The single most important thing kids need to succeed

Research shows that resilience, or the ability to recover from adversity, is critical. It is a stronger predictor of graduating from high school, reaching the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, and remaining in the US Special Forces than IQ, standardized achievement test scores, and physical fitness.

It’s importance has been heralded on both sides of the Atlantic. Last year in Britain, a cross-party parliamentary report, the Character and Resilience Manifesto (pdf), concluded that schools needed to give character and resilience significantly more emphasis and that the country’s schools watchdog, Ofsted, should measure and report on both.

In the US, author Paul Tough made the case that grit is the key element kids needed to succeed at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum in his book How Children Succeed. More recently, teacher and author Jessica Lahey argued that we need to let kids fail, in part so they can build some resilience, or coping skills.

There are plenty of things threatening to break our kids’ spirit. There are terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, shootings at schools and malls, and the stubborn reality that 25% of children in the US live in poverty. In light of this, EdWeek published the American Psychological Association’s top 10 list for how adults and children can build resilience:

  1. Make connections
  2. Help children help others
  3. Maintain a daily routine
  4. Take a break
  5. Teach self-care
  6. Move toward your goals
  7. Nurture a positive self-view
  8. Keep things in perspective and maintain a hopeful outlook
  9. Look for opportunities for self-discovery
  10. Accept that change is part of living

Many of the items might seem obvious. But what’s less obvious is how effective we are at doing them.

“Teach self-care” for example, might translate in our over-stretched and busy brains as “feed and bathe children, read something.” But really what it means is take time and explain to kids what to do when their brains and emotions go haywire. That might be as simple as deep-breathing or basic mindfulness, but it is as obvious to a 7-year-old as Einstein’s theory of relativity.

In the EdWeek story, Steve Paulson, Richard Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn & Amishi Jha, authors of “Becoming Conscious: The Science of Mindfulness” explain what happens to the brain when we are confronted with stress. “We often have an emotional reaction that perseverates, or which goes on beyond the point that is useful or where the stress is present,” Davidson explains. That results in a prolonged activation of the amygdala, a part of the brain that is important for emotion and specifically negative and stressful emotion.

“Practicing mindfulness will lead to faster recovery in the amygdala,” he said.

We can’t control bad things from happening. But we can help build resilience to help kids cope with it. “Without teaching the skills that help children move through their emotions, we are truly asking them to do the impossible, each and every day,” EdWeek concludes.

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