Resilience for children: what it means, why it’s important and a guide to the hallmarks and risk factors
Posted by Carolyn in News
Ahead of her appearance at our Annual Children’s Mental Health Conference 2019 (5th June, Glasgow), we’ve adapted a piece by Dr Tina Rae, from Teaching Times’ Every Child Journal, on the subject of resilience. This is one of the topics she’ll cover at the conference (which also features Prof Barry Carpenter and more) – sign up today! This is part one – parts two and three of the piece will appear in the coming weeks…
The importance of creating a resilient staff team and a whole-school approach based in the philosophy and approaches emanating from positive psychology is presented as are some key tools and evidence-based approaches which can help us to meet such an objective.
The Department for Education and the Mental Health Foundation define a mentally healthy child as one who can:
- develop psychologically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually;
- initiate, develop and sustain mutually satisfying personal relationships;
- use and enjoy solitude;
- become aware of others and empathise with them;
- play and learn;
- develop a sense of right and wrong;
- face problems and setbacks and learn from them.
This list is further built upon by Helpguide, the non-profit website health guide, to include a sense of wellbeing and contentment, a zest for living, resilience (the ability to “bounce back”) and creative as well as intellectual development.
On initial reading, this list may appear somewhat simplistic. However, once we begin to reflect upon our own lives and relate these descriptors to young people in schools, it is possible to see how it can provide an initial starting point for identifying problems and difficulties. As Mark Prever states in his book, “They are useful indicators when we consider their opposites – an activity that way gives us some insight into the meaning of mental health problems and mental illness.”
The Office for National Statistics noted that over ten per cent of children aged between five and 15 years are affected by a mental health problem and that this figure rises to 11.2 per cent for students of statutory secondary school age. This means that the average secondary school of 1000 pupils will have:
- 50 students with depression;
- 10 affected by eating disorders;
- 100 suffering/experiencing significant distress;
- 10-20 students with obsessive compulsive disorder;
- 5-10 attempting suicide.
As Prever suggests, “This, then, is the task faced by schools. Wherever possible, we need to find ways to prevent these problems in young people from developing. We need to act early with our own school-based support systems and refer on to – and work directly with – mental health professionals where this is felt necessary and desirable.”
Teachers and those who work with young people in schools can and do successfully prevent the escalation of mental health problems in their students by understanding more about protective factors and ensuring that they are promoted at an individual, group and systems-level across the whole-school community. This, in turn, can then support systems and approaches at both individual and group levels to build resilience and overall wellbeing.
What do we mean by resilience?
Resilience is about “bouncing back” from what life throws at us. It is about being strong inside and able to adapt well to changes and difficulties. It is about flourishing in life, despite our circumstances.
If children are resilient, they will be able to cope better with problems, they will have better health and they will be happier and more fulfilled. They will also be less likely to develop emotional problems like depression or anxiety.
But resilience is not just something you have or don’t have. The important truth is that we can help all children to become more resilient. We can’t protect children from all the things that may cause them distress throughout their lives. But we can help children become more resilient so that they are more able to cope with life’s uncertainties and problems. And all children, no matter what their background, will have to face problems and changes in their lives. So our support is really important in helping children become more resilient.
Coping with Change
‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.’ – Charles Darwin
The way in which young children, and indeed adults, cope with change is one important component of our mental health. This capacity tends to be shaped by our own unique combination of nature, nurture and events and a resulting balance in our lives between both risk and resilience. For many young people who have experienced secure attachments and nurturing in their early years, adults will be seen as trustworthy and reliable. These are the people whom children can go to when they are attempting to deal with difficult issues, uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, and at times of transition such as secondary transfer.
For those whose experiences of adults are more chaotic and whose relationships did not lead to the development of resilience, trusting adults and regulating their strong feelings may be slightly more problematic. Children who are more vulnerable will tend to find it more difficult to ask for help, and also to cope with any underlying anxieties which they experience during the process of change.
It is important to highlight the fact that risk does not cause mental health problems in children and young people – however, it is something that is cumulative and does predispose children and young people to poor outcomes in the longer term.
It is therefore essential that those who are working with young children, both in the learning and social contexts, aim to minimise the number and extent of risks that they are exposed to. It is not always possible to remove the risk itself but an awareness of the presence of risk can quite often change the way that adults understand a young person’s needs and respond to them.
It is vital at the outset that school-based staff, for example, have access to information which would ensure the identification of any potential risk factors or existing risk factors for individual children and young people. These can include the following:
- genetic influences;
- learning difficulties;
- specific development delay;
- communication difficulties;
- a difficult temperament;
- physical illness;
- previous academic failure;
- low levels of self-esteem.
Predisposing factors within families can also include the following:
- overt parental conflict;
- family breakdown;
- inconsistent or unclear discipline in the home;
- hostile and rejecting relationships;
- failure to adapt to the child’s development needs;
- physical/sexual abuse and/or neglect or emotional neglect;
- parental psychiatric illness;
- parental criminality, alcoholism, drug abuse and personality disorder;
- death and loss including the loss of friendships.
Predisposing factors in the wider community can include the following:
- socio-economic disadvantage;
- disaster, accidents, war and other overwhelming events;
- other significant life events.
It is vital therefore that school-based staff engage in the process of promoting resilience in children and young people in all key stages and particularly upon the stage of transition between Key Stage 2 and 3.
Newman defined a resilient child as one who “can resist adversity, cope with uncertainty and recover more successfully from traumatic events or episodes”.
He described resilience as being a set of skills that are required through experience, although there may of course be some inherited aspects. Resilience is not about invulnerability but is essentially about our capacity to cope.
Continuous and extreme adversity is likely to drain even the most resilient children and adults. Rutter argued that resilience is created when risk is reduced through a series of protective mechanisms or factors – it is these that can change a child’s trajectory in life[4,5].
When children are supported in developing a positive appraisal of themselves and to think differently or in a more solution-focused way about events they are then and able to feel differently about their own competence. In essence, they believe in their own ability to cope. Rutter also argued that risk is reduced when the exposure to risk is altered in some way.
Rutter highlights the following factors which protect young people in adversity:
- the ability to integrate experiences into their belief systems;
- the presence of self-esteem;
- the ability to be proactive in relation to ongoing stress;
- having secure, affectional relationships;
- some measure of success and achievement;
- interaction with others in securing games;
- parental modelling or redeeming relationships i.e. modelling by another supportive adult;
- the ability to process events and experiences in a meaningful way;
- gaining mastery over stressful events.
Daniel and Wassell developed the notion of domains of resilience. They highlighted six areas of a young person’s life where resilience could be promoted. These are as follows:
- Secure base;
- Talents and interests;
- Positive values;
- Social competence.
The idea of such ‘resilient strings’ is similar to Rutter’s protective mechanisms. These are processes which interact with each other over time in order to reinforce the level of resilience a child or young person actually has.
It is also likely that in resilient children, one domain of resilience will positively impact on another. For example, a young child who has a musical talent and who is asked to perform in a school band or choir is also likely to develop friendships and as a result will take up a higher profile social role in the school which is more valued. This in turn will promote his or her educational outcomes in the long run.
Resilience in the child
Research has consistently identified the following protective factors for children’s wellbeing and mental health:
- Female (in younger children);
- Secure attachment experience;
- Outgoing temperament as an infant;
- Good communication skills and sociability;
- Being a planner and having a belief in control;
- Problem solving skills and a positive attitude;
- Experiences of success and achievement;
- Faith or spirituality;
- Capacity to reflect;
- At least one good parent/child or carer relationship/supportive adult;
- Clear, consistent discipline;
- Support for education;
- Supportive long-term relationships or the absence of severe discord;
- Wider support networks;
- Good housing;
- High standard of living;
- High morale at school with positive policies for behaviour, attitudes and anti-bullying;
- Opportunities for valued social roles;
- Range of sport and leisure activities.
Dr Tina Rae is a Professional and Academic Tutor at the University of East London. She has over 30 years experience working with children, adults and families, and specialises in social, emotional and behavioural disorders and difficulties.
1. Prever, M. (2007) Mental health in schools. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
2. Office for national statistics (2003) The mental health of young people looked after by local authorities. London: National Stationery office.
3. Newman, T. (2002) Promoting resilience: A review of effective strategies for child care.
4. Rutter, M. (1985) Resilience in the face of adversity: protective factors and resistance to psychiatric disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 147: 598-611.
5. Rutter, M. (1987) Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 57-3: p.316-331.
6. Daniel, B. and Wassell, S. (2002) Assessing and promoting resilience in vulnerable children, volumes 1, 2 and 3. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.
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