In its recent review of early intervention resources for children from birth to 12 years, Australia’s National Mental Health Commission found that 83 per cent of experts agreed that ‘increasing resilience among children aged 0–12 could potentially prevent mental health issues during childhood and/or later in life’.
There is growing evidence to support the fact that school classrooms and playgrounds play an important role in supporting children’s wellbeing and resilience.
In 21st century Australian schools, educators work towards supporting children’s engagement in life and learning by helping them to:
- Have confidence in their own capabilities
- Stay physically and emotionally safe
- Be able to identify and articulate their feelings and needs
- Enjoy positive and satisfying relationships
- Have the spirit and strength to bounce back from adversity
- Become life-long learners
- Feel connected to their community
- Have a sense of autonomy and independence
What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to cope or ‘bounce back’ to previous levels of emotional wellbeing after encountering a difficult situation or negative event. Put simply, it is being able to adapt to challenging circumstances and still thrive (Benard 2003).
Resilient children (and adults) are typically socially competent people who take on the world with a sense of optimism and hope for the future.
Resilient children feel connected to the world around them, are good problem solvers and have a ‘can-do’ approach to life. They also take responsibility for their own words and actions.
So how educators assist children in their class to develop these skills so they can thrive, and not just cope, in their world?
Be prepared to build strong teacher-student relationships
Many studies have shown that the closeness and quality of relationships between staff and students have been key factors in both improved engagement at school and kids’ better overall capacity to cope with life’s ups and downs.
Longitudinal research into the resilience of South Australian students (Johnson, 2008) indicated that it was the little things that teachers did that gave students a sense of self-worth and the motivation to persist and engage at school. Similarly, a Victorian study (Cahill, Shaw, Wyn and Smith, 2004) showed that teacher behaviour was crucial to encouraging children to seek help when they needed it.
From these and other studies, we know that children are more willing to seek help from teachers who:
- Say hello to their students
- Listen fully to what students have to say
- Explain things in a way that children understand
- Show pride when students make an effort
- Take an interest in the things that capture children’s attention
So the question for educators is, how can we do this?
How can we show our students that, in the busyness of a crowded classroom and curriculum, we ‘see’ and value them?
How can we teach and show children how to be resilient and help them to build skills for life?
Give children a chance to develop empathy
Story time and reading activities can provide helpful opportunities to talk to children about how characters feel when they face a challenge. This can be extended to ask students what they might do if they were placed in the same situation. This ‘think and say’ technique can be effective in helping children to build a repertoire of responses to adverse situations that they can draw upon later.
Play games that enhance children’s understanding of one another
Psychologists suggest that there are many positive psychology activities that can be adapted for classroom use. ‘If You Really Knew Me…’ is one such game. To play ‘If You Really Knew Me…’, separate your students into pairs and allocate one of them as ‘student A’ and the other as ‘student B’. Each child takes their turn to finish the sentence “If you really knew me, you would know that…” while the other child listens. The information they share as they complete this sentence is up to them. They may choose to talk about their family, the things they like best about school, their hobbies, pets or anything they choose as the conversation goes back and forth.
‘If you really knew me’ is a great way to encourage active listening, build understanding and practise kindness. It can also be the beginning of meaningful relationships that help kids to feel connected and develop resilience.
Explain resilience in a way that children understand
Beyond Blue’s excellent Building resilience in children aged 0-12 provides comprehensive information for teachers and schools. It contains a helpful analogy that compares resilience to a plane that is encountering rough weather. Just like a plane that is flying through turbulence, life has its ups and downs, but as the ‘pilots’ of their lives, your students don’t have to face hard times alone. They may have a ‘co-pilot’ like a friend or teacher who can help them make good decisions. They may also have access to ‘ground staff’ or ‘flight crew’ like their family, school counsellor or other practitioners who can offer guidance and help them make a ‘safe landing’. While every ‘flight’ is different, helping your students to understand that they are not ‘flying solo’ can be a useful way to introduce the idea that there are ways to get through a bumpy ride and build resilience.
Implement structured interventions in your classroom or school
There are many resilience programs that are available to teachers and the age and stage of development of your students will, naturally, determine the program that is most suited to your environment. Australian mental health advocacy agencies such as Beyond Blue, Kids Matter and the Raising Children Network are just some of the organisations that you can look to for information in this regard. Your local Department of Education and Early Childhood Australia also have tools and resources that you can access. An important factor to consider is the possibility that such a program may highlight areas of need for individual children and families in your community. Having options available for those who need specialist support should be part of your planning.
Keep parents in the loop
Your students will have a much better chance to develop resilience if the messages they receive at home are consistent with the ones they receive at school. Whether your efforts are at an individual, classroom or whole school level, look for opportunities to share the resilience strategies you are teaching with parents and carers so that they are aware of the techniques and language that you are introducing in your classroom and playground.
Resilience builds bridges for life
Resilience is a skill that every child can learn, however is it up to educators to provide their students with as many opportunities as we can to help them to develop the social and emotional strength they will need to navigate current and future adversities.
Helping children to understand themselves and others is key to this process, and by modelling positive words and actions ourselves, we give the students we care for a great start towards a confident, resilient life.
This piece was written by Sonja Walker for Modern Teaching Aids. She is a teacher, author of School Ready: A practical and supportive guide for parents of sensitive kids and the founder of Kids First Children’s Services, an award-winning paediatric health and education practice in Sydney that has supported more than 12,500 children and families in the last 12 years.
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