to put together a tip sheet for parents. It can help you recognize some of the signs of mental illness in children and youth and learn more about resources in your community where you can access services and supports.
SIGNS THAT YOUR CHILD OR TEEN MIGHT BE STRUGGLING
One of the first signs that your child or teen may be struggling with mental illness? They may start to behave in a way that is unusual or out of character for them. For example, if they used to be quite social and outgoing and they suddenly become more isolated, even refusing to go to school or interact with their peers, this could be a red flag. “You may also notice changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping patterns,” says Myra Levy, Clinical Director at East Metro Youth Services, a United Way-supported agency. “Sometimes mental health concerns, for example depression and anxiety, can also be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event including a divorce, a serious breakup or a death in the family. Your child or teen may tell you that they’re not feeling happy or that they’re having thoughts about suicide.” It’s also important to remember that you are not alone: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them.
WAYS TO GET HELP:
IN AN EMERGENCY
If you suspect your child or teen is at risk of harming themselves or others, and you feel that you’re not able to keep them safe, take them to a hospital emergency department right away, advises Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH. In less urgent situations, Dr. Henderson also suggests that parents can call United Way-supported Distress Centres for support and advice on other appropriate community or professional resources to help your child. Young people can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor and to learn more about other mental health supports in the community.
Many parents often turn to their family doctor or pediatrician for mental health support. The Toronto Star notes that, according to the Ontario Medical Association, family physicians deliver about half of all mental health services in Ontario. This includes supports such as assessments, therapy and prescribing medication. If your family doctor or pediatrician works as part of a multidisciplinary team, he or she can also refer children and their parents to other healthcare professionals on the team including psychologists, nurse practitioners or social workers. All of these services are typically covered by OHIP when delivered in this setting.
COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH CENTRES
There are also a number of accredited community-based mental health centres, including United Way-supported East Metro Youth Services, where parents and their children can access a range of mental health services. The best way to find a centre near you is to visit Connex Ontario or call United Way-supported 211 for resources in Peel, Toronto and York Region. Some community mental health centres offer walk-in clinics where parents and their children can access help with no doctor’s referral/diagnosis or appointment required. The services provided by these centres are also paid for by the government, private donors and, in some cases, supported by organizations, including United Way. Additional services range from one-on-one/group counselling sessions to more intensive options including alternative classrooms and residential treatment programs. United Way also invests in a variety of community-based mental health programs that support vulnerable and marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ and homeless youth. Counselling services at community mental health centres are typically provided by professionals with Masters-level designations in social work, psychology or counselling. “Although traditionally there have been wait lists to access psychiatry or community counselling services, walk-in clinics are supporting early access and reduced wait times,” says Alanna Burke, former Clinical Manager at East Metro, which is the lead agency for infant, child and adolescent mental health in Toronto. The agency, in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children piloted a telepsychiatry project and plans to scale up the initiative across the city to connect young people with psychiatrists to provide faster diagnosis.
Many family doctors will also refer parents and their children/teens to specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess and diagnose mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD, among others. They are also licensed to provide therapy and prescribe medication. Although services provided by psychiatrists and other specialists in the publicly-funded system (including hospitals) are covered by OHIP, wait times for doctors can be significant and variable, depending on circumstances, says Henderson. Psychologists, who do not typically require a doctor’s referral, can diagnose mental illness and provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medication. When they work in the publicly-funded system their services are covered by OHIP. While wait lists to see psychologists in private practice can be shorter, the hourly cost to see this type of specialist ranges from approximately $150- $250-per-hour. Henderson says some specialists offer a “sliding scale” of hourly fees for lower-income clients. Specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrists offer a range of therapies for children and teens including cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness—in both an individual and group settings. There are also a small number of school board social workers in school boards in Peel, Toronto and York Region that offer supports to students in a school setting. “As a parent of a child or teen struggling with mental illness, it’s also important to take care of yourself,” adds Henderson. “We know that when families are getting support together, that can really lead to positive outcomes.”
Four out of 10 Canadian adults have literacy skills “too low to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy,” according to The Conference Board of Canada. And the reports that only 47 per cent of students from the lowest income bracket (families earning less than $30,000 per year) met the provincial standard for reading.
“At a national level, in comparison to other countries, Canada is doing very well, but when you boil that down to a community level, there are communities in Ontario that are really struggling,” said Camesha Cox, managing director of The Reading Partnership. “At the top of the list are Black and Indigenous children and youth.”
Cox founded The Reading Partnership eight years ago, after returning from a teaching job in the U.K., where she developed a program to help high-school students who were reading at a primary-school level (or not at all).
“I thought, first of all, how does a person get to Grade 7 without literacy skills?” said Cox. So, when she returned to Toronto, she further developed the program to work with both children and parents, starting when the children were still young (ages four to six). For those who don’t read at the provincial level by the age of eight, she said, the likelihood they’ll continue to struggle through school and later in life increases.
Tax dollars are poured into the educational system, says Cox, yet it’s still failing many children. It’s not because these children have learning disabilities, adds Cox, but rather that they may have gaps in their education.
In a low-income home, for example, children might not have access to reading materials, or they may attend under-resourced daycares or schools. Single parents or those with precarious employment may be working multiple jobs and have less time to spend with their children at home.
“There is no system or protocol in place to ensure that those learning gaps are addressed and you’re caught up,” said Cox. That’s where community-based literacy interventions come in.
A key component to making this work, however, is involving parents, which is why The Reading Partnership also teaches parents how to teach their children to read. The program has worked with hundreds of families in the Toronto neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). In 12 weeks, children progress from not knowing their letter sounds to the ability to read and respond to comprehensive questions.
Cox specifically chose KGO as a starting point for the program. “When you see the food bank lines, even in the dead of winter, the line is long and it extends outside and people will wait in the cold and the snow and the rain,” she said. “Poverty is real and it’s dense in this community. The link between poverty and literacy is real, too. How does somebody who doesn’t have the literacy skills fill out forms, how do they become gainfully employed?”
While there are community programs, “there are still marginalized families in the community that don’t know about or don’t feel comfortable engaging and interacting with these services,” said Cox. “It’s our responsibility to bridge that gap—we’re trying to create a program and services that are meeting marginalized families where they are.”
This fall, for example, the program was piloted for the first time in one of the neediest schools in the community, where about 50 per cent of every Grade 3 class is struggling to meet the provincial standard for reading. “The teachers in the school have jumped at the opportunity to support this program,” said Cox. So far, they’ve seen an improvement in attitudes toward reading; kids are more excited and focused in class.
EarlyON Child and Family Centres also provide free family programs to parents and their children (up to six years of age) in communities and in some schools, supporting parent education and fostering healthy child development. This includes a library program, where families can take home (and keep) free books.
“I think the only way you can break intergenerational poverty is giving children opportunities to read,” said Cynthia Pommells, family resource program manager for EarlyON programs with the Delta Family Resource Centre. “When you improve their reading ability, it’s a way of giving them an education and an opportunity to build better lives as they get older.”
The program engages children—and parents. “The changes can happen when parents become interested … where you’re engaging the parents and then letting them know why we need to do this,” said Pommells.
In some cases, parents may lack literacy skills themselves, so they’re not able to help their child at home (or, even if there are books at home, the parents might not put an emphasis on reading). According to Statistics Canada, 17 per cent of Canadian adults aged 16 to 65 had a literacy score of Level 1 or below (meaning they can only find single pieces of information in short texts). Among those with the lowest levels of literacy, 29 per cent were in low-income households.
If children grow up with poor reading skills, they’re more likely to end up working unskilled jobs—and continue living in poverty “because of the intergenerational piece they inherited from their parents,” said Pommells. “So, we try to give parents that educational piece also.”
Literacy allows children to successfully move onto post-secondary education and become gainfully employed, said Cox, but it’s not the only benefit. When she was young, books allowed her to ‘travel,’ despite her inability to physically travel. “I was able to imagine and experience a world outside of my everyday lived experiences through the books I was reading,” she said.
“A child in poverty can experience a world outside of their own through books,” said Cox. “They need to be able to hope and dream and aspire to something better … Books provide another opportunity to see and experience a positive world and positive people.”
An earlier version of this story appeared on imagineacity.ca in April 2017 and has been updated and edited here.
This time of year is all about giving back—to friends, family and community. And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of doing good. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and being a good human.
1. Show them the way
“Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Senior Director, Culture and Leadership at Learn2. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” You can start doing this when your kids are young—Bean started volunteering with her little ones when they were six—by bringing them along and talking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. “Tie some purpose to your activities, and explain, ‘I do this because it’s important for…,’” Bean says. She recommends picking volunteer opportunities that are connected to your child’s world, like their soccer team, school or local playground. “That helps to bring it to a frame of reference that they can understand,” she explains. With her kids, Bean chose activities that they could be actively involved in. “I wouldn’t have brought them to a meeting where I was sitting on a board as a volunteer, or that kind of thing. It was more things like setting up for a bake sale, or getting ready for their school fun fair, so they could see the results of their efforts—and enjoy them.”
2. Get them inspired
“Volunteer experiences need to be tied to something that gives you a sense of connection and belonging as an individual. So, what is your child interested in?” says Bean. It could be volunteering at the Humane Society and giving some furry friends a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, finding a way to help kids their age. “Think about the questions your child is asking about the world, or things you’re bringing up at the table over a meal that they’re asking more than one question about,” she recommends.
When they get a bit older, you can also sign kids up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Scouts. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, use that as an opening to get them to think about giving back. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you do something community-minded that’s connected to the activity, such as making the weekly team snack. That way, you’ll connect good-human behaviour to something they love.
One way to help kids blossom into good humans is to make sure they feel appreciated for what they offer, notes Bean. “Kids aren’t thanked very much,” she says, so it’s a powerful thing to let them know they contributed in a meaningful way and helped others. “A sense of belonging and a sense of happiness are connected,” explains Bean, “which is why I think volunteerism is so powerful, because you’re really contributing and belonging to something bigger than yourself.” Thanking your kids, or having an organizer thank them, will make them feel that they’re now part of a wider community, encouraging them to keep giving back.
4. Broaden their minds
Part of the process of raising kids who give back is helping them learn about the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. One great way to start these conversations is by reading books together about people with different experiences. “For younger kids, books can be a gentle way to introduce concepts,” Marlowe says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding them to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. This can help them understand not only that people in their community are in need, but also that there is something they can do to help.
5. Foster empathy
Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe. “Research shows when we’re kinder to ourselves, and more compassionate toward ourselves, we’re kinder to and more compassionate with other people,” she says. “It strengthens our ability to be empathetic.”
One way to help our kids be more empathetic is to explicitly talk about how others may be feeling. “From very early on, we can start to encourage children to be aware of others,” says Marlowe. So, point out facial expressions in a picture book and ask your child how that person feels, or if you see an incident at the playground, ask your little one to consider what that experience was like for each of the kids present.
This is also another area where you can model the behaviour you want to see. Remember, kids are like sponges, so when you show kindness and empathy to others, your children will pick up on it.
Want to learn more about how we can help kids become good humans?