Richard Olson, Superintendent of Learning at the Waterloo Catholic district School Board in Kitchener, says a child's best interests must guide core beliefs of parents and staff. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Child’s best interests must guide core beliefs

By  Richard Olson
  • April 29, 2017

In my first year off the farm as an undergraduate at the University of Regina, I took a part-time job driving a school bus for a local company.

Halfway through my first training session, the middle-aged trainer directed me to pull the bus onto the shoulder of the highway, four-way flashers blinking.

“No matter what’s going on with the weather or the traffic,” he said, directing my eyes to the large rectangular mirror just above my sightline, “always remember your mission: you are transporting the world’s most precious cargo.”

To this day, I credit that trainer for sowing the seed of my vocation in Catholic education. The first principle in nurturing a strong partnership with our parent community is the recognition of inviolate dignity of every child.

When St. Paul tells the Church that nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39), Catholic educators understand that this is the gospel standard for the care of children. Like most other things, this is easy to say; it is in the day-to-day practice where we are tested.

For example, across Ontario educators have been challenged by the dysregulated behaviour of younger students. Teachers, educational assistants (EAs), early childhood educators (ECEs) have been punched, kicked, spat upon and cursed out by primary-aged students. The unions representing these groups are raising legitimate concerns about the rights of employees to be safe at work.

In the end, it can be tempting to vilify children who exhibit challenging behaviours and their families. There is a temptation to oversimplify the complexities of the problem: children enter school at too early an age and they are not ready for it, parents are not firm enough in their discipline at home, poor diets and smart phones have short-circuited children’s capacity to self-regulate, students with complex specialized needs like those on the autism spectrum cannot be properly served in our schools. The list goes on.

Oversimplification extends to the solutions offered to address the unwanted behaviour. School districts need to allocate more resources: attach an EA to every child who cannot behave appropriately; hire more child youth workers, social workers, psychologists; offer more parenting classes to all families, be firmer in discipline practices.

What lies behind the proffered solutions is the belief that all behaviour is learned, and that children who behave poorly are just wilful and have not been properly taught their manners, or to respect adults. It begs the question: How well do educators understand child behaviour and the motivations behind it?

In the context of Catholic schools today, do educators accept that behaviour is — among other things — a form of communication? Do we collectively have a good understanding of the different causes of behaviour? Do we respond to all behaviour in the same way because it looks the same, even if a different child with different needs is exhibiting it? Or do our responses effectively match the different motivations for the behaviour we encounter?

In all of this our foundational beliefs about the goodness of children are scrutinized. Guided by Jesus’ admonition to His disciples, “Let the children come to me” (Mk 10.14), Catholic schools might summarize our core beliefs this way:

  • • Severely dysregulated, unsafe behaviour in schools adversely impacts staff, students and the students engaged in the behaviour.
  • • Staff have the right to be safe at work and students have the right to be safe at school.
  • • Students with unsafe behaviour have the right to be understood and supported in ways that are appropriate and effective.
  • • Within the duty of care, the onus rests with the adults to understand the developmental and individual needs of every student.
  • • Parents, staff and the students themselves all do the best they can with the knowledge, skills, processes and resources they have.
  • Walking forward together, we can embrace our shared beliefs and let them guide how we steward and respond to the preciousness of all children.

(Olson is Superintendent of Learning at the Waterloo Catholic District School Board in Kitchener, Ont.)

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