Gearing Up

The Importance of the Middle Years

Period of development and change

The middle years (ages 6–12) are a developmental turning point and a critical period of transitions from early childhood to the teen years.

Middle years children are exploring who they are and who they want to be. They are learning skills and health habits, grappling with the physical changes and social and emotional impacts that come with puberty, and exploring their concept of self and spirit. They are growing into their own intersecting identities – including social identities (cultural, racial, ethnicity, gender expression, gender identity) and personal identities (preferences, values, beliefs, abilities). Children at this stage are deepening their understanding of interpersonal relationships, building the foundations of healthy romantic relationships and taking their first steps toward independence. It is also a time when early indicators of mental health, behavioural and learning challenges emerge – these are often known as the “seven years of warning”1 – when early interventions can make a big impact on long-term outcomes.

Wellbeing for children cuts across all the domains of development – emotional, social, cognitive, physical and communication – as well as spiritual development and a child’s sense of self. Success in one area is related to success in others. The social, cultural, geographic and economic context in which children grow up heavily influences their experiences and can affect their long-term outcomes. Wellbeing is a wholistic and all-encompassing concept, and this is particularly important for Indigenous children where wellbeing is grounded in cultural identity, and the wellbeing of family, extended family and community.

Positive interactions and experiences in middle childhood build a foundation for the future. There are many opportunities during middle childhood to foster a love of learning, build a strong sense of self-identity, establish healthy relationships, connect with culture, nature and community and establish healthy, active habits, all of which can have a lifelong impact.

Families matter

Healthy, thriving families are fundamentally important to healthy, happy, thriving children. Strong and stable families support child wellbeing, and research shows that family involvement significantly improves a child’s resilience and long-term outcomes. The experiences that middle years children share with their parents, caregivers, siblings, extended and chosen families have an enormous impact on what and how they learn, and the way they see themselves and the world. We also know that stable, consistent and nurturing relationships are vital to supporting optimal mental health in middle childhood.2

All families want the best for their children. Parents and caregivers across Ontario work extremely hard to support their children and ensure they have what they need to succeed. However, some may not have all the supports and options they need to help their children reach their full potential. Some families are struggling to make ends meet while trying to provide quality after school child care, summer child care, and recreational activities, and other supports to benefit their children. We also know that lone-parent households may have additional challenges, in particular lone-parent households headed by women.

Families are the experts on their children’s strengths and needs. Improving supports and services for middle years children and their families involves asking parents what they need, and developing policies and designing programs to help them achieve their goals.

Working together to support middle years children to thrive

The evidence is clear – it is critical that middle years children and their families receive the support that they need to thrive. Children who have healthy, supportive experiences in their middle years are better prepared to develop into healthy, happy, hopeful and thriving young adults. Children who are not supported during their middle years are at increased risk for long-term physical, mental health and behavioural challenges, as well as poorer life outcomes. The Ontario government recognizes the importance of middle childhood, and the need for a common vision and framework to drive action and supports for middle years children and their families.

People and organizations throughout Ontario are working to contribute positively to the lives of children, and many are helping to change lives and build future leaders. Yet more can be done to drive collaborations, align priorities, equip leaders, and engage families around a common set of outcomes.

Helpful Resources

Gearing Up: A Strategic Framework to Help Ontario Middle Years Children Thrive is informed by On MY Way: A Guide to Support Middle Years Child Development, a developmental resource that provides information on what the leading research tells us about how middle years children are changing across physical, cognitive, emotional, social and communication, as well as spiritual, domains. The resource describes what parents, caregivers and other caring adults can do to support optimal development. It maps the significant elements in a child’s development and helps define the most critical opportunities for early interventions that will impact the future.

To support middle years children and their families, and to harness the efforts of those who are already supporting them, Gearing Up: A Strategic Framework to Help Ontario Middle Years Children Thrive will guide, focus and maximize support for middle years children and their families throughout the province.

Some of the actions the government will take to support middle years children are outlined below.

Focus on the needs of marginalized children and families

Through Gearing Up, we will ensure that meeting the needs of marginalized children and their families are priorities in supporting middle years children to thrive.

Mobilize evidence

Gearing Up is based on up-to-date evidence about middle child development. It reflects the voices of diverse communities, families and child advocates across the province, who already recognize the importance of middle childhood in shaping long-term outcomes for youth and young adults. We will gather this research and knowledge so that those who play a role in children’s lives have access to the tools they need to understand what’s happening developmentally in middle years children, and how to support them as they transition to the teen years.

Embed family-centred approaches

Family-centred approaches promote the active engagement of parents/caregivers through access to resources and support, informed decision making and the delivery of flexible and responsive service based on family priorities, strengths and needs.3

Through Gearing Up, we are creating the conditions in which families are better able to support their children to thrive. It recognizes the important role of families and lays out the steps we will take to embed a strengths-based, family-centred approach in program design and delivery.

Drive alignment and collaboration

Gearing Up lays the groundwork for an integrated and coordinated approach to the planning and delivery of services and programs for children ages 6–12 and their families. It builds on significant efforts across Ontario to address systemic barriers and improve outcomes for children and families. For example, it builds on Ontario’s Anti-Racism Strategic Plan by recognizing systemic racism and addressing it head on. It also recognizes the work being done through Ontario’s Special Needs Strategy to provide services for children with disabilities and special needs in a more family-centred manner.

Establish a common set of outcomes, goals and indicators

Gearing Up drives action toward a common set of evidence-based, wholistic, long-term and aspirational outcomes for children and families. It takes a bold step forward to map a first-of-its-kind, cross-sector, made in Ontario vision for children. Gearing Up joins with Ontario’s Renewed Early Years and Child Care Policy Framework and the Ontario youth strategy, Stepping Up: A Strategic Framework to Help Ontario’s Youth Succeed, to form a complete, cross-sector, life-course policy framework to support the wellbeing of children and youth in Ontario.

Catalyze leadership

Gearing Up is a vehicle to catalyze or increase leadership, kick-start innovation and drive collaborations across governments, communities, and the philanthropic sector in order to expand and coordinate efforts to improve the wellbeing of children, families and communities.