By Nathan Battams

Download In Conversation with Lisa Wolff, Director, Policy and Research, UNICEF Canada

November 20 is National Child Day and United Nations Universal Children’s Day, special observances commemorating the adoption of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. For those who study, serve and support children in Canada, these observances provide an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the diverse and unique contributions of children to society while promoting and raising awareness about their well-being.

As the 60th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s signing of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2019 marks a special year for understanding children and youth. This understanding has been strengthened through the publication of Where Does Canada Stand?, the baseline report for the Canadian Index of Child and Youth Well-being.

Lisa Wolff, Director of Policy and Research at UNICEF Canada, recently joined Vanier Institute Communications Manager Nathan Battams to discuss this innovative and groundbreaking snapshot of child and youth well-being, its development and future directions.


How did the Canadian Index of Child and Youth Well-being come into being?

For decades, we’ve been tracking the state of children in Canada and around the world using population-level data to help understand where progress is being made on child and youth well-being, where challenges remain and where there might be no progress or things might be getting worse. This data facilitates the work of policy-makers, researchers, advocates and influencers in creating better conditions for children and youth to grow up in.

More than 30 years ago, UNICEF started the State of the World’s Children reports, which have been influential in terms of measuring child and youth well-being. Since then, there have been many “state of” reports on many different conditions that also use indicators and population data.

In more recent years, UNICEF started to focus on high-income countries as well and, in 2007, established an Index of Child and Youth Well-being, which brought together a number of indicators of how children in rich countries are doing in different aspects of life into one composite number and ranking. We’ve since published iterations of that. In the most recent, 2017 index, Canada ranked 25th of 41 countries in overall child and youth well-being.

Through this index, we discovered that Canada’s ranking among our peer countries – rich countries that have similar resources to spend on children and should therefore be getting reasonably similar outcomes and can be compared in regard to how they’re doing – is consistently in the middle and making very little progress relative to some other countries who were able to actually advance their standing over time.

This prompted us to question how some countries such as the United Kingdom were able to move up the rankings with a fair degree of speed and why we were stuck in the middle. At the same time, we were finding that many organizations were keen to use the UNICEF rankings in their own advocacy and in creating their own statistical dashboards for children and youth. For example, the Growing Up in BC project was inspired by the UNICEF Index.

We also recognized that Canada has data about children and youth that can’t be compared to other countries, because it’s unique to Canadian surveys, and that this rich data could provide additional valuable insight into what’s going on in children’s lives and how things are changing. There was already the example of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, which does that at the general population level as well as compares how social progress relates to economic progress. So, we decided that we would create a Canadian Index of Child and Youth Well-being, inspired by the UNICEF model and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing – one that would bring together richer, focused data and insights about how children are doing and, if we could iterate the index over time, would look at progress and gaps.

The first thing we did was to assemble an advisory group. It was a large and diverse group that grew over the three-year period when we were developing the index. We started with around 40 advisors from across Canada – multidisciplinary, coming from research and government and community organizations from across the country, to ask them about their thoughts on what an index should do.

Our resulting vision has two purposes. First, we want it to serve as a communication tool for Canadian decision makers and influencers across the country – one that highlights how our youth are doing and identifies opportunities for change and progress. Second, by compiling diverse data points, not just in a dashboard but as a comprehensive view across different dimensions of children’s lives, we can look for patterns and focus on some of the big actions that could really “move the needle” on child and youth well-being and focus on what actions might actually address big gaps.

The index, therefore, takes a comprehensive view of childhood, one that isn’t based solely on the indicators that have mattered traditionally to adults (and are therefore more likely to be funded in population surveys), such as education outcomes and health status. Those things really matter to adults, and they matter to young people too, but what our advisors and what the youth themselves told us (because young people were an instrumental part of the index development process) is that their lives have a lot of other important aspects as well. For example, how much play and leisure time they have? How much do they get to participate in their families and in society? What relationships are important to them and how are they doing? How do they feel about school – not just in terms of grades, but about the experiences of school itself?

The index takes a comprehensive view of childhood, one that isn’t based solely on the indicators that have mattered traditionally to adults (and are therefore more likely to be funded in population surveys).

We settled on nine dimensions representing broad, conceptual aspects of children’s lives that are measured by a total of 125 statistical indicators. Although it’s a lot of indicators, this approach provides a more comprehensive view of their well-being, and by organizing them into dimensions, we’re able to define child and youth well-being in a broader way and elevate some things that are important to young people as well as to some of the adults who were involved in the project.

The process to get there brought together several strands of inquiry. We looked at how others were creating indices and measuring child and youth well-being in Canada and around the world. We did a scan of practice, exploring some of the innovative and exciting approaches being taken, as well as some of the things that were already agreed upon that were important to measure and were validated in the research. We explored a lot of the literature, including research and knowledge brought into the development by our advisors, and we incorporated the lived experience of young people by asking them what’s important in their lives. A prototype of the index was created, which we brought back to young people to ask what they liked about it, what we were missing and what was problematic about our approach – it was an iterative process.

In some cases, the views of adults and youth clashed, and when this occurred, we let the young people decide. Family meals came up as an example. Some of the indicators you often see cited when people are talking about youth health ask if they have regular family meals. We know through research that has been validated, that young people who tend to eat more meals with their families often have a better sense of belonging, better mental health, fewer risk behaviours and better grades.

In some cases, the views of adults and youth clashed, and when this occurred, we let the young people decide.

But in talking to young people – and we made sure we talked to those furthest from opportunity, including First Nations communities and youth in closed custody facilities, where youth often have severed relationships with their families – many told us that family meals feel a bit too normative, are stigmatizing and made them feel badly about their lack of family relationships or otherwise weren’t realistic. This was true even for some in higher-income families, in which we heard statements such as “We don’t do that, we’re too busy.” Instead, we focus on measuring the outcomes – Are kids healthy? Do they feel they belong? – and less on what contributes to that. We can explore that in other ways.

Another clash was around the importance of pets. A research expert might say, “Well, pets were never really studied as important to well-being,” though there’s some emerging evidence in some other countries. But time and time again, when you ask young people about the important relationships in their lives, they go beyond what research has focused on in terms of parents, teachers, peers and other supportive adults in the community.

Time and time again, when you ask young people about the important relationships in their lives, they go beyond what research has focused on.

The children frequently made statements such as my pet is what makes me feel good, my pet is one of the primary relationships in my life. So, we included an indicator for it, because we want to track it over time to see how many youth are caring for pets and have this important relationship in their lives. Their pets can become important to stave off loneliness and to create a sense of acceptance. It may be that pets become more important as an indicator when other relationships are more difficult. It was something interesting that we heard way too often to omit – so it’s included in the index to honour that.

What did your team do to ensure that diverse experiences were captured, such as those of Indigenous children or immigrant youth?

Predating the development of the index, we held a series of roundtables, similar to the Vanier Institute’s Families in Canada Listening Tour events, with child-serving organizations and leaders. One roundtable was focused specifically on Indigenous organizations and leaders. We asked the question “What does well-being mean to you?” to get a community definition, since there is no single, official definition of well-being. That really centred the kinds of things we chose to measure.

There was also a lot of diversity in the advisory group, and not just in terms of culture, age and social and economic location in Canada, but also in disciplines and academic approaches.

From Indigenous leaders, we heard about the importance of access to culture and the integrity of the ecosystem and environment in all their relations around children and youth. So that shows up in the index in a dimension called Are we connected to our environment?, which was actually a fairly uncommon inclusion in measuring child and youth well-being, and there are measurable climate-related indicators such as exposure to air pollution and access to natural spaces. That environmental sensibility didn’t surface at any of the other roundtables – only the Indigenous perspectives. It’s also validated by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which we also measure in the index with indicators that are aligned to the child-focused SDGs.

There was also a lot of diversity in the advisory group, and not just in terms of culture, age and social and economic location in Canada, but also in disciplines and academic approaches.

What are the next steps, and what is your vision on how the index will be used?

We would like to see governments at the provincial, territorial and federal levels track a broader set of indicators and dimensions of children’s lives and focus just as much on things like their freedom to play and participate as we currently do on academic performance and drug use. Better benchmarking and monitoring of the state of children and youth can help guide decision makers and policy-makers with evidence-based insights.

In fact, the index is already being used, for instance, in the Region of Waterloo, which comprises a number of municipalities and rural communities. They voted on a new set of goals for children in the region aligned with the nine dimensions of the index, to broaden the scope of their focus and progress at the regional level. There are hundreds of organizations that come together in a child and youth planning table in the region and work together on providing services for children and informing policies, and this provides them with a wider lens.

Partners such as the Ontario Trillium Foundation are working with us to create a local survey tool aligned with the index. Any community could implement this survey to gather data about children and youth, which is really hard to come by on a local scale. This data tends to be missed in the big national surveys, either due to being overlooked entirely or because the sample size is too small. If communities choose to, they could benchmark how their youth are doing against other communities or against the national averages.

Better benchmarking and monitoring of the state of children and youth can help guide decision makers and policy-makers with evidence-based insights.

The Foundation of Greater Montreal has already started to do that. For instance, they created a Montreal-based report on the state of children using the UNICEF index of well-being in 2017, and they found that they were lagging behind the national average on food security. As a result, that has localized greater attention and more programs, and efforts are under way to address food and security in the region.

So these are some of the ways UNICEF’s data and analysis are being used across Canada, and we’re glad it’s resonating and opening new ways of thinking about ourselves, because this wider and more comprehensive lens on children and youth can facilitate and strengthen policies and programs to have a significant impact on well-being for children and youth across the country.

Lisa Wolff is Director of Policy and Research at UNICEF Canada, where she promotes public policy and practices that align with the principles and standards of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Lisa leverages UNICEF’s global strengths, including data and innovation, and works across sectors with diverse partners to advance the rights of children in Canada – work for which she received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Download In Conversation with Lisa Wolff, Director, Policy and Research, UNICEF Canada

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2015, Canada and 192 other UN member states in the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a framework for action that includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
This resource/blog is associated with the following SDG (click on the icon to see other content from the Vanier Institute on this goal):

Published on November 20, 2019