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Resilience Programmes – Are We Ignoring the Real Truth About Childhood Resilience?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 20th October 2020

Resilience has been a buzzword in education for the last 5-10 years but since the declaration of a global pandemic there has been a much greater focus on the importance of resilience and how this can be developed in our students. Everyone has become a resilience expert and there are a lot of companies promoting programmes and resources for resilience-building. The idea that we can transfer the responsibility for children’s mental health to the children themselves by giving them “tools” to help them become more resilient is clearly attractive to adults. It is reassuring to parents and teachers alike to believe that we can teach children to cope in the face of adversity but, no matter how well-intentioned, we are in danger of encouraging an abnegation of adult culpability and a denial our role in the declining mental health of our kids. As resilience-building becomes a commodity, rolled out for 20 minutes each week in order to tick a box, are we ignoring the real truth about childhood resilience?

Caring, Stable Relationships are Key

According to Harvard University’s, Centre of the Developing Child, the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, primary caregiver, or other adult. These relationships can take place within the home or with caring adults in schools, neighbourhoods or elsewhere in the community. Such relationships protect and buffer children from the developmental disruption that may result from adversity.

Caring and skilled parents play a key role in modelling appropriate behaviour regulation, which impacts a child’s ability to adapt in the face of stressors and thrive. Children who have warm, responsive and sensitive relationships with a parent are better able to self-regulate and buffer the effects of stress, whereas those who experience harsh parenting, maltreatment or challenges, such as poverty and food insecurity, show much poorer self-regulation. Other factors that promote resilience such as hope, optimism and a sense of meaning are built through the experience of a positive family outlook and a sense of family identity and purpose.

Of course not all children have access to positive parenting or strong family attachments but there is clear evidence that emotional security and a sense of belonging can be promoted by supportive relationships within school and connections fostered by well-functioning communities.

Placing the Onus on Children

School resilience programmes focus primarily on developing students’ personal capabilities and emphasise tenacity, self-motivation, problem solving and self-image, as well as practising active coping techniques such as mindfulness meditation. There is definitely a place for this and students can derive enormous benefits from improving their skills in these areas. However, we must be careful not to promote the idea that such programmes can compensate for a lack of adult interactions that make children feel safe and secure.

If schools want to play a role in supporting the development of childhood resilience then they should prioritise improving the quality of relationships between educators and their students and strengthening the partnership between school and home. We need to ask ourselves whether the pressures that teachers find themselves under leave sufficient time for them to foster truly caring relationships with their students and effective communication with parents. This is particularly so during the current crisis as teachers struggle to survive under the enormous weight of expectations placed upon them. This coincides with a time when many parents may also have little left to give their children as they grapple with the challenges of the pandemic. While some resilience programmes may be highly effective, we should question whether time may be better spent simply listening to children and fostering a sense of belonging through genuine, caring interactions.