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Gearing Up

Middle Years Children in Ontario Today

Ontario is home to more than one million children ages 6–12. This number is expected to increase to 1.26 million in the next 20 years.4 Middle years children in Ontario today are culturally, spiritually, linguistically, racially, ethnically and geographically diverse. Approximately four per cent of children under the age of 14 across Ontario have disabilities or special needs. Close to six per cent of the middle years population is enrolled in a French-language school.5

Some middle years children have ancestral connections to the land. Some were born in Ontario, some have migrated, and some have come as refugees. Some children practice their faith in places of worship such as temples, synagogues, churches, gurdwaras, and mosques; they engage their spirituality in forests, fields and in their homes and centres. For some, their faith is reflected in their manner of dress, the symbols they carry, their lived experiences, or in their silent prayers. Some children do not follow any faith at all. Middle years children speak many languages, and possess their own unique talents and skills.

What the Data Says

Thirty-two per cent of middle years children in Ontario are considered racialized: this includes children who are South Asian (10 per cent), Black (seven per cent) and Chinese (five per cent).6 Approximately 46 per cent of middle years children in Ontario are first or second generation Canadians, and almost 10 per cent are new immigrants arriving in the last 10 years.7

What the Data Says

Indigenous children represent over three per cent of the middle years population in Ontario.8 Of these Indigenous children, 73 per cent identify as First Nations, 22 per cent as Métis and two per cent as Inuk.

What the Data Says

About 67 per cent of middle years children live in urban centres, and 33 per cent live in small, rural or remote communities. Most middle years children growing up in Ontario are concentrated around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. By 2037, almost 60 per cent of all middle years children in Ontario will live in this region.9

What the Data Says

Almost 14 per cent of middle years children in our province are reported to be living in low-income households, and 18 per cent are living in housing that is considered “not suitable.”10 Provincewide screening of babies born in 2014 (who will be entering their middle years in 2020) showed that 13 per cent of these babies are at high risk of adverse childhood experiences, which is linked to poor long-term outcomes.

Many families face challenges and pressure points. Families in Ontario include parents who work out of the home, some at multiple jobs or in precarious or unstable employment, and some are lone-parent households with added pressures. Finding quality time together can be hard and trying to afford the cost of recreational activities, as well as summer and after-school care, can cause stress and anxiety for many families. Other challenges include food insecurity and access to adequate transportation and stable housing. Many families also face barriers, bias and discrimination, including racism and heterosexism. All of these factors influence the wellbeing of families.

Middle years children are highly connected and digital. They learn and use technology and social media in more frequent and embedded ways than ever before, and this is changing the way they develop, learn, relate to others, and think about the world. While this brings many new opportunities, many parents and caregivers are struggling to guide their children through these new realities, including how best to establish appropriate limits and guidance around technology use in the home.

Support for those that need it

Our vision is that all children in Ontario are happy, healthy, hopeful and well. However, we know that many children have unique circumstances and specific needs, and face multiple and complex barriers that affect their wellbeing. Some children need more targeted supports to ensure they have the same opportunities to succeed, and government and communities need to do more to reduce barriers and help all children to thrive. These children include:

First Nations, Métis and Inuit: Indigenous children and their families are very diverse. First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities across Ontario each have distinct cultures, histories and experiences. The Indigenous population is younger than the non-Indigenous population: about 33 per cent of the Indigenous population in Ontario consists of children and teenagers ages 19 and under, compared with 23.8 per cent for the non-Indigenous population. The Indigenous population in Ontario is also growing faster than the overall population.11

Indigenous children in Ontario face complex challenges due to the historic and ongoing trauma caused by colonialism and residential schools, which have resulted in high rates of poverty, poor housing, and barriers to education and cultural learning. For example, Indigenous children in the middle years are more likely to be overweight,12 have a long-term health problem,13 live in a family without either of their parents, live in a lone-parent family,14 or live in homes that are overcrowded or in need of major repairs.15Indigenous young people report lower levels of wellbeing and are at greater risk for health problems, depression, anxiety, suicide, substance use and lower educational achievement.16

Racialized: The experience of racialized communities is diverse, and the breadth of lived experiences needs to be recognized. We know that racialized children face challenges with racism, marginalization, education setbacks, and social and cultural isolation that can have a negative impact on their development. Racialized/visible minority children 14 and under are more likely to live in families with low income (25 per cent) than their non-visible minority peers (14 per cent).17 They are also more likely to experience discrimination in their daily lives.

Newcomers: Immigrant, refugee and first generation children have unique needs and experiences as they navigate and adapt to a new culture and environment in Canada. These families are also more likely to be living far away from larger, and more rooted family and social networks. There can be a significant range in the social and economic position of newcomer families. Children who are new to Canada may speak English or French as a second language, may have past experiences with trauma, and may have extra responsibilities at home as they support their parents in navigating systems and services in their communities.

LGBTQ2S: Starting in the middle years and continuing into the teen years and beyond, many young Ontarians are beginning to contemplate their gender identity and/or their sexual orientation, and may begin identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or two-spirited (LGBTQ2S). We know that LGBTQ2S students are more likely to experience discrimination, verbal assault and physical violence than their peers. Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of educators working with students in the middle years reported awareness of incidents of exclusion and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.18 We also know that LGBTQ2S young people are more likely to face challenges with mental health, substance use and homelessness.

Francophone: Francophone children in Ontario face challenges in building a cultural and linguistic identity, and belonging within a diverse Francophone community. Almost six per cent of middle years students are enrolled in French-language schools throughout Ontario and almost three per cent report having French spoken as one of the main languages at home.19 French reading and media use has been shown to decrease with age through the middle years.20

Children with disabilities or special needs: Many children in Ontario have disabilities or special needs which cut across one or more domains including physical, cognitive, emotional, social and/or communication.21 These include communication disorders, physical disabilities, mental health challenges, behavioural issues, acquired brain injuries, developmental disabilities, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), learning disabilities, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and chronic and/or long-term medical conditions.

Many children with disabilities or special needs face barriers and challenges relating to accessibility and social inclusion. These young people may be more vulnerable to abuse and bullying and living in poverty. Children with disabilities are less likely to participate in recreational activities than those who do not have disabilities. Additionally, parents of middle years children with disabilities or special needs often need extra support to manage daily activities, child care and other family responsibilities. Two-thirds of parents surveyed reported these needs as unmet.23

Living in families facing socio-economic pressures and precarious situations: In 2011, almost 14 per cent of middle years children were reported as living in families with low income. We know that lone parent families, in particular lone-mother led families, are facing particular barriers with 43 per cent of people living in lone-mother families living below the poverty line. Approximately 20 per cent of middle years children live in lone-parent households, and 85 per cent of these lone-parent households are headed by women.24 Evidence shows that children living in poverty are at an increased risk for a wide range of physical, behavioural and emotional problems. The chronic stress associated with living in poverty can also adversely impact a child's cognitive development, memory, concentration and ability to learn.25 Children living in low-income families and neighbourhoods are much more likely to be overweight,26 and much less likely to participate in recreational and extracurricular activities.27

In addition, families may be facing other pressures and situations that put them and their children at increased risk, including substance use, mental health challenges, domestic violence and family breakdown.

Living in care: In 2012–13, the average number of children in the care of children’s aid societies was 17,273, including 7,552 Crown wards and 1,304 children in formal Customary Care.28 We know that some groups of children are over-represented in the child welfare system, including Indigenous and Black children. First Nations, Métis and Inuit children under the age of 15 represent three per cent of the provincial population, but more than 21 per cent of all children in the care of children’s aid societies are Indigenous. 29 Compared to white children, Black children in Ontario are also more likely to be investigated and taken into care as part of the child welfare system.30

Eighty-two per cent of children in care have diagnosed special needs. Children in care have a high school graduation rate of 46 per cent compared to their peers who, in 2015–16, had an 86.5 per cent graduation rate.31

Living in rural, remote and Northern communities: Middle years children and families who live in rural and remote communities may face additional difficulties in accessing education, recreation, health and social services, due to distance and transportation options. Access to fresh and nutritious food may also be limited in some remote locations, and families may live far from one another, impacting opportunities for day-to-day connection with neighbours and friends.

Gender diversity: Gender stereotypes begin to appear in the middle years, and this is also a prime developmental period to build the confidence, critical thinking and perseverance needed to address sexism, transphobia and gender bias throughout the life course. During this period, children may also be subjected to “gender policing,” pressure to conform to traditional gender expectations and roles, and criticism and bullying if their gender expression falls outside of them. Many disparities also exist between girls and boys. It is important to empower children to explore a range of different learning and subject areas, activities and hobbies without a gender bias.