Developing Resilience

9 02 2012

Developing resilience

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the topic of resilience in students. This has not been so much the result of actual incidents sparking this musing, rather a couple of random discussions with valued colleagues. One in particular ventured the view that kids in general lacked the resilience of the past.

She paraphrased something she’d read somewhere about a question which could be posed to parents stressing over a child’s issue, “if you had six kids, would you be in here now?” Of course, this issue can be dealt with in clichés of helicopter parents (& the other day, I heard of the next level up – paratrooper parents) and spoilt brats, or dismissed as “things were different when …..”. Nevertheless, the task of trying to build coping skills or problem solving skills is a very real one for schools. It always has been to an extent, whether it is more so is probably the subject of a different post.

Of course, this is not to decry the effects of bullying; the increase in social networking has obviously added another element to this field and some truly horrible incidences which have contributed to tragic outcomes, have been well documented. At times, however, I wonder whether we need to recognize socially awkward students who grate against others, but see themselves as being bullied. How do we help these students not just see the difference between an argument and a real example of bullying behaviour, but develop some skills that will help them cope with the situation?

And what advice to we give parents? At some point, it seems pertinent to bring in the nature vs nurture argument – why are some students able to handle disappointment or discomfort while others crumble or react inappropriately? What has happened in their upbringing? Some instances – at least to the untrained eye – seem clearly linked: there are those parents whose reactions seem to exacerbate things, while others remain calm and trust their children to deal with the situation. And they nearly always do.  But when we see both types in the same family? The big question, therefore, do you have to be born with these coping skills or can they be developed? From the evidence, the short answer is yes and I’ll have a look at just a couple of references to support this view.

Firstly, to Andrew Fuller, an Australian psychologist and family therapist who sees resilience as  “the happy knack of being able to bungy jump through the pitfalls of life”. Fuller emphasizes the importance of creating a positive environment.  He gives 10 tips on how to develop resilience, and while not wanting to go through them all, I was struck by a couple – Make it is clear who is in charge – families do not work well as democracies“ and “Consistency”. As experienced teachers know about – and have known for generations – the importance of both setting boundaries and sticking to these.

Michael Grose, another Australian family educator, also promotes the importance of creating a positive environment and points to how both parents and schools can assist children by doing so. Grose feels that it’s important for parents to model this positive outlook, and how many times as teachers and administrators have we met the parents of positive and balanced students and said, “well, we know where he/she gets that from”?

I like Grose’s activity to help build this positive outlook. Take a 28 page notebook and on the top of each page, have the student at the end of the day, write 3 good, positive things that happened to them that day. He believes that by the end of a month, kids can more easily recognise the positive things in their lives.

Finally a further resource I came across was the Resilience Doughnut, an Australian group whose aim is to build this quality in young people. I was struck by their view that research has found that resilient people had seven factors in common which comprise the “doughnut” section – parent, skills, family & identity, education, peers, community and money. What makes up the hole in the doughnut are the  “person’s key beliefs that develop as they build the tools and resources they need to face the world”. They can be summarized by “who I am, who I have & what I can do”.

What was also interesting was the finding that of the individuals studied, most of them had only some and not all working strongly in their life. Their conclusion was that the individuals’ ability to “focus on the factors that were strong was a key aspect of their resilient mindset.”

The importance once again of developing resilience as an aid to kids rather than seeing all instances of hurt feelings as bullying is highlighted in an article by Louise Waterson,  where she quotes Fran Kammermayer, a family educator, who says  that  “the best way to prevent kids from being bullied is to give them the space to develop self-reliance. “ By not developing this, Kammermayer feels that parents are actually making them more susceptible to real bullying. The challenge for the kids is to be able to distinguish between the two: for parents and teachers, it is not just this, but also when to intervene.

All this can be very grim at times, and often the early years of middle school see an increase in the numbers of students who feel hurt and victimised by other students and it’s surely no coincidence that brain research has shown that this is around the time that the brain is changing. The amygdala, which is where the emotions are stored experiences a surge in activity, at the same time that the frontal lobe, where such things as impulse control is governed, seems to go on holiday.

So, I did enjoy the blog of a young American teacher sent to me by another colleague  on the difference between grade 7s and 8s. I loved a couple of her quotes – “Most 7th graders are not funny yet, and also think that the only funny people are 7th graders.”

Just recently a parent of one of these kids saw me and said, “you know all those things you talked about last year when they started middle school? Well, they’re all happening – lying around on the couch, not wanting to do anything with me, spending so much time on the phone and computer  and then telling me it’s my fault they can never do the things the other kids can do”. All I could do was smile and tell him to wait for second semester, it’s even better”.

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To blog or not to blog

9 11 2011

This is a difficult question on a number of levels – culturally, generationally and personally. To say that the changes in technology and access to the internet has increased hugely the chances for people to be heard is just a tad self-evident. But to me, it also begs the question, “because I can put my thoughts and opinions out there, should I? “

I remember reading about an Australian multicultural television station, whose slogan is “6 billion stories and counting”, to which one journalist reposted, “ …. But how many are worth telling?” Then there’s the quote from the Stephen Soderbergh film, Contagion, where one of the characters says,  “A blog isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.” 

At the risk of a fair generalization, ‘putting it out there’ seems almost un-Australian, at least in the traditional sense. Certainly, when I was growing up, to be seen to be telling people all and sundry was to run the risk of being seen as the proverbial tall poppy ( or mug lair in the vernacular) , and lopping the “tall poppy” was almost a contact sport. Boys didn’t even dare wear white football boots as this clearly establishing yourself as a lair & guaranteed you had a good chance of being cleaned up at some point in the game. While as a nation we now seem to be more comfortable with ourselves being more expressive in public, I think to some extent we still have this attitude towards being seen to “big note” yourself and so starting down this road now makes me somewhat nervous. (Having written this, I now hear on the BBC that Australians spend more time on social media & blogs than any other nation. Perhaps I’m just out of touch.)

In addition, simply having a blog doesn’t necessarily result in a readership. To paraphrase the old saw about the tree falling in the forest & no-one hearing, if you publish a blog & no one reads it, what is the point? On a personal level, I do ask myself, why would anyone necessarily want to read anything I have to say – am I big-noting myself be doing so? Do I really have anything that valuable to say & if I do so in my professional position of principal, do I have the skills & qualities that qualify me to do so? And really, why so much angst?

Certainly there seems to be a generational angle & those people who have grown up with the new world, seem to have little compunction or embarrassment at exposing their thoughts to the wider world. In the end, I’m not sure where one of these blockers ends and the next one starts, so perhaps I should try and answer the question, why am I doing this?

Well, for one very good reason. At our school this year, we are requiring all classroom teachers and students to have a blog & to communicate via this. It’s a bit rich then for me not to do one as well. But it’s not just this. There is a belief that much good learning comes from this sharing of ideas between both teachers and students. We tell the kids they need to be risk takers – I have to leave myself open to this possibility as well. Mind you, at the same time, I have to be aware of the possibility of the perception from some teachers that I might spend too much time blogging or tweeting & not enough on what might be seen as core business.
I can do this at home at night & I was interested to read one blog post that said caustically that teachers & principals might be at home “zoned out” in front of the TV & said this is when they could be blogging. To me that was a tad harsh – as any teacher or harassed principal knows, there are times when we just need to tune out. To hold such a hard line runs the risk of ignoring the reality that people are entitled to private lives – we aren’t all connected all the time. Where, after all, does balance enter the equation? What is relaxing for one is work for another. We always need to be other lookout for the zealot.

So, here goes & hopefully future posts will be both more confident and more literate.