Thursday, 29 September 2016

Building Resilience in Students: Our important role as teachers

“If just one person in a child’s life is consistently supportive, a child is much more likely to overcome difficult circumstances. Just one person who is enthusiastic about the child. Just one person who lights up when the child walks into the room.”

Being a teacher and parent in an international school in Singapore has made me aware of a  fascinating group of children: ‘Third Culture Kids’. Having been born and brought up exclusively in my home country, I often compare my formative years with my daughter’s current life. My culturally homogenous and perfectly uneventful childhood does not come close to the multicultural opportunities and experiences she has been privileged to have in her thirteen years in three different countries. However, while there are positives about being a third culture kid, there are several potential downsides as well.

While children around the world are affected by stressful situations in various degrees through their school life, third culture children share very specific challenges. Sudden changes in living location may lead to a breakdown in friendships and core groups, feelings of isolation and even elements of discrimination. These often lead to a multitude of other emotional and social challenges, some more complex than others. While many children cope with these challenges beautifully, the emotional and social turmoil rarely goes away. However, being able to cope, is a key factor for students around the world to maintain positive mental health, successful school experiences and healthy relationships. It is not something that teachers or parents can control or decide. However, teachers can play a vital role in helping students develop important attributes, that enable them to be resilient, ensuring that their mental health and wellbeing is not left to chance.

Research has shown that resilience makes a big difference in how children live. Having productive strategies for coping with hardships, allows children to live long and healthier lives, have happier relationships, become more successful in school and be more positive and less depressed. However, resilience isn’t something one is necessarily born with; it can be learned. This is where we, as teachers, come in. Strong teacher-child relationships are vital to building resilience. Moreover, it is possible for teachers to develop resilience strategies and tie them seamlessly into the curriculum.

Nursery age children are naturally drawn to their teachers because of the physical nature of their needs. Little ones need to be aware that it’s ok to ask for help and that it is easily forthcoming. However, teaching children to wait and be patient, by gently putting off entertaining a child who wants immediate attention, is perhaps one of the most basic ways to build resilience. Sharing classroom materials and activities, stressing the importance of turn taking and developing understandings of the importance of relationships, is integral for the little ones to get their first taste of resilience development. When teachers overtly model classroom essential agreements, attributes of the learner profile and the PYP attitudes, it gives students ideas on how they can follow these and create new ways to replicate these as well. Empowering students to speak their mind if they are not happy with a situation or other children’s actions, often reduces emotional and social breakdowns. Also, rather than complaining, children need to be encouraged to look for positive points in their peers or life in general.

Even children over the age of six, who are quite independent, still need adult reassurance. Their increasing interest in friends, social media, internet games and other activities, begins drawing them away from adults. Conducting and facilitating class meetings with attention to specific feelings, makes students aware of their emotions. These meetings can take place as the need arises, daily or simply reflect on the past week. They are healthy ways to connect students and create a safe place for them to discuss and repair negative emotions they may have towards each other or towards a particular situation.

Getting students involved in volunteering to make a collaborative contribution to their school or outside community, helps them to serve others, model generosity and creates positive action. However, volunteering isn’t something that comes naturally to many students. Teachers can serve as advisors or mentors to such ideas. This could be as simple as helping each other to clean up the immediate environment, to feel a sense of worth and to understand that happiness and wellbeing can come from non-material things too. Setting up opportunities for students to be ‘giving’ by inviting students from other classes to visit, to showcase an exhibition or a class task, is also an effective way to create better well-being between students. Encouraging students to step outside their comfort zone and play with children who speak another language or even trying new activities or foods is another way to widen children’s experiences, where students build, develop and practice coping strategies. It is important to keep reminding children, that there is always a rainbow after any storm.

By age eleven and twelve, children begin challenging ideas and authority and resilience to emotional challenges, often falters. It is at this stage, that significant adults should be aware of the importance of connecting to the emotional needs of students. Helping students to set realistic academic goals, creating optimistic social resolutions, offering critical thinking tools to solve emotional issues, providing opportunities to be more assertive and encouraging children to persevere when challenges arise, are some of the important processes that foster resilience during the teenage years. In turn, resilience could help boost student confidence and encourage support among students, making them happier, more empathetic and balanced individuals.

While teachers cannot possibly control their students’ lives outside school, we can certainly try and make a difference in our students’ lives at school. By creating an environment that fosters and develops resiliency among our students, we can help them to face and overcome challenges and get stronger because of it.

- Liesl Pinto
K1 Homeroom Teacher lpinto@chatsworth.com.sg
Chatsworth East International School

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