Teaching the Tools of Resilience

There are a key set of skills which we would call social-emotional competencies that we think are most important for building resilience and managing challenge.

Resilience really has to do with the process of being able to face adversity or trauma or tragedy, or everyday events that are just very difficult for all of us to handle. It’s facing challenges. It really means being able to bounce back in a way from those adversities or those challenges.

But resilience is a complicated multidimensional idea, because what may look like resilience in one situation may not in another. In one cultural context we might value certain things as being resilient, and in another cultural context we might value other things as being resilient. For example, in some cultures stoicism is seen as a very important idea. In others, being emotional and really talking about your emotions is seen as a way to be resilient. 

Cultivating Resilient Skills

Resiliency is both culturally defined and contextually defined, and that makes it a bit difficult to point and say, “These certain skills are resilient.” Now while I say that, at the same time we think there are certain skills that help people to become more resilient. Those skills have to do with the ability to have good self-regulation. To be able to know how you feel and how others feel. To know how to manage conflict, know how to use the support of others. Especially during difficult times. To have a bit of perspective on life.

The first thing we know is that parenting is the most important early characteristic. That is, parents who are warm and sensitive and responsive to their children have children who are likely to have better social-emotional competence, and over time become more resilient. They’re better able to make friendships and keep friendships, and so the first couple years of life are important to this process. 

There are a key set of skills which we would call social-emotional competencies that we think are most important for building resilience and managing challenge.

But we know that schools are probably the primary place where we can both teach children, and they can learn to be socially competent. Being in the context of peer relations brings up all the issues for all of us. We can all think about what it was like when we were seven or eight on the playground, or when we didn’t get invited to a party, or whatever the situation is. We didn’t get picked to be on a team. That all these peer contexts really bring up a great deal of emotions in kids, and their ability to manage those emotions, talk about them, problem solve and negotiate in those contexts is really critical. 

There are a key set of skills which we would call social-emotional competencies that we think are most important for building resilience and managing the typical everyday challenges as well as the more difficult challenges in life. These skills include both intrapersonal and interpersonal skills.

Social-emotional competency skills:

  • Skills about one’s inner life and one’s knowledge of oneself, one’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • The ability to manage our emotions.
  • Interpersonal skills, like the ability to have compassion and empathy and perspective taking with others.
  • The ability to manage friendships, as well as the conflicts that arise in those friendships.

These skills begin early and are long lasting, and have an enormous effect on both our well-being, our physical health, and our employment outcomes as adults. 

That’s very different than when I started my career. I remember around 1980, close to 40 years ago. I became interested in promoting social emotional competence in schools with children. Some of my colleagues said to me, “That’s just personality. There’s nothing you can do about it. Some children are shy and some children are extroverted. Some children get along better with others”. As if it’s just primarily a temperament. We know temperament’s important. We know some people learn these skills more easily, more naturally than others. But we know now that they can be taught to everyone. Just like we can teach reading or math or science and technology, we can also teach these skills. 

We know now from over 250 well done experimental trials and meta-analysis of social emotional learning that when we use explicit skills, we teach children the skills of social emotional learning, they improve in their well being. They decline in their behavior problems. Classrooms become more cohesive, and children show better academic development. Explicit skills are an essential groundwork of everything that we do. 

But we have to think about resilience as not just in the child, but in the context. In the context we create in terms of a classroom and a school being a place that’s healthy and caring. A place where children feel that they have a sense of connection and belonging. I’ll even use the word love being present. When that love is present, that connection is present, children are more likely to be motivated to try harder. To make better friendships. Do all the right things. 

Creating a Culture of Mindfulness

We want those explicit skills. But just as important is thinking about the school context. The climate and the culture of the school. Its norms. Its attitudes. Its values. Its mission. As well as the well-being of the people in the building. 

In fact, if a superintendent came to me as they do and asked me, “I hear all about mindfulness. What should I be doing in my district?”, I would tell them the first thing they should be doing is working with their staff, not with the students. Because the ability of the staff to become more mindful and more present in the classroom, to develop deeper relationships and a sense of community with each other, is the essential ingredient here. When that happens, they’ll be embodying mindfulness skills in a way that will make it easy for students to begin to take them on. 

The adults in the building are really the essential factor. Now from a series of trials with a series of interventions, we now know that in careful randomized trials, that teachers who receive these interventions have higher well-being, they’re likely to be physiologically more healthy. We’ve just presented new data from the CARE intervention showing that observers who are blind to the condition they’re in rate these teachers as being more effective in their instruction. 

We know that when we have better well-being, we’re better at everything we do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when teachers have lower rates of depression they feel more efficacy as teachers, they’re enjoying their job better, they’re better at instruction.

That shouldn’t be really surprising to us. We know that when we have better well-being, we’re better at everything we do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when teachers have lower rates of depression they feel more efficacy as teachers, they’re enjoying their job better, they’re better at instruction. In the end, the quality of instruction we know is critical to how a school operates. 

We’ve published data, long term data, showing that once you account for every other possible reason why children would succeed, like their social class or their ethnicity or their gender or the quality of the parenting or the type of neighborhood they live in. Once we account for all those characteristics, children’s social emotional competence, rated by an eight item, just a simple eight item … in kindergarten predicts if they’ll graduate from high school, if they’ll graduate from college, if they’ll hold a full time job, and if they’ll be arrested in adulthood. Because we know that people who are competent in ability to carry on life, to manage challenges, to manage conflict in their relationships, are not going to end up in the principal’s office in middle school or high school, and they’re going to be people that integrate well into society as effective citizens. 

Teachers know this. Principals know this. Even superintendents know this. When you talk to superintendents, what you’ll find is much the same belief. That they are all coming to the idea that unless they create coherent schools that are caring, healthy places, they’re not going to get the outcomes that they are accountable for. 

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