Back to School: How to Promote Resilience and Set Your Kids up for Success
Dr. Angela Low, Child Health BC | August 25, 2023
*Last updated on August 25, 2023 | Posted with permission on August 25, 2022
*Dr. Angela Low presented on this topic at a Kelty Centre webinar - the tips and strategies in this blog post summarize the key points in her presentation. Here is the recording and the powerpoint slides from her presentation.
Resilience is the ability to achieve positive outcomes (mentally, emotionally, and socially) despite adversity. Most of us are already in possession of resources and skills that make us resilient, gathered and honed by having to navigate countless challenging or stressful moments we’ve experienced throughout our life, like learning to walk, falling off a bike, starting at a new school, or navigating the loss of loved ones or relationships.
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. 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.
Below are 3 ways that you can promote resilience with your kids as you are getting ready to head back to school this fall:
1. Strengthen relationships with love and connection.
Research on child development shows 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, notes in lunchboxes or extra hugs, joining in what they love to do, and scheduling in moments when you can be fully present with them.
- Connect before you direct is an idea from Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld. After an absence (such as when your child gets 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, enjoying a snack with them. Then, direct away!
- Don’t forget the relationships at school are a part of their resilience too! Encourage kids to connect with the adults in their school. You could empower them with some social strategies - for example, suggest that your child show their teacher that awesome rock from your camping trip, or to ask their teacher what the best thing was that they ate all summer.
- 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. 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.
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.
- 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. Supporting 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.
- Help them identify situations they are worried about, 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 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.
Don't forget to practice self-care!
As parents and caregivers, our own self-care is a necessary part of promoting our children's resilience. 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 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, or 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 is not, will reduce your stress levels.
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 then 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.”
For more tips and strategies, watch the webinar recording here.
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 and their families. She is currently the Provincial Lead for Early Years Health and Wellness at Child Health BC, overseeing the development and implementation of a mental health program to promote social and emotional development in the early years, alongside other provincial health promotion programs for young children. Angela is also an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, and has been developing educational resources and facilitating workshops on emotional intelligence for 15 years in China and Canada.