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Developing resilience in young children

Friday 30 Nov 2018

By: Ruth Steggles – Head of Pre-Prep, Framlingham College Prep School

When the going gets tough, the resilient get going!

Resilience is the ability to overcome life’s hurdles and difficulties by solving problems and moving on rather than becoming stuck in a cycle of worry and an increasing sense of failure.

As a parent hearing my teenager say, “Mum I’m never going to try anything, then I can’t fail,” was the hardest moment I had. However, I had to be resilient for both of us and what I learned through helping my son has come from a mixture of reading on the subject and taking advice form professionals. My son had indeed become stuck in the bog of perceived failure and his sense of self-worth was almost non- existent. He needed to change the record playing in his brain. Neuroscience tells us that you can develop resilience as a habit, it is not something you are born with but something you acquire.

So how do we help our youngest children develop this habit early? We need to give them the tools so that they are able to cope not just with life but also are able to learn at a higher level; that is to say not just acquiring knowledge but applying it in a variety of contexts. In order to grow as individuals we have to be willing to have a go and open ourselves up to the idea that if things don’t work out it’s not failure but a learning opportunity.

Fundamentally children will develop this habit as a result of the way they are supported by the caring adults around them. We all want our children to become independent but for this to happen successfully children need to be shown how to do things rather than be left to struggle to work it out. It is really hard as a parent to know at what point to step in when a child is trying to be fiercely independent but not succeeding. Instead of saying, “Let me do it”, try saying, “Could I show how I might do that?”

When a child is learning something new, such as doing up a coat, let them learn in stages. First get it on alone but you help to do it up perhaps, or if they are struggling with a puzzle instead of doing it for them suggest you each take it in turns to place a piece. Talk about how you are working out where your piece goes so they understand the process. Learning is a partnership and if children can realise that then it helps them understand that asking for help is not a sign of failure but a sign of strength, as we all learn from others. Never forget to tell your child how proud you are that they kept trying and overcame the difficulty, this is even more effective if you can say it again in their hearing to someone else, “Tell Grandma how you worked out how to do your tricky puzzle, I’m really proud of how hard you tried.”

Building routines and modelling good social behaviour all help children to develop the area of the brain controlling behaviour and feelings. Simple things like playing board games help children to understand turn taking as well as developing working memory and mental agility, consider Monopoly, lots of learning opportunities there! We also know from recent research in neuroscience that physical development and brain development are linked, exercise not only helps the body but also reorganises the brain. Get out and get moving is great advice to help grow resilience, anything will do, walking the dog, kicking a ball around or dancing round the living room.

As adults we need to think about how we talk to children about the mistakes we and they make, instead of, “Oh dear try again”, expand on the strategies they could use to make the next attempt better, encourage them to keep going, explain that every time we struggle we learn something new and our brain will grow. Always remind children of past success and encourage them to think about what worked last time to see if they could try that again. Help children to develop a language to express their feelings of disappointment and worry. Explain that it’s normal to feel like that but rather than dwell on it let’s use this as an opportunity to o move on and learn in a different way or try something new. So for example, if rain calls off a picnic and your child says they are upset, agree you are upset too, but suggest you come up with a list of other things to do that could be just as much fun or maybe better.

Finally, I have learnt a lot since my son told me of his fear of trying, and earlier this week he popped in to tell me that he has been having a tricky time at work. But instead of hiding in his bedroom and withdrawing from life as he once would have done, he has thought about why it’s happening and has spoken to his boss and asked for some further training so that he can achieve the goals he wants to achieve. His boss was very impressed that he had sought advice and I was so proud I had to pretend I was crying due to cutting an onion for dinner and not just being a truly relieved mum.


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