Policy Priorities for Child & Youth Well-Being

At PolicyWise we believe child and youth well-being should be a policy priority. Prior to the pandemic, Canada ranked 30th out of 38 rich countries on child well-being. In the past 18 months, the situation for children and youth has worsened. We’re at a critical juncture. Let’s voice our concerns, priorities, and hopes for the future of child and youth well-being.

What is child and youth well-being?

At PolicyWise, we’ve defined child and youth well-being as a holistic concept. It’s characterised by a balance and interconnection of:

  • Meaningful relationships and supportive environments.
  • Cultural connection, identity, and autonomy.
  • Healthy development and growth.
  • Protection and freedom from harm.
  • Recognition and healing from trauma.
  • Physical health and access to necessities.

For a more detailed description of well-being see our website.

Policy priorities for child and youth well-being

As a leader in guiding social policy and practice to improve child and youth well-being, we’ve identified four policy priorities for child and youth well-being:

  1. Addressing inequities.
  2. Implementing more holistic, community- and family-focused approaches to services.
  3. Keeping schools open and safe.
  4. Targeting youth.

Why prioritize child and youth well-being?

Prior to the pandemic, Canada was already lagging behind other rich countries on child and youth well-being. Then in March 2020, almost overnight, school closures, stay-at-home orders, and an array of COVID-19-related cancellations resulted in a reduction well-being. Children and youth lost contact with peers and trusted adults. Isolation increased. Mental health programs, after-school care, meal programs, clubs and teams, recreation offerings, and socialization opportunities were disrupted. There were few places to go, besides home – and home was not always safe.

COVID-19 intensified health inequities – highlighting deep cracks already in place. For example pre-pandemic, youth (15-24 years old) already experienced worse mental health than all other age groups. They also faced gaps in mental health care. Among systemically excluded youth the mental health and care situation was even worse. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues.

Young Canadians don’t feel hopeful about the how online education is preparing them for the future of work. Youth unemployment rates spiked across Canada and in Alberta in the summer of 2020 and remain higher than pre-pandemic levels. Systemically excluded youth, who identify as Indigenous or a visible minority, experienced even higher unemployment. Among the hardest hit by COVID-19 are “opportunity youth.” These are 15 – 29-year-olds not in school, training, or work who often face barriers including homelessness, disability, and mental health concerns. It’s time to act to ensure all children and youth have the opportunity to thrive now and into the future.

Child and youth well-being policy priorities

We outline four policy priorities to promote child and youth well-being below. We also provide some examples of what specific policies or practices that align with these priorities could look like. Above all else, and aligned with these priorities, support children’s rights. Listen to diverse children’s voices, experiences, and perspectives on how to best support their well-being. 

1. Address inequities. For example:

  • Identify and address the root causes of health inequities among children and youth, like anti-Black racism or colonialism. Listen to systematically excluded youth, children, and their communities. Track progress and share the results.
  •  Act on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s recommendations.
  • Increase accessible, affordable, and culturally-appropriate child and youth recreational activities at schools and in communities.
  • Commit resources for systematically excluded communities and community-led organizations. Include operational funding, long-term funding, and minimal contingencies or barriers. Make space for them to lead in identifying issues and solutions.
  • Provide families with accessible, affordable (or free), and culturally appropriate early childhood education.

2. Implement more holistic, community- and family-focused approaches to services. For example:

  • Improve access to quality childcare.
  • Connect schools to mental, social, and physical health supports and services.
  • Integrate services and supports across sectors to improve delivery and outcomes.
  • Include broader family, kinship relations, care-givers and networks of trusted connections in child and youth services and supports.
  • Strengthen parenting programs.

3. Keep schools open and safe. For example:

  • Provide schools and school boards with resources to ensure they stay open and safe. Account for existing inequities due to the school location and the local cultural, social, and economic conditions.
  • Strengthen school-based social and mental health supports and recreation, sport, and activity opportunities.

4. Target youth. For example:

  • Dedicate resources to opportunity youth supports and services.
  • Address youth unemployment.
  • Make long-term investments that improve youth’s hope in the future. Provide free or subsidized education and training.
  • Create targeted mental health care and social services for youth. Ensure they are community-led, youth-engaged, culturally appropriate, and substantially resourced.

Additional child & youth well-being policy resources

PolicyWise is not alone in identifying policy priorities for child and youth well-being. Other Canadian organizations are calling for action. Some examples include: