Resilience is all about active coping strategies. Resilience post-pandemic is defined by many researchers as how we coped in the home, the school, the society during “lockdown”: all three in equal proportions. They believe that if a child is anxious now, then all three components above had a role to play in that, in equal measure. And all three, with equal effort, need to work to address the issue.
If children are feeling anxious, we need to give them easy strategies to help them overcome their anxiety. By way of example, a simple technique that works well is to ask someone who is anxious to look at the minute detail in the room around them, and note the detail of everything they see. By doing this, for example in a classroom, they focus on that aspect and start to minimise their anxious feelings. My message is, we all, staff and parents, need to research these simple methods that work… and then use them.
The pandemic has given us a chance to use and work on what is in our “resilience rucksack”. Previously students would never have had to look into this rucksack until maybe GCSE or A level exams came around, or only at career interviews time and during the stresses of adulthood. Now, due to the pandemic, they have already at early ages had to start to unpack and use the tools in their “resilience rucksacks”. So, my challenge to you all is to focus on this major positive outcome, rather than the perceived negatives.
Very recent research released, which asked parents in the UK what they felt were the biggest positives of lockdown, showed the four below as the top benefits:
The same research addressed to teachers recorded the following biggest benefits for them:
These above are genuine positives and we need to start to focus on these. They are impressive.
In dealing with children’s anxiety, it is imperative that we as adults give children the language to describe how they are feeling. We need to give them a chance to use their language of emotion. As educationists we also now need to look at opportunities for music, drama and play, to help unlock their feelings and anxieties. Psychiatrists believe that in-school therapy (e.g., using music, art, drama etc) will have the greatest impact on promoting children’s stronger emotional wellbeing. As a forward-thinking and proactive staff team we need to challenge ourselves at THS to actively seek out opportunities to develop these.
A fascinating research discovery has been that one of the best ways to promote improved behaviour, develop greater resilience and to overcome anxieties in children is to create opportunities for more adventurous play. For parents, this is a great tip. Family walks outdoors and more adventurous weekend activities with the whole family have never been more important. At THS we are also lucky that we can offer Forest School and Beach School, with the youngest children, to create this space for them to become more adventurous. However, researchers do insist the activity really does need to “challenge the children’s physical ability” and be “truly adventurous” with “limited wrapping in cotton wool”. The research showed that these kinds of activities rapidly build confidence, resilience and positive self-esteem.
Psychiatrists are increasingly clear that we need to stop “pathologizing” anxiety, as the more we do, the more we are actually increasing the child’s anxiety. They believe that we need to let children have stresses and learn to cope with it, especially at times of examinations. They argue that exams have been part and parcel of life for centuries, but due to COVID we are as parents and as teachers ‘over-highlighting’ exam stress and this means that we are actually creating more anxiety in children. Unnecessary anxiety.
They argue that the exam and test pressures are exactly the same now as they were five years ago, and at that stage we never had this level of anxiety. More and more, the school of thought now is that this new increased level of anxiety has been mistakenly and erroneously linked to COVID. It is in fact now being related to mismanagement from parents, from schools and from society as there has been the promotion of a “finding an excuse” culture for “normal butterflies in the tummy” commonly and appropriately associated with test and exams. The view is that this “finding an excuse” culture has been generated during the pandemic, but in fact the exam/test/assessment stresses are no different to before.
If you have a child who is anxious, the way we listen and talk to them is important. Our language and our questioning must not reinforce the anxiety, but rather offer sensible options to overcome it. I give some examples below:
“I can see you are feeling sad and that’s ok.”
“I can understand you feel excited and nervous at the same time.”
What should we not do as parents? Don’t overtly reassure: “You will be fine.” That we can’t guarantee, so don’t say it. Don’t promise to overturn or remove everything: “I will handle it.” That strategy actually increases their anxiety. If a parent takes over and tries to sort out the anxiety for their child, these children can actually end up with increased anxiety as they perceive this as: “I can’t sort it, I must be useless, even my parent knows that as they have to sort it for me”.
So, what can we do? We need to ask our children open ended questions and we need to really check that we understand what they are telling us. By way of example: “So these thoughts are making you anxious, let’s have a chat about what we can do about it…” Also, challenge their thinking and ask them where the evidence is for what they are saying. “What evidence do you have that you will struggle with the test/that child X will be unkind to you/that you will not be able to keep up with the revision etc.” Ask them for the evidence, as usually they don’t have it, and we need then to refocus their thoughts to reassure them that if there is no evidence then they can feel more confident about tackling their anxiety.
Children need to have some stress and they need to have the adrenalin flowing to outperform. Removing all the stress will do more harm than good. Children, and humans, naturally like challenge, but children naturally much more so than adults. Stress can actually be motivating for them, but the key is how they, and we, help them to deal with it.
We also need to redress how we talk about certain things. Let me give you a specific example. Instead of constantly talking about how difficult and stressful exams will be, we need to start talking to them about how much they will achieve and learn from dealing with the stress of the exams, the new skills they will acquire in managing their revision and exam preparation, and then promote with them all the many benefits of exams.
How often do we ever hear anyone telling Year 11s, by way of example, about the many benefits of exams? We regularly as parents and as teachers talk to them about their stress and how to overcome it. This in fact highlights stress and exacerbates the issue. It reinforces the negative. We should tackle their stresses by talking about the benefits of exams. This will change their impression of what the exams are all about.
Children need to acquire academic resilience if they are to become successful in their future education and in their careers. Removing academic stress totally removes any opportunities for children to develop academic resilience.