Back to School 2021- How to promote resilience and set your kids up for success
Dr. Angela Low, Educational Consultant | September 14, 2021
*Reposted with permission from Dr. Angela Low
*Dr. Angela Low recently presented on this topic at a Kelty Centre webinar - The tips and strategies in this blog post summarize the key points in her presentation. You can watch the recording and see the powerpoint slides from her presentation here.
Resilience is the ability to achieve positive outcomes (mentally, emotionally, and socially) despite adversity. We’ve all heard stories of resilience, of people who manage to be successful despite being born into adverse circumstances. Or people who find their way back to living full happy lives despite difficult things that happened. These stories inspire us, because we know that more often than not, it is hard to recover from tough life events, that adversity usually leads to negative outcomes.
That’s why resilience is remarkable... but also “ordinary magic”, as described by resilience researcher Ann Masten. Resilience is not made up of superpowers that only a few have, rather, most of us are already in possession of resources and skills that make us resilient, gathered and honed by having to navigate countless challenging moments we’ve experienced throughout our life. Learning to walk, falling off a bike, starting a new school, moving house, and losing jobs, loved ones, relationships and having to start over again. The context of heading back to school in an ongoing global pandemic may be new, but the stress of navigating change and loss is probably familiar to many of us. Stress is not always bad and can be helpful for pushing us towards becoming stronger, braver, and being more creative problem solvers. However, when challenges and stress overwhelm and affects our ability to function, it becomes a problem. That’s why it is helpful to work on growing our resilience, so we can cope with different or bigger challenges that happen to come our way.
A helpful way to think about resilience is as a balance between the challenges we face, what researchers call “risk factors”, and the resources we have to cope with them, that are called “protective factors”. If life is easy, we do not need a lot to be resilient, but when things get tough, the more protective factors we have, they are more likely to we will be able to cope and bounce back.
So, what are protective factors that make up resilience?
For decades resilience researchers have studied children in adverse circumstances who manage to do well and even thrive. What they found was that these highly resilient kids have a set of factors in common that allow them to have better outcomes than many others in the same situation. The lists of factors are long, here are some main themes that keep showing up in the research.
- Have caring, supportive relationships- they believe they can rely on at least one other person to care for and support them.
- Are part of a community- they feel they belong somewhere and have a sense of being connected and valued to others.
- Have good social and emotional skills- they are aware of how they and others feel, and are able to manage their feelings and behaviour
- Have a sense of mastery- they believe they are competent, and trust that they possess the skills and abilities to get through difficulties.
As children are still in the early stages of the journey of growing resilience, adults can make a big difference with intentional efforts to promote their resilience. As a parent and educator that works with teachers, I have found that focusing on resilience is very helpful for setting kids up for a successful transition back to school. This is a good approach as it is strength-based; inviting us to focus on what we have and can work on rather than what is lacking, or that we can’t control. When we understand resilience, we can be proactive about building up their resilience in preparation for tough times ahead. As a parent, it simplifies my parenting at this time, when I know they are having to adapt to so much change in their lives as they go back to school. I prioritize by thinking- what will help them get through this tough patch, and what can I do to strengthen these factors that can help them succeed?
Below are three areas I would like to highlight and offer some strategies for.
1. Strengthen relationships with love and connection.
Decades of research on child development show that the most important ingredient for children’s well-being and resilience is feeling loved. Feeling loved brings a stable sense of security that enables them to cope with adversity, whether at school or at home.
Things to try:
- Fill your children up with acts that assure them of your unconditional love and unbreakable connection. This can be love expressed in words, or notes in lunchboxes or extra hugs, joining in what they love to do, scheduling in moments when you can be fully present with them.
- Acts like this are like food for their hearts, when they are full, they can cope better with challenges that come their way.
- Connect before you direct is an idea from Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld. After an absence, (such as when they get home from school) resist the urge to direct them to do after school tasks right away, instead, do something that nourishes the connection with them, and help them feel seen and valued for who they are, first. Hugs, checking in with their day and feelings, enjoy a snack with them. Then, direct away!
- Don’t forget the relationships at school are a part of their resilience too! Remind your children that they can turn to other adults for help, care and support. Encourage kids to reconnect with the adults in their school. You could empower them with some social strategies, e.g., show your teacher that awesome rock from our camping trip, or ask them what the best thing was they ate all summer.
- For many of us, adults and kids, COVID has shaken our sense of safety in the world, and children cannot learn if they don’t feel safe. Assure them that school is a safe place, and adults are doing their best to look after their well-being. Follow through and let this be reflected in how you act, even if you have your worries. We know well that kids do not always believe what we say, they are more likely to do what we do.
- Make see-ya-later plans. As kids adapt to being back at school, it can be helpful to provide them with something to look forward to at the end of the day (e.g., reading a book together, playing a game, or a special treat). This can help farewells not feel like a negative event. For some kids having an end goal like this can be very helpful if their day is not going well. This could become a routine, which are important for building a sense of security. When things are uncertain, having things in our days we can count on can feel really good.
- Debrief the day in a fun and positive way, perhaps asking them for a star (a thing or person that made their day brighter) and a wish they have for tomorrow. This is one way to help them end the day and look forward to the next with optimism and hope.
2. Make Space for Emotions
Transitions can be an emotional time. Children and adults may feel all sorts of feelings, which might change from day to day too. There is simply no wrong way to feel. Depending on where they are in their emotional development, kids may or may not know what they are feeling, and how to feel better. These feelings can become overwhelming and get in the way of being able to regulate their actions so they can have an enjoyable time with others. It’s helpful to create a safe space for catching their emotions. For example, instead of saying, “you have nothing to worry about”, or “it’ll be ok”, let them get it out, and help them make sense of their feelings.
Here are a few things to try.
- Notice any big feelings they may be having. Observe, and reflect to them emotions showing up in their facial expressions, tone of voice, posture and behavior.
- Ask open questions and keep an open mind. Open questions create space for them to reflect and speak thoughts aloud. This can help them with emotional processing, and help you with understanding their inner world.
- Practice active listening, which helps them feel heard and valued, and nourishes the connection with you.
- Offer labels or ways to describe how they are feeling. This could be especially helpful for younger kids who may have a more limited emotion vocabulary. Some studies show that when we hear or say a word that feels like it fits for how we feel inside, the emotional center of our brains automatically calms down. Being able to recognize and name feelings is important for building their ability to manage their emotions.
- Validate these emotional experiences. We cannot help what we feel, even if we know it is not logical or helpful sometimes. With many experiences being so new and big, children often have big feelings in situations that do not seem to affect others. To have an adult validate their feelings as right or normal helps them trust themselves and feel understood.
- Some feelings can be very big and scary. Support them in feeling and understanding their emotions can help them ride it out, so they can experience how things will eventually get better. Being able to sit with uncomfortable emotions without shutting down or running away from it is part of resilience.
3. Promote a sense of mastery
Kids who are resilient believe in their competence and ability to cope, even with situations that are new to them, or more challenging than any they have encountered before. This sense of agency, or mastery is something adults can help to foster intentionally.
Here are some ideas:
- Help them identify situations they are worried about, explore and walk through possible outcomes. Role playing and practicing situations in advance can help reduce worries.
- Help them figure out strategies they can use to reassure themselves when they feel anxious or overwhelmed during the day. These could be positive self-talk reminders, comforting physical objects (a photo of the family or pet, small stuffy, essential oils) that helps them calm down.
- Normalize worries and mistakes, by sharing your own COVID worries and social mistakes. To have a sense of mastery we need to know that being worried and making mistakes does not mean we failed, but we are getting better at this.
- Allow space for ‘warming up’ slowly with short playdates and going slow with activities and after school programs. Dipping their toes instead of diving right in provides them a chance to observe, figure things out, build confidence and be more equipped to cope if things do not go their way.
- Empower them with actions they can take. Doing something about a problem, even if the smallest of actions, can reduce the feeling of powerlessness and help kids feel more agency in the world.
Can you think of some of the ways your children have shown resilience in the last year, getting through the many changes that have happened in their lives? It’s important to help kids see and celebrate their resilience. This can help nurture the positive self-view so essential for resilience and help them trust themselves to solve problems. In the face of something they are struggling with, you can remind them of their resilience, and help them remember how they have overcome similar situations before. This can help the present problems look more manageable, boost their sense of mastery, and also help them understand that tough moment like this builds their ability to handle future challenges.
Don't forget to practice self-care!
As parents, our own self-care is a necessary part of promoting our children's resilience. It fills the bucket of goodwill that we have had to draw so heavily from during this time. When you focus on your well-being, you end up having more inner resources you can use towards the wellbeing of others.
Self-care doesn’t have to be a big or complicated thing. it can be as simple as:
- Taking a few minutes to do something you enjoy or to connect with someone who gets you and loves you.
- Looking after your physical needs- eating nutritious food, drinking lot of water, having adequate sleep, and periods of movement.
- Acknowledging what you’re feeling, instead of trying to ignore it. Being anxious or stressed may be uncomfortable but accepting that this is what it is, and this is how you feel is less emotionally and mentally draining than trying to bury it. Talk it out with friends, perhaps try journaling.
- Practice self-compassion- try not to be too critical of yourself when things are not going well, recognize that it is hard, and you are doing the best you can.
- Focusing what is within your control, and letting go of what it not, will give you more peace.
- And doing all this for ourselves will help us be more resilient too.
We may not be able to take away the stress or challenges our kids experience, but we can help them create new experiences of feeling strong, hopeful, and connected again. The back-to-school transition can be an opportunity for them to uncover or grow their resilience, so that they can them meet the many moments of change and challenges that happen in the course of a life, with a sense of “I can do this, people have my back, and I know I have the ability to get through this, and be successful.”
Dr. Angela Low is an expert in emotional intelligence and child development who is committed to promoting resilience and social and emotional competence in children, youth and their families. She has been developing educational resources and facilitating workshops on emotional intelligence for 15 years in China and Canada. Angela is currently working with Child Health BC to develop and evaluate a mental health program to promote social and emotional development in the early years across the province of British Columbia. She is also an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia.