Resilience is essential to our students’ wellbeing — it contributes to their cognitive, social, physical, and emotional development and provides a way for parents and teachers to prepare children should anything go wrong. In fact, being resilient and learning to ‘play’ is so important to children’s optimal development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognized it as a human right of every child. Unfortunately, in recent years time learning resiliency and ‘play’ in a child’s schedule has been decreased for many of our children due to hurried lifestyles, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics.
Resilience is the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe. Psychologists have long recognized the capabilities of humans to adapt and overcome risk and adversity. Individuals and communities are able to rebuild their lives even after devastating tragedies.
Being resilient doesn’t mean going through life without experiencing stress and pain. People feel grief, sadness, and a range of other emotions after adversity and loss. The road to resilience lies in working through the emotions and effects of stress and painful events.
Resilience is also not something that you’re either born with or not. Resilience develops as people grow up and gain better thinking and self-management skills and more knowledge. Resilience also comes from supportive relationships with parents, peers and others, as well as cultural beliefs and traditions that help people cope with the inevitable bumps in life. This is why childhood ‘play’ can be so important. Resilience is found in a variety of behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed across the life span.
Factors that contribute to resilience include:
- Close relationships with family and friends
- A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities
- The ability to manage strong feelings and impulses
- Good problem-solving and communication skills
- Feeling in control
- Seeking help and resources
- Seeing yourself as resilient (rather than as a victim)
- Coping with stress in healthy ways and avoiding harmful coping strategies, such as substance abuse
- Helping others
- Finding positive meaning in your life despite difficult or traumatic events
During my time as principal of the Puxi Elementary School at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China we had over 650 international students at our school, many of who were tri-lingual. Their days were packed with tutorials, language school, and spending little time on playing outside or playdates. Much of my focus with our parents had been discussion on the importance of play. Teaching parents how playdates for our children introduced important social skill development and gave children practice with these skills.
Our counselors, school psychologist and a group of teachers, wanted to make a change in how we were talking with parents and students. Our school psychologist led this idea of change with a small group of trailblazers (teachers and parents) who read the book ‘Positivity’ by Barb Fredrickson and ‘Flourish’ by Martin Seligman. Discussion began small and slow with how could we look at student engagement, building confidence in our students and provide a ‘growth mindset’ around this thinking in our parents.
We went home for the summer and read books, began researching articles as well as asked staff to take the VIA character strengths survey. We came back that summer eager to spread the dialogue with others. What began as a seed of thought quickly grew in our school. Teachers took the survey and were eager to share their results with one another. We kicked off the year talking about each other’s strengths. We divided everyone up in their strengths groups, we are a staff of 114 so we had many groups. It fascinated the staff to find out which strengths support staff, teachers, and administration had as we got to hear from the various groups. There were head nods when the staff found out my own top strength was ‘Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence’. As a staff it gave us a place to begin our conversations with teams, individually, and with our students.
These conversations and learnings about resilience and using our strengths to communicate led to an increase in wanting to learn more about resilience and our capacity as a school to fully understand the potential impact on our students. Our counseling team was excited, we would walk into rooms and teachers were reading stories that would focus on a particular strength around ‘passion for learning’ or showing ‘how to love and be loved’. Then students took the VIA character strengths children’s survey. The students would spur on their parents to take the survey. Students came in the next day saying, “I have the strength of being curious!” or “I have gratitude and hope as strengths!” A first grade student asked her teacher, could we write our strengths on our classroom window so we can see everyone’s top three strengths. The positive energy in the school was magnified.
The ideas kept growing. A first grade teacher who was very committed to this work of building our resilience and showing our strengths made a list of early childhood books around the strengths and shared it with the librarian. Our librarian focused on a particular strength for several weeks and would place books on a table around this strength. Teachers, students and parents would pick these up and check them out.
Our early childhood counselor had the brilliant idea of starting some book talks using ‘Positivity’ as the focal point for parents. We were able to pick this book up in Chinese and Korean for our parents. For several weeks the school psychologist and counselor met with a group of parents who they would train to lead some of the discussions in these other languages. They ended up having 6 different book groups, one was even a staff book group who had children in the school. As time went on these parents went out into the community singing the praises of the school and the importance of the work. They shared stories where they came from a place of knowing their child’s strengths and posting the strengths on their fridge at home so the entire family knew the outcomes of the survey. A request of more book clubs came after Christmas as the counselor and school psychologist scrambled around to order more books and ensure these groups got on our busy calendars.
As the principal of the school I watched this scenario unfold, bulletin boards sharing classroom strengths and how we can communicate with one another, informal conversations, classroom lessons, parent coffees, and the list keeps growing. I have approached parent conferences differently since our work. Often beginning with, “Tell me about your child’s strengths.” A website I have found helpful in looking up current research to share with others is: http://www.fosteringresilience.com/resources.php.
As part of our school kick-off we decided to host our own TED talks by our staff. Again our school psychologist, along with our high school counselor, led a talk about ‘Building Resilient Children’. By sharing our work it has helped grow our conversations and seeds around Shanghai American School.
Schools continue to make connections between play and building resilience in children, I found a staff who wanted to also participate in play. While the work has just begun, my hope is that we continue to work on these skills with both our children and ourselves.
Martin Seligman, in Flourish, available here:
Martin explains the theory here:
If you want a quick primer on positive psychology, RSA animates does it in five minutes!
Discover your strengths.
Take the FREE Via Character strengths assessment:
Available in many languages.
And you want to see how it being used in schools?
This is also available on youtube:
What is positive psychology?
Check out this Ted Talk featuring Martin Seligman:
People Thrive when they experience positive emotions 3 to 1 in a day.
Track yours at:
This is the lifework of Barbara Fredrickson
Learn more about Barb’s work in this series of interviews:
Finally are you flourishing?
Check out http://www.bluezones.com/ for a way of evaluating aspect of your life and how to get your self in the Blue Zone, that is to live longer, happier and more engaged.
~Dr. Debbie Lane, Edwards Ed Consultant