Reducing Risk and Building Resilience
Studies in positive psychology have shown that resilience rates high among attitude-based protective factors that help children achieve academic success in environments where, statistically speaking, the odds are against them.
In 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development showed that preschoolers facing eight or more environmental risk factors such as maternal mental illness or single parenthood, minority status or stressful life events, scored more than 30 points below children with no risk factors on tests of IQ. Yet, they consistently found that groups of high resilient children in high-risk environments still outperformed their peers.
But how do we develop high resilience in our kids and ourselves?
The astonishing thing, the great surprise of resilience research, is the ordinariness of strategies needed for success.
Firm guidance, structured rituals and a focus on each child’s strengths, while simultaneously challenging and supporting students, are among the developmental supports in grouping of high expectations. For kids that learn resilience on their own, protective factors may include independence, social skills, relationships, self esteem, temperament and a sense of purpose and competence seem to run parallel to positive psychology constructs such as effort, optimism and hope.
Always high on the list of strategies is the importance of social competence among peers, supportive relationships with adults, opportunities for meaningful participation and high expectations. Others list a similar set of developmental supports including caring relationships, meaningful participation and high expectations.
While good study habits are important to promote cognitive development, studies show the promotion of positive relationships with peers can contribute not only to children’s social development but to their emotional and cognitive development well-being, too. It is equally important that the teachers themselves have a highly developed sense of optimism, plus understand and exhibit social and emotional competence. Students are not born with resilience; it is something students learn, and if they are not learning it adequately at home, schools have to teach. They cannot attain their academic success without it.
Teachers can play a key role by creating positive learning environments for children.
They can model their belief that life is doable and that mistakes are opportunities to learn. They realize that when children use self-defeating behaviors such as acting out, bullying, clowning or giving up, they may be masking feelings of hopelessness, vulnerability and low self-esteem. Use of rituals or respectful routines and a safe environment will help reduce behaviors that detract from the caring environment in the classroom.
When combined, meaningful opportunities and high expectations give children the opportunity to develop a sense of mastery by meeting little goals in a step-wise succession. Laying down a track record of personal gains and small accomplishments work into proud memories and big hopes. The self confidence built upon these experiences means that new challenges can be tackled and the bar can be raised on academic achievement.
In fact, one study found that those who were in more challenging academic programs showed significantly lower levels of depression and, as a bidirectional study, left open the interesting question of which was the causative agent — did the more rigorous curriculum protect students from depression or were happier students more successful?
One of the largest predictors of academic achievement was the students’ perceptions of their own abilities. Another was higher educational aspirations which may serve as a goal and a motivator for adolescents, providing them with a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, as well as promoting a sense of hope. Meaning and purpose, it appears then, are important to academic achievement, and hope can be leveraged as a catalyst for achievement by nurturing meaningful participation.
Now, you’ve read about all of the things that apply to kids. Your next action step is translation. How can you take what you already do, that matches with the steps above, and expand or strengthen it?
This is no idle activity: it is about just one thing. This is about the quality of your life. This is not rocket science. Notice what the research says, and apply. If your students are worth your “best effort,” shouldn’t the person that GIVES the best effort also be worthy of your “best effort”? Of course notice what you do well, and keep doing it.
Take one thing and do just a bit more of it. Can you start today?
Your partner in learning,
CEO, Jensen Learning