How many times have your heard your child say “Ugh, I can’t get this!” or “This will never work!” and throw down his pencil in dismay? While your first instinct might be to rush over to try to help fix the problem, or to encourage your child by saying “you’re so smart, you can figure it out”, researchers say that focusing on helping your child build resilience–finding strategies to combat that negative self talk and manage stress–can help him much more in the long run.
Research suggests that negative self-talk and seeing small disappointments as failures can lead to depressive thinking and anxiety. In a recent discussion of emotional training on NPR found here, a researcher with the University of Pennsylvania Resiliency Program noted, “There’s a lot of evidence that pessimistic thinking undercuts achievement and well-being.” But with some focus and training, emotional responses can be checked and improved.
The Penn Resiliency Program has developed a curriculum aimed at teaching middle-school students specific strategies to challenge these negative thought patterns and manage stress. It has been successfully used at middle schools across the country, including New York City’s KIPP Infinity Charter School. The school makes time in the busy students’ schedules for them to learn ways to manage their emotional health. The KIPP schools even worked with the UPenn program to develop a “Character Report Card”, which you can find here. Take a look at what this report card measures, and think about how well your child would score.
Resiliency training is not just about promoting positive thinking, it is about encouraging students to find new ways to look at challenging situations. It is about helping them learn to take a step away from a frustrating circumstance and reflect before reacting. This helps them understand that they have more control over their feelings than they might think, and this knowledge helps them to be realistic about the challenge and what they can do to overcome it.
Resiliency training is valuable not just for school, but for life in general. In a recent discussion of how we should talk with our children about police encounters, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a 20 year veteran of the NY Police Department, noted the importance of teaching our children to learn to understand and control their reactions in very stressful circumstances:
“Let’s focus on our children not only being academically intelligent, but also emotionally intelligent. How do you react in the heat of the moment? Let’s teach our children how to control this. Parents must start embracing that being a young person doesn’t automatically make you explosive.” He suggests that parents talk with their children about ways to focus on their feelings: “Let’s look at a few TED talks together as a family on why breathing is important, why meditation is important, on how the mind operates in the heat of the moment, what makes us respond in certain ways.”
So the next time your son explodes in frustration at an assignment or a task, rather than focus on helping him solve the problem, encourage him to think and talk about ways he can calm himself and take another approach. You’ll be helping him be an emotionally stronger, more resilient child.