Resilience lessons for early childhood

Published on Tuesday, 02 July 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Resilience is the ability to cope with life's ups and downs and is important for mental health and wellbeing of children. It's developed through social and emotional interaction and strengthened with practice.

Early childhood educators are in a strong position to create empowering environments for children to foster their independence and sense of responsibility through play-based learning experiences. Learning basic skills and good habits early on can help small children deal with challenges in life.

This week we have some simple tips for building resilience among the children in your service.

1. Provide supportive relationships

No matter the source of hardship, the single most important factor for children who end up doing well is the continued support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, or early childhood educator. These relationships are the active ingredient in building resilience - they provide the personalised responsiveness, scaffolding, and protection that can buffer young children from developmental disruption.

Good relationships also help children develop key capacities that better enable them to respond to adversity when they face it – such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behaviour, and adapt to changing circumstances. This combination of supportive relationships, adaptive skill-building, and positive experiences constitutes the foundation of resilience.

2. Create positive experiences

Children who do well in the face of significant hardship typically show some degree of natural resistance to adversity, however, this internal predisposition alone is not enough to create positive outcomes. Children also need strong relationships with the important adults in their family and community, as it is the interaction between biology and environment that builds a child's capacity to cope with adversity and overcome threats to healthy development. While the individual characteristics of children are out of an educator's control, by creating everyday positive experiences for the children in your service you will positively contribute to their resilience levels.

3. Help children manage positive and negative stress

Learning to cope with manageable threats to our physical and social wellbeing is critical for the development of resilience. Not all stress is harmful and there are numerous opportunities in every child's life to experience manageable stress. With the help of supportive adults this 'positive stress' can be beneficial. Over time, both our bodies and our brains begin to perceive these stressors as increasingly manageable and we become better able to cope with life's obstacles and hardships – both physically and mentally. On the flip side, when adversity feels overwhelming and supportive relationships aren't available, stress can turn toxic and 'tip the scale' toward negative outcomes.

4. Be aware of more sensitive children

Some children respond in more extreme ways to both negative and positive experiences and these highly sensitive children may show increased vulnerability in stressful circumstances but also respond positively in environments that provide warmth and support. Early childhood programs that provide responsive relationships to children facing serious hardship may see dramatic turnarounds in the very children who seem to be doing the worst.

5. Teach them early

Resilience can be developed at any age, but earlier is better. Individuals never lose their ability to improve their coping skills, and they often learn how to adapt to new challenges. The brain and other biological systems are most adaptable early in life, and the development that occurs in the earliest years lays the foundation for a wide range of resilient behaviours. However, resilience is shaped throughout life by the accumulation of experiences—both good and bad—and the continuing development of adaptive coping skills connected to those experiences. What happens early may matter most, but it is never too late to build resilience.

6. Exercise and role modelling

Age-appropriate activities that have widespread health benefits can also improve resilience. For example, regular physical exercise and stress reduction practices, such as meditation, as well as programs that actively build executive function and self-regulation skills, can improve the abilities of children and adults to cope with, adapt to, and even prevent adversity in their lives. Adults who strengthen these skills in themselves can also model positive behaviours for children, which even further helps improve the resilience of the next generation.

7. Other resilience building activities

Here are a few other ways early childhood educators can build resilience in young children:

  • Encourage children to make friendships and connections, check that no one is being isolated and promote empathy so they can understand each other's pain.
  • Empower them by having them help others, whether it's peers or teachers.
  • Encourage children to develop daily routines that can be maintained, yet also build in unstructured time during the day to allow children to be creative.
  • Teach the importance of self-care by eating well, exercising, resting and making time for fun.
  • Help children set and move towards reasonable goals, and praise them when each step or accomplishment is achieved.
  • Nurture a positive self-view and optimistic outlook by helping kids understand how past hardships build strength and why it's important to see humour in life and laugh at one's self. Also, teach them to trust themselves to solve problems and make appropriate decisions.
  • Help them look for opportunities of self-discovery, tough times are often when children learn the most about themselves.
  • Help children see that change is part of life and new goals can replace goals that have become unattainable.

To learn more about how counteracting negative experiences with positive ones can help children become more resilient, play the Harvard University online resilience game here.

Thanks to Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard UniversityAmerican Psychological Association and Be You for their information around resilience and child development.

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