Strategies to help children build resilience

Educators understand the importance of building resilience in children, but knowing exactly how to promote it can be challenge.

A new practice guide, released today by beyondblue, seeks to provide teachers, families and other professionals with everyday strategies to build resilience in young people and teach them to think positively.

The guide – Building Resilience in Children aged 0-12 – draws on new research and how it can be applied in schools, early childhood settings and at home with families.

The strategies are based on a 12-month research project led by the Parenting Research Centre (PRC) and Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY). The project reviewed academic research and generated expert consensus on resilience concepts. This research was complemented by consultations with parents, children and practitioners from around the country.

The Children's Resilience Research Project (CRRP), which formed the basis for this guide, aimed to bring consensus and clarity to the concept of resilience and how resilience can be used to support children.

Why was this practice guide developed?

In this guide, resilience is defined as ‘doing well during or after an adverse event, or a period of adversity.' The resource seeks to provide strategies for teachers and others to help build children's resilience so they can better manage life's adversities.

‘Improving children's resilience helps them to deal with the adversities they experience during childhood,' the guide notes, adding ‘It provides a foundation for developing skills and habits (e.g. coping skills, healthy thinking habits) that enable them to deal with later adversities during adolescence and adulthood.'

The guide also outlines the potential social and economic benefits to society, including better mental health outcomes for children and savings in mental health treatment costs. A clear message throughout the resource is that children can be motivated by experiencing a manageable level of adversity or stress, and this can contribute to overall positive development. It is something that all children can learn and develop.

How was the guide developed?

The practice guide was developed as part of the CRRP. The team involved reviewed existing research about resilience and also drew on the expertise of four key groups: a taskforce comprising 10 children resilience experts; an expert panel comprising 25 academic researchers and leaders in business and community; school aged children (6-12 years) and their parents; and practitioners in the health, education and community services sectors who work with children (0–12 years) and families.

The tasks were coordinated and undertaken by the PRC and ARACY in collaboration with beyondblue from June 2016 to June 2017.

Two distinct approaches to building resilience

Experts consulted in the research agreed with 100 per cent consensus that ‘resilience interventions should focus on both the child and environment'. They found that interventions operate at multiple levels, including the individual child, their environment and the interaction between the child and their environment over time.

The guide suggests two distinct approaches can be applied to build children's resilience. These include:

  • Everyday strategies, which are incorporated into routine practice and service delivery and are designed to be used whenever an appropriate opportunity arises. These strategies rely on the same skills you might use every day when working with children and families.
  • Structured resilience interventions, which typically require intervention-specific training and are often accompanied by a guide or manual. Structured resilience interventions differ from everyday strategies as they are delivered over a specific period of time.

Everyday strategies for building children's resilience

The resource explores several different ways that adults can go about educating children about what resilience is and how it develops.

For example, after reading a story to students about people who have overcome difficult situations, teachers could have students write a list of books about people who have overcome adversity. ‘Be sure to include stories and books about a diverse range of people including women, people from a range of cultural backgrounds, and people with disabilities,' the guide suggests.

Other possible activities or tasks include:

  • ‘Remind children that it's OK for them to ask for support. Brainstorm with them about where and who they can go to when they need support.'
  • ‘Talk to children about when they might need support, such as when something bad happens, when they're going through a difficult time, or when they need to talk to someone about how they're feeling.'
  • ‘Explain to children that facing challenges in life can be useful – they help us grow as a person and give us knowledge and skills that make us better prepared the next time something challenges us.'
  • ‘Provide children with opportunities to practise empathy. For example, when reading a book to a group of children aged three to four years, about a character who is having a difficult time, ask them how they would feel if they were experiencing the same things as the character.'
  • ‘Encourage children while undertaking a challenging task, promoting environments that support a child's sense of belonging, or brainstorming with children about how they can support their friends during a challenging time.'
  • ‘Incorporate mindfulness, breathing activities or other relaxation techniques into everyday routines and activities in educational settings.'

The guide also outlines several tips when working with parents and with communities. This includes providing families with access to information and tools that can be used to improve the conditions that promote resilience, such as positive family relationships, family connectedness and effective parenting.

Structured resilience interventions

There's support for teachers and other professionals looking to design and implement their own intervention programs. The guide provides educators with recommendations on how to go about adapting an existing intervention and examines the common characteristics of a range of existing structured intervention programs.

While a lot of the literature on resilience tends to focus on children over the age of 10 within structured resilience programs, research in this guide suggests that there is no ‘right time' for resilience interventions and they can, in fact, be valuable at any time throughout a child's life.

Throughout the resource, teachers can also find more information on where the intervention should be delivered; how it should be measured; and which resilience measurement scales to use with children and adolescents.

It also outlines nine guiding principles for selecting an appropriate measure when working with children. These principles may help professionals to select a suitable approach to measuring resilience in our young people. And it lists five goals that should be included in any new program:

  • Introducing protective factors for children
  • Enhancing existing protective factors for children
  • Providing resources and experiences that build children's resilience
  • Reducing risk factors among children
  • Building attributes in children.

What teachers can do moving forward

Building Resilience in Children aged 0-12 contains specific phrases and scenarios that professionals can apply to support students. While it says that there is no single skill or capacity for building resilience, it is best to take an approach that focuses on different levels, including the individual child and building a supportive environment.

‘Look for opportunities and resources to boost support for individual children during significant life transitions – for example, a death in the family, parent separation or changing schools. Always consider the age and development of the children you're working with, and design your resilience intervention accordingly.'

It also highlights the fact that high-quality relationships are a critical aspect of children's resilience, so teachers should consider interventions and strategies that focus on and build upon supportive relationships. This can include the child's peers, parents or any other significant adults in their lives.

Stay tuned: Teacher will be taking a closer look at the advice for educators looking to design and implement their own intervention program.

Building Resilience in Children aged 0-12 can be downloaded free from the beyondblue website.

The guide says schoolwork pressures and disagreements with friends are examples of everyday challenges all children will face during their childhood. With a colleague, make a list of everyday challenges children face – these could be in school or outside school.

The guide stresses that when considering everyday strategies for building resilience, it’s important to consider the individual child. Think about your own students: what are their individual needs and circumstances?