How Educators Can Help Children Build Resilience
By Dr. Ashley Schoof
This article first appeared in Issues on Lutheran Education, a resource provided by the Office of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education for Martin Luther College, New Ulm MN.
We hear a lot today about resilience and its importance in coping with the prolonged stress of COVID-19. What exactly is resilience? And how can educators help encourage its development in children?
Resilience is the determination, grit, and perseverance to tackle problems and cope with the challenges of school and life. That’s the psychological and emotional definition. Spiritually speaking, we can think of resilience the way the apostle Paul described it in Philippians 4:6-9:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Christian educators are equipped to teach spiritual resilience and to encourage children to go to the Lord in prayer for help in troubles. That is a wonderful blessing! We who work in professions connected to ministry are extremely privileged to be able to speak God’s Word in our professional settings. I’d like to offer some additional psychological and emotional skills that, when integrated with that power of the gospel, have tremendous power to help kids develop resilience.
Understand the underlying physiological stressors.
One of my roles is to oversee the child and adolescent day treatment programs we offer. You can think of day treatment as a “higher dose” of psychological care than typical outpatient counseling, which might take place on a weekly basis. In October this year, we saw a surge in referrals. The children and teens are presenting more acute symptoms than ever before. They are handling more stress than they have ever had to handle—and it is sustained stress.
When we are faced with something outside our normal routine, outside our comfort zone, our brain releases a stress hormone called cortisol. This increases a human’s ability to go into survival response mode. Cortisol does a couple things to us physiologically:
- Creates increased inflammation in the body as the body prepares to heal injuries that might occur while we’re in an uncomfortable state.
- Disturbs sleep so that it is shallower, to allow the body to wake more easily for perceived dangers.
- Helps us get through short-term isolation—a helpful survival response! However, prolonged loneliness that is more than a burst of stress creates more wear and tear on our organs. This in turn creates increased risk for physical, mental, and emotional problems. That’s what many of us have experienced since March. We may be experiencing a prolonged cortisol response, and that is damaging.
For kids who already have a baseline of increased stress, we’ve added all of this prolonged stress with physiological effects! Now that we understand and recognize what is happening, what can educators do?
Give kids a toolbox.
Of course, in ministry we draw on the promises of God to ease stress and build spiritual resilience in children. We tell them, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). In addition, God blesses us with practical tools and skills we can provide children so that they can regulate behaviorally and build resilience emotionally.
Here are some skills we practice daily in treatment that equip kids with their own resilience tools. It is important to practice these skills when children are happy, when they are not having an immediate issue, so that they know these skills and can remember them when they are having a moment (perhaps with a little reminder from you).
- This is a skill we teach often. In fact, we go through exercises daily so that kids enjoy them. That way, when they are having an issue, they remember skills they enjoy and are less likely to protest. Here is a video that demonstrates an easy teaching method for children to learn building skills. We also have simple instructions with graphics called Breathing Techniques for Kids available on our website.
- Bubble Gum Brain. The video linked here has been a very successful tool for us to teach kids what they are capable of controlling or not controlling. In this video, kids learn from two fictional characters—one “Bubble Gum Brain” and one “Brick Brain.” Bubble Gum Brain has a growth mindset, while Brick Brain refuses to see anything differently from his own perspective. This exercise teaches children that there might be perspectives out there that are different from their own.
- Big/Small Problems. Kids often make very small problems into giant ones. The video linked here helps kids learn and discern, “When do I have a big problem and when do I have a small problem?”
Remember, be proactive! Teach these skills before things become unmanageable.
Build trusted relationships.
We cannot talk about resilience without understanding what is at the core of developing resilience: relationships. Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University refers to the power of trust-based relationships to help a child build important skills such as coping, adapting, behavior regulation, emotional regulation, and delayed gratification. That’s resilience! The children we serve build resilience when they have trusted relationships with their families, teachers, pastors, coaches, doctors, mental health professionals, other adults, and of course, with their Savior.
During COVID-19, these trusted relationships are being challenged. We’re seeing more stress on the family system. Parents who were never meant to be teachers may have several children in different age groups with different learning needs, causing underlying stress on those relationships. Virtual learning is lowering the confidence and self-esteem of children and teens and making them question both their relationships with their teachers and what they are capable of doing. Social unrest is causing stress on the community system too.
In the midst of all this, helping children feel safe and connected is foundational to building resilience. This might be a bigger task than any one teacher can be expected to do. Schools and congregations can help children by prioritizing support for the systems that help reduce stress on families and build adult coping capabilities—
systems such as . . .
- Parental coaching
- Proactive Mental Wellness programs (to support families in a way that supports children)
- Prayer groups and Bible studies (to remind children and families of the loving, unchanging relationship God’s children have with Jesus)
It is such a blessing to blend these types of practical psychological and emotional strategies with gospel promises so that children can mature and be confident in their identities, no matter what the world throws at them.
I pray for each and every one of you during these times that are so challenging for the education profession. If Christian Family Solutions or I can support you, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley Schoof, PsyD, LP, BC-TMH, is Southeastern Wisconsin Clinical Director for Christian Family Solutions. Dr. Schoof uses cognitive behavioral and family systems framework during treatment, and is also trained in applied behavioral analysis and play therapy. Her areas of expertise include foster care and adoption, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, OCD, brain injury, learning disabilities, other childhood disorders, and group and individual therapy.