Gearing Up

Goal: Ontario Children Have Positive Relationships

Friends play an important role in the lives of middle years children. As children develop through the middle years, they are acquiring the skills they need to develop healthy and close friendships, which are important basic life skills.

Outcomes we want:

#7 Ontario children form and maintain healthy, close relationships

#8 Ontario children respect others and value diversity, equity and inclusion

#9 Ontario children feel safe at home, at school, online and in their communities

Why it matters:

Middle years children need adults in their lives who care about them, encourage them and believe in them, and who can help them learn how to have positive interactions with others. This includes having access to adults outside the home, such as mentors, Elders, Senators and traditional knowledge keepers. A strong sense of identity and prosocial values about inclusion, equity and diversity can help ensure that middle years children in Ontario grow up to contribute to their communities in positive ways.

Children need safe places to play, build independence and explore social connections. It’s important that middle years children are supported as they learn how to manage conflict, stand up to bullying, and respectfully navigate social networks.

Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her”.

Urie Bronfenbrenner

Snapshot of Ontario:

Children increasingly relate to each other through technology and online. More than one-quarter of students in Grade 4 have their own phones, with the numbers increasing as they age (85 per cent in Grade 11). This means that children today are often connected when they are not together in person, and are using portable tools to communicate.

What the Data Says

More than one-third of students in Grades 4-6 have Facebook accounts, even though the site’s own terms of use forbids anyone under the age of 13 from joining.75

Middle years children are also increasingly exposed to social media sites that rely on stereotypes and embed commercial messages into a child’s sense of identity, and expectations for relationships.76

Middle years children need help to develop the skills to be safe, including managing the ways they deal with conflicts and risks at school and online.

The new Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum (Grades 1–8) supports students to develop the skills and knowledge to understand themselves and others, develop and maintain healthy relationships, and be safe physically and emotionally. Younger students learn about how to be a good friend and have respectful two-way communication. Older students (by Grade 6) learn the effects of stereotypes, including homophobia and sexism, and the importance of respecting themselves and others, in all their diversity – including people of all gender identities, sexual orientations, mental and physical abilities, and social and cultural backgrounds.

#7 Ontario children form and maintain healthy, close relationships

Social connectedness supports optimal child wellbeing. During the middle years, children strengthen their sense of belonging, through being connected to friends, family and community.

Children in the middle years are still closely linked to their caregivers and families, but the role of friends and others is taking on increasing importance. Children are beginning to develop close, trusting friendships and as they get older, they develop the foundations of romantic relationships. Studies show that children’s social connectedness is linked to self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as academic achievement.

Supporting this outcome involves:

Building strong social and emotional skills

When children learn social and emotional skills – when they feel confident making new friends, expressing their ideas and dealing with conflicts – they are more likely to feel good about themselves and make healthy choices. When children experience challenges in this area, they are more likely to feel isolated, anxious and depressed.

Most middle years children have the developmental foundation they need to hone their social and emotional skills, including the ability to be empathetic, use language to communicate in different ways, and solve problems while considering other people’s perspectives. Some social skills – such as coping with bullying or demonstrating respect for others – are especially valuable. Encouragement, patience and active coaching from adults and caregivers can help children develop these basic life skills. We know that some middle years children with developmental concerns or special needs face additional barriers to developing social skills, and helping them overcome these barriers is extremely important, as friendships can be a protective factor for them.

Helpful Resources

Ontario’s Health and Physical Education curriculum helps children and youth understand what “consent” means and learn the skills they need to stand up for themselves and respect themselves and others.

Link to Parent Fact Sheets:

Providing diverse, positive opportunities

We know that school provides significant opportunities for middle years children to learn how to form and maintain healthy relationships, and this is extremely important. We also know that when they are able to explore and develop friendships outside of school, they thrive even more. Access to diverse social activities and opportunities to establish and deepen different friendships help children build confidence and other core social and emotional skills.

Role modelling healthy relationships

We know that children learn from watching and copying the behaviour of those who are close to them. Positive relationship role modelling can help form social skills and give children a sense of confidence in their interactions with a variety of people. Also, introducing children to diverse role models could help to break down bias and stereotyping, such as gender stereotypes, which can negatively impact children’s development of relationships and children’s understanding of roles and healthy relationships.

Negative role model experiences can put children at risk for developing unhealthy relationships, and toxic stress has a negative impact on growth and development. This is true, for example, with children who experience violence in the home.

How we can tell:

▲ % of children who have at least one friend they can trust and rely on

▲ % of children who can talk through disputes with a friend

#8 Ontario children respect others and value diversity, equity and inclusion

Ontario is one of the most diverse provinces in Canada. Every child who grows up here should be socially included and respected. A sense of belonging is an important element of child growth and development and builds a strong sense of self and respect for others within a diverse society.

Children at this age should be supported in developing respectful and inclusive attitudes and behaviours about all dimensions of diversity, including families with one or more parents, LGBTQ2S-led families, and families where children live with grandparents or with caregivers, as well as children who are Black, racialized, Indigenous, newcomer, from diverse ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds or who have disabilities and special needs. It is important for children to learn that inclusion means everyone is welcomed, accepted and belongs, regardless of ancestry, culture, ethnicity, sex, physical or intellectual ability, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or other factors. In addressing bias and discriminatory attitudes, language and behaviour, parents, caregivers, teachers and other caring adults play an important role in supporting children to understand the impact they have on others, take responsibility and where needed, take corrective action to promote equity and inclusion.

Supporting this outcome involves:

Valuing diverse identities and embracing equity and inclusion

Middle years children are thinking about their own identity, considering the diversity of others, and can appreciate perspectives that are different from their own. Increasing the visibility of the strengths and assets of people from diverse cultures, backgrounds and abilities will help to create a broader awareness and understanding of the contributions of diverse communities and individuals. Increasing the understanding and acknowledgment of diverse cultures and social identities helps to normalize and value diversity. True inclusion happens when we celebrate our diverse identities on a day-to-day basis. Valuing diversity and embracing difference helps middle years children develop healthy attitudes about themselves and their identities. Recognizing contributions of diverse communities and individuals deepens possibilities for equity and inclusion.

Valuing First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures and histories

Individuals, community leaders, governments and others need to make deliberate efforts to recognize, reflect upon and celebrate Indigenous people in Ontario. There are vast differences across and within First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures, yet many Ontarians do not understand or appreciate these differences. Lack of awareness of different cultures – a type of stereotyping – results in a lack of respect for different cultural identities. There needs to be more information about First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures in school curriculums and in extracurricular learning.

What Ontario is Doing

The “We Are All Treaty Peoples” educator’s toolkit was developed and launched by the Anishinabek Nation. The kit is connected to the Ontario curriculum and contains engaging activities that will help students in Grades 1–8 learn about treaty relationships.

Encouraging children to stand up to discrimination

Children at this age are capable of empathy and may express thoughts and feelings when they witness discrimination against people based on their social and cultural identities. They are also able to problem-solve and are learning how to respect the opinions of others. We know that learning about the shared and distinct history, traditions, values and ideas of others helps children develop skills to be culturally responsive, accepting and inclusive of others.

How we can tell:

▼ % of children who bully others

▼ % of children who have been bullied

▲ % of children who feel students treat each other with respect

▲ % of children who think it is important to be kind and forgiving of others

#9 Ontario children feel safe at home, at school, online and in their communities

Children in the middle years are learning how to keep themselves safe and beginning to recognize and manage risks. As children progress through the middle years, they begin to develop more independence, exercise more autonomy from their parents and are increasingly exposed to new influences. This is a healthy part of growing and developing through the middle years. Understandably, however, many parents and caregivers worry about how their children are managing the increased independent interactions with new people and experiences, the role and influence of social media, and other possible risks.

Supporting this outcome involves:

Planning for safety at home and in communities

Statistics show that the home is the most likely place for childhood injuries, and that many incidents are preventable. Parents and caregivers can help protect children by implementing safety plans (such as a home fire escape plan, or establishing an emergency contact person), and teaching children basic fire safety and other skills to avoid or cope with emergencies (such as first aid or proper use of kitchen equipment). Children in the middle years benefit from having firm but fair guidelines, allowing them to explore new activities, and take measured risks, all while being responsible and safety-conscious.

What Ontario is Doing

Ontario’s Strategy to End Human Trafficking aims to ensure that everyone in the province can live in safety – free from the threat, fear or experience of exploitation and violence.

Helpful Resources

Having students learn a “safety mindset” that can be applied in situations of all kinds, at school, at home, and in the community is an important goal of Ontario’s Health and Physical Education curriculum.

Link to Parent Fact Sheets

Creating safe, inclusive and accepting schools and communities

We know that some students feel more vulnerable at school and in their communities than others. This can be due to homophobia and transphobia, as well as stereotypes and assumptions about sexual orientation, gender expression, race, ethnicity, culture, disability and mental health. Children who are subjected to these stereotypes or assumptions may face unwanted negative attention, bullying, discrimination, isolation, assumption of gender roles or exclusion. Discussing the harmful effects of these stereotypes, and the importance of changing and challenging them, can help children understand and develop the skills they need to prevent and address bullying and help them build a safe, inclusive and accepting school environment for themselves and their communities. Equipping parents to support their children in preventing and addressing bullying and discrimination is also critically important. It is up to adults to set the tone and create a space where everyone feels included, where diversity is valued and discrimination is not tolerated.

Preventing and addressing the abuse and exploitation of children

It can be a difficult topic to discuss, but children also need to be aware that sadly, abuse and exploitation do occur in our world. Children need to be supported to understand how to recognize abuse, and feel comfortable asserting their own boundaries and limits. They also need to know who and where to go for help, if they ever feel they need it. This foundation can help lessen current and future risk, including the risk of human trafficking or abuse by someone known to the child. The children most vulnerable to human trafficking include those in the care of a children’s aid society or Indigenous child well-being society, Indigenous girls and newcomers, with 14-year-old girls as one of the most vulnerable groups.77 Adults also need to be proactive in monitoring, following up with children, and intervening where harm is suspected. We all share a responsibility to protect children from harm. Anyone who has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is or may be in need of protection must promptly report the suspicion and the information upon which it is based to a children’s aid society.

Teaching media smarts

More and more middle years children are accessing social media and using technology to connect with others – one study has found that children as young as nine are getting up in the night to check their phones. It is important to begin talking to children about managing their screen time and the potential risks of social media from their first interactions with technology and ongoing.78 It is also important to teach children about what to do when experiencing cyberbullying and how to recognize, assess and manage potentially dangerous situations, and who they can go to if they need help.

Helpful Resources

Media Smarts provides tips about keeping children safe online and dealing with cyber-bullying.

What Ontario is Doing

On May 30, 2017, the Ontario government passed Bill 65, Safer School Zones Act to help municipalities target unsafe drivers and protect children, seniors, other pedestrians and cyclists. The new act will give municipalities more tools to fight speeding and dangerous driving in community safety zones and school zones.

MTO, in partnership with the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), recently updated the Ontario Road Safety Resource website. This voluntary road safety curriculum is available at and includes pedestrian safety as one of the topics for classroom discussion.

MTO also partners with TVOKids to deliver road safety messages as part of TVO’s on-air programming; web-based activities and printed resources targeting children ages 2–11. TVOKids promotes pedestrian safety during its annual Road Safety Week in May.

How we can tell:

▲ % of children who feel safe at school

▲ % of children who feel their community is safe for children to play outside during the day

▲ % of children who feel they can trust people in their community

▲ % of children who feel confident they have the skill needed to protect themselves online

Spotlight: Helping Children Have Positive Relationships

banner art for promoting healthy equal relationships

The Ministry of the Status of Women funds and participates in the development and delivery of a number of educational initiatives to prevent violence against women in communities across the province. Promoting Healthy, Equal Relationships is an initiative designed to reach students ages 8–14, with resources and supports to instil positive attitudes and behaviours, and create new social norms of equality and respect.

We know that gender-based violence is rooted in a person’s belief of inequality, and research has shown that these beliefs often form long before adulthood.

We know, too, that along with parents, teachers play a vital role in guiding children’s and youth’s attitudes and behaviours toward healthy, equal relationships. Promoting Healthy, Equal Relationships provides resource materials to help young students understand what healthy, equal relationships are and the importance of respecting themselves and others. While most of the material is suitable for students ages 8–14, the information is applicable for many grade levels.

Resources for kids include:

The full list of Promoting Healthy, Equal Relationships resources can be found at this link, under the heading Promoting Healthy, Equal Relationships:

Other Public Education resources aimed at changing attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate violence against women and girls can be ordered for free at Service Ontario Publications. To order, you must create a username and password, or call 1-800-668-9938.