Experiences in the middle years, ages 6-12, have critical and long lasting effects on brain development, resiliency and success. Research continues to show that children’s social and emotional well-being affects how they learn. We know that childhood depression and anxiety are on the rise, while empathy and optimism among youth is in decline, yet very few research projects provide an opportunity for children themselves to share insight into their worlds; their feelings, thoughts, needs and wishes.
The Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) is the first survey of its kind in Canada to ask children in Grade 4 and Grade 7 how they think and feel about their experiences both inside and outside of school. The tool was developed in 2006 at UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) by Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, Associate Faculty with the School of Population and Public Health. Along with a team of researchers and staff, Dr. Schonert-Reichl worked in collaboration with the United Way of the Lower Mainland and the Vancouver School Board. Pilot tests for the MDI were carried out in Vancouver, Coquitlam and Revelstoke school districts from 2009 to 2011. The questionnaire has since been implemented in 24 school districts across the province, with a total of over 25,000 children surveyed.
The MDI is a unique tool that gives children a voice while giving adults insight into areas that have great significance in children’s lives but are not typically evaluated by other forms of assessments. “Rather than evaluating academic progress, the MDI gives children an opportunity to share their experiences,” notes Dr. Martin Guhn, Assistant Professor with the Human Early Learning Partnership in the School of Population Health. “In this regard, the MDI has great potential to provide educators, parents, researchers, community organizations and policy makers with much needed information about the psychological and social worlds of children during middle childhood.”
Of particular interest to Dr. Guhn is the MDI Well-Being Index, a composite score of five measures: Optimism, Happiness, Self Esteem, General Health and Absence of Sadness. Scores on the Well-Being Index tell us the percentage of children in a particular neighbourhood who are ‘thriving’, who are experiencing ‘medium to high well-being’ and, who are struggling with ‘low well-being’. In order to be placed into the ‘thriving’ category, children must score high on 15 questions related to the five measures of well-being.
Dr. Guhn is excited not only about an increased interest in looking at well-being as a social indicator, but also by the potential to link MDI data to other data sets to get a more complete picture of the contexts in which children are developing. “It is adding to our understanding of how society is doing. We can link this data to contextual information, such as a census data, to provide a more comprehensive picture of how children in their middle years are doing.”
Jennifer Fox, HELP’s Community Engagement Coordinator, is excited for other reasons. “One of the most interesting aspects of the MDI research project is the fact that it includes children’s voices,” she explains. “And one of the most exciting parts of my job is sharing MDI results with the kids themselves. By doing so, we are validating their opinions and concerns about the world in which they are learning and growing. And maybe more importantly, we are supporting and encouraging them to begin to create significant change within their schools and communities.”
“Teen Photography” by Ursula Le Guin, Flickr