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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

The Dalai Lama's Vancouver visit aims to promote more compassionate world

October 20, 2014

Vancouver Sun, October 18, 2014 - When the Dalai Lama met with world religious leaders in Vancouver 10 years ago, what he proposed to them was not the slightest bit radical. He wanted to create a more compassionate world by educating children’s hearts.

But his means to get there — community-based interventions backed by solid scientific research — was a bit less conventional in that august company.

Nonetheless, they all agreed in their own fashion that the idea was a good one.

It is hard to argue with the goal of raising the next generation to be calm and confident, compassionate, peaceful and kind, and engaged with each other and their studies. It could only make the world a better place.

“People were attracted to that concept — educating the heart — but then we had to ask ourselves, what does that mean and how would we do it?” said Maria LeRose, program manager for the Vancouver-based Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. “And then what would be the effect of having children, and the adults around them, exhibiting these qualities?”

To begin to answer some of those questions they turned to their research partners at the Human Early Learning Partnership, then led by late founding director Clyde Hertzman, one of the world’s leading experts in early learning and the Canada Research Chair in Population Health and Human Development.

HELP is research institute based at the University of British Columbia with a unique outward-looking focus on bringing the benefit of its expertise to the community, helping to build training programs and sharing information with hundreds of community and government agencies across the province, anyone who touches the lives of children in a positive way.

The research group already had a massive knowledge base on the well-being of children gleaned from many years of data collection, much of it gathered from B.C. youngsters as they moved through the school system. B.C. kindergarten teachers fill out a detailed questionnaire on each of their students every February, assessing the child’s emotional maturity, social competence, cognitive development, physical well-being and communication skills. The Early Development Instrument is how academics monitor changes, trends and vulnerabilities in children at a population level.

With Hertzman’s help, the Dalai Lama Center was able to adapt these established psychometric methods and available data to create a tool that would provide a statistical snapshot of children in the Dalai Lama Center’s five dimensions of social and emotional well-being.The simple heart-shaped legend for what is now called the Heart-Mind Index is conceptually simple, so it presents easily to everyone from teachers and social workers to daycare workers and government officials and administrators, even moms and dads.

But each dimension unpacks to reveal an underpinning of solid, peer-reviewed scientific research attesting to the benefits of the Dalai Lama’s deceptively simple idea. And it turns out that children who learn to be kind and resolve conflicts, who live free of fear and anxiety, who are compassionate and present in the moment, grow up to be happier, healthier and more productive in nearly every way that social science and psychology can measure. The scientific literature suggests that economists and criminologists can get excited about the potential of social and emotional learning projects, as well.

“We only need to look at the extreme costs of mental health problems among adolescents are imposing on society right now to realize that we do need to seriously think about prevent strategies earlier in children’s lives,” said Pippa Rowcliffe, knowledge translation director for the UBC-based early learning research group.

“We sometimes think that these kinds of costs are just there and we can’t do anything about them; well, the evidence says that we can do something about the incidence of anxiety in children, which is at levels now that we never used to see,” she said.

“You could look at this as a children’s rights issue, that healthy, happier children and families are going to better for all of us as a society, that [educating the heart] is just the right thing to do,” Rowcliffe said. “But there is a strong business case to be made for early intervention as a way to deal with the crisis in the mental health of teenagers.”

The Heart-Mind Index includes a community map that indicates the proportion of children in each neighbourhood or community that show strength in each of the five dimensions. If, for example, a particular neighbourhood shows that only 30 per cent of kindergarten-aged children show peaceful problem solving as a strength, the community and all its agencies may want to focus some effort on strengthening those skills among their youngest citizens.

While academic tools measure levels of vulnerability, the Heart-Mind Index — using the same base data — consciously takes the opposite approach, highlighting strengths.

Many factors from income and food insecurity to language skills and social isolation could be having an impact the social and emotional well-being of children in a given community, things that are difficult for neighbourhood house daycare workers or community health nurses to address. But every adult at every point of contact in a child’s life can teach and model kindness, compassion and problem-solving skills and maybe move the needle in one or more of the five dimensions that way.

Research projects that follow schoolchildren to adulthood suggest the benefits of exposing children to such heart-mind programs in school can even help mitigate the disadvantages of poverty and difficult home life.Armed with a new and uniquely accessible way to express the social and emotional well-being of children neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the Dalai Lama Center launched a pilot study last September, delivering the key concepts and supporting data to seven communities: Coquitlam, New Westminster, Port Alberni, Surrey, Vancouver, West Vancouver and the HELP Aboriginal Steering Committee.

The DLC deliberately seeded their pilots with all kinds of different kinds of organizations to see what each would do with the information. Each community began to share the information and were soon engaging their communities to incorporate the Dalai Lama’s five dimensions of Heart-Mind Well-Being into their planning and goal setting.

In Coquitlam, the Heart-Mind concepts were presented to school district administrative staff, in Vancouver to Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House, a direct service provider for preschool-aged children. In Surrey, the point of entry was the South Asian Early Childhood Development Task Group, which immediately engaged the much larger Children’s Partnership of Surrey-White Rock. They retooled their annual Cities Fit for Children Conference to roll out the Heart-Mind Index directly to service providers and parents at a special pre-conference event entitled Thriving Children: Start by Nurturing the Heart.

In Port Alberni, the Children First Network — a support network for early childhood educators — shared the information with the town’s at-home daycare providers.

“West Vancouver has an incredibly well integrated system serving children and families and they immediately started adapting almost every one of the programs that they offered to parents to include these elements of well-being,” LeRose said.

The pilot groups — as diverse as they are — all came back seeking evidence of tangible benefit that would allow them to make a case to their front line workers, community partners and funding bodies, just as the Dalai Lama had anticipated a decade earlier, said LeRose.

“What happened at the end of the six months is every one of these organizations decided to focus more attention on the social and emotional aspect of child development,” said LeRose. “What they needed initially was more information about the science that backs the best practises behind each dimension.”

Good ideas spread quickly, though.

From the initial presentation to 28 people, the program materials were shared in just six months with 1,700 people and at least 150 groups and agencies.

The experiences of the Heart-Mind pilot communities are now being used to produce materials, tools and strategies that communities can use with their youngest clients and the entire community to strengthen the Dalai Lama’s five dimensions of well-being, said LeRose.

The Dalai Lama Center is actively training people from B.C. communities to use these concepts to improve the lives of children and bringing the world’s experts on the science of kindness to Vancouver, so we stay on the cutting edge.

“People are really excited about these ideas and they want something they can run with,” she said.

Educating the heart

The Dalai Lama will be in Vancouver Tuesday for an invitation-only dialogue with students and teachers on educating the heart. The Dalai Lama will lead a public dialogue in the afternoon with an international group of thought leaders from the realms of business, education and academia at the Vancouver Convention Centre (East).

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