What characteristic improves a child’s academic attainment, career prospects, mental health, physical health and future happiness?

The answer, as you may have guessed from this article’s title is “resilience”; i.e. the ability to cope with pressure and stress and bounce back from adversity. But is resilience something that children are just born with? And if not, what can we as parents do to develop this capacity?

The discovery of resilience

Resilience is an important concept in education today but this was not always the case. Resilience research gathered pace in the 1980s when longitudinal studies from the 1960s and 1970s started coming to fruition.   Rather than studying adults once a problem had emerged, this research followed the lives of “at risk” children to see how and why problems emerged. These were children growing up in conditions of great adversity like neglect, abuse, poverty, parental depression and schizophrenia.

As the children of these studies grew up an amazing finding emerged; over 50% – and sometimes 75% – did not repeat the patterns of their past in the own adult lives. Certain children were found to be resilient in spite of severe stress and adversity.

Resilience versus the super-kid

It was also found that these were not genetically superior “super-kids”. These were not children whose inner fortitude somehow made them impervious to stress. Invulnerability is still often confused with resilience. However what makes a child resilient is not a Teflon ego or the ability to breeze through a crisis unscathed.

Resilience is rather a series of traits that naturally develop when basic needs are met. These traits break down into social competencies – like empathy and communication skills – problem solving capabilities, autonomy and a sense of purpose and future. A resilient child is therefore better able to respond to challenges by asking others for help and consciously evaluate options. He/she also is able to maintain a sense of identity and optimism in the face of adversity.

The studies also showed that when basic needs are met, like safety, love and esteem in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these traits associated with resilience naturally emerge.

The challenge of self-esteem

As parents, we intuitively want to ensure that needs like these are met. And yet we often find this outside of our control. Esteem – and particularly self esteem – is typically the most elusive.

Children can easily generalize from specific areas of underperformance to a wider sense of incompetence and worthlessness. Well-meaning efforts to address one area of concern – from parents and teachers alike – can end up having the opposite effect, only reinforcing a child’s sense of inadequacy. Concerted efforts help a reluctant reader, for example, can too easily sap confidence from other parts of a child’s academic and social life.

Developing “islands of competence”

Dr Brooks of Harvard University has developed an approach to fostering self-esteem in children using “islands of competence”. An island of competence is a specific area of strength. In developing and celebrating this strength in a child, the confidence gained ripples out into other parts of a child’s life.

The key to this is focusing on competencies that both parents and child perceive as strengths. Without this – without a child valuing their competence – a cycle of ignored parental praise and increasing frustration becomes inevitable. This is often easier said than done and it can take some expertise to help a child to view itself differently. However once identified, an island of competence can be developed and used to help a child to gain a sense of accomplishment and recognition from others.

Take the example of Laurie. Laurie was a 15 year old girl who struggled to get on with her peers but found younger children naturally gravitated towards her. Her parents called her the “pied piper of the neighbourhood”.   Her parents built on this by encouraging her to babysit for their friends. The praise and responsibility that she achieved enabled her to start out of on the path of self-acceptance and improved relations with her peers.

However, in the case of 8 year old Samantha, finding mutually agreed competences was not so straightforward. Samantha had some learning disabilities but was increasingly writing off any achievement as “luck”. A good test result, winning at board games, even quickly completed puzzles were all seen as incidents outside her control. It was eventually when Samantha’s parents validated – rather than directly questioned – her feeling of being lucky that she opened up and began acknowledging other factors at play. This led to Samantha’s recognition of her own genuine achievements and improved self-confidence.

Getting help and further reading

An academic mentor can work wonders for self esteem. Mentors act as a role model that’s separate from parent and child – but respected by both – to provide focus, support and encouragement. For more acute problems, the specialist expertise of an educational psychologist may be needed to find a way through. We also offer lots of advice on education in our, Advice for Parents Guide.

To discuss how Simply Learning Tuition’s network of tutors, mentors and educational psychologists could help you, use our enquiry form, or call one of our experts at 0207 350 1981.

To read about the work of Dr Brooks visit www.drrobertbrooks.com