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Alberta, Canada Update 2014 – 2015

Read the start of the Alberta story here (2007 – 2013)

As a diner waitress pours coffee, three older men swap notes about their weekends. “Fixed my tractor’s water pump,” boasts one. “I reeled in a trophy fish,” brags the second.

“Well, I built my granddaughter’s brain,” says the third, over images of a smiling grandpa reading to a round-cheeked toddler and sharing “pretend tea” with a set of toy dishware.

grandfather having “pretend tea” with his granddaughter
A grandfather enjoys make-believe tea with his granddaughter in this 30-second video spot, produced by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI)—a lighthearted take the idea that everyone, seniors included, shares responsibility for helping the next generation thrive.

“How do I build a brain?” asks one of his pals.

The answer: “Peek-a-boo works good.”

The 30-second video spot, produced by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI), is a lighthearted take on a serious concept—that everyone, seniors included, shares responsibility for helping the next generation thrive. “Helping with early brain development is child’s play,” the ad concludes.

It’s also emblematic of AFWI’s next phase: having shared the core story of brain development with “change agents” throughout the province, the task now is threefold:

  • to share that same knowledge with the general public
  • to translate the science into practice in clinics, classrooms, child care centers, courts and elsewhere
  • to continue educating provincial and national policy-makers to shape a healthier future for children and families

The AFWI, launched in 2007 by the Palix (formerly Norlien) Foundation, has an ambitious agenda: to promote the use of scientific knowledge about early brain and biological development in order to change beliefs, policies and practices related to children, families and communities—in short, to “bridge the gap between what we know and what we do,” according to a 2013 AFWI report.

The AFWI began its work by capturing the attention and engagement of decision-makers—government officials, community leaders, policy experts, academics and administrators. Hundreds of those “change agents” learned the core story of brain development through large symposia and other activities and are now spreading that knowledge to colleagues, clients and communities.

audience watching slide projected on screen
A 2014 symposium of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative.

That core story—essentially, the concept that brains are built, not born, and that early trauma can contribute to poor health outcomes in later life—was underscored by the results of the Alberta Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey, conducted with 1200 adults in 2013. Almost one-third of respondents had experienced abuse and nearly half reported family dysfunction; in addition, those with higher ACE scores were more likely to be diagnosed with mental health conditions, substance abuse and certain physical health problems in adulthood.

“We’re excited by the large and growing network of knowledgeable and energized change agents in Alberta and beyond,” says Michelle Gagnon, president of Palix and AFWI. “Now we’ve got hundreds of people who are even better equipped to make change in their own spheres of influence”—for instance, a teacher who gives a presentation on early brain development to her colleagues, which then leads to changes in school practice or policy.

Meanwhile, twenty-two AFWI “innovation teams”—interdisciplinary groups of people who work directly with children and families in health, human services, justice, education and academia—are working to apply the growing body of knowledge that links early brain development with mental health and addiction later on.

That includes a number of “on the ground” projects; one involves several of Alberta’s primary care networks, the first contact for many patients entering the health system. The networks are using the ACE questionnaire in their practices—but are also devising suitable follow-up. “If they have adults who come in with high ACE scores, what’s the appropriate next step?” Gagnon says. “Is it long-term counseling? Access to a mental health practitioner? The intent is that new interventions could be developed, tested and scaled up. Helping adults with high ACE scores is primary prevention for the children in their care.”

Other demo projects with AFWI support include:

  • CUPS (Calgary Urban Project Society) One World Child Development Centre, an early-intervention program with a holistic approach that includes pre-school, parent education and health care for low-income children and families
  • Supporting Father Involvement, a research-based program being piloted in three Alberta sites with the aim of reaching fathers and encouraging them to stay positively involved with their young children.

More widespread, distributed leadership means greater impact. It also requires ongoing support and engagement; AFWI plays a critical role as convener and educator. “We want to ensure that change agents have a solid understanding of the core story and a commitment to sharing it with fidelity,” Gagnon says. The AFWI, she says, wants to continue spreading the science of brain development in a way that both experts and the general public can hear—and then put to use, making a difference in their own communities.

“We’ve learned the power of knowledge, translated into a story, in bringing disparate groups together, all with an interest in improving outcomes for children and families,” she says. “We’ve also learned that the AFWI model of cross-sector engagement and knowledge mobilization can be learned and likely duplicated in other contexts.”

In that effort, video is a potent medium. AFWI helped connect scientists with filmmakers to talk about how movies portray issues of mental health and addiction, and how future storylines might be shaped by the new understanding of how brains are built.

hipster guys in ad
Ad for a series of “life coach” videos that feature young men and use humor to build an understanding of addiction, mental health, stress and resilience.

On a smaller scale, there are video spots—short takes aimed at specific audiences. There’s the brain-building grandpa who educates his pals about the impact of playing with children. A series of “life coach” videos featuring young men uses humor to build understanding of addiction, mental health, stress and resilience.

And in a full-length documentary developed with AFWI support, The Mask You Live In—a Sundance Film Festival official selection for 2015—boys, teens and adult men question the ways they’ve been taught to behave: shielding their emotions, valuing self-reliance over relationship and regarding one another as rivals.

“What is it you don’t let people see?” asks Ashanti Branch, an educator and youth advocate, in the film’s trailer. Viewers see a circle of teen boys scrawling their answers on paper. “Anger,” writes one. “My pain. My heart.”

These films are one more vehicle for carrying the core story of brain development. “We’re trying to spread understanding about how children really develop and the importance of safe, supportive environments for both children and the adults who care for them,” says Gagnon. “We’re trying to change how people think about these issues.”

Alberta Timeline - Click Year to View Highlights

  • Alberta Family Wellness Initiative begins with the Building Blocks for a Healthy Future conference, bringing together policy-makers and experts in child and brain development