As the last public holiday in January creeps up on us and we wonder where on earth did the month go, spare a thought to those teachers you know. Just as all the parents out there are excitedly packing the book list and celebrating the fact that they have “survived” 6 weeks with their children, these educators are nervously checking their class lists and wondering how they will make it through til Easter. Actually, I feel very fortunate to be in profession that affords me such great holidays – I work for them through – as well as being something I am so fiercely passionate about. But still, every teacher gets a sense of dread at this time of year. Will my classes be alright? In the context of Secondary School, I always try to get people to imagine putting 30 people together in a closed room, who don’t want to be there and, at times, can barely tolerate each other, then get them to be productive. You wouldn’t find it in any other work environment. Yes, it is a challenge, but it’s one truly dedicated teachers take up with gusto.
But I can also imagine the nervousness with which any parent send their beloved ones off to school, whether it be into pre-primary, the first year of Secondary School or the first year of external examinations. The pressure, due to an often too demanding curriculum along with the (anti) social structures brought on by mixing groups of people with a growing sense of self and incomplete brain development, is enormous. We must never underestimate how tough going to, and being at, school is for these young people. It isn’t a normal social construct. It calls for such discipline of mind and emotions, and then we add to this the duress to do well consistently. And not just well, but also better than others. When we think about it in these terms, we might be less demanding and more considerate of our young people within the education system.
The figures for mental health issues in our youth is alarming. The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing was published in 2015 and conducted by the Telethon Kids Institute at The University of Western Australia in partnership with Roy Morgan Research in 2013-14. It found,
“Almost one in seven (13.9%) 4-17 year-olds were assessed as having mental disorders in the previous 12 months. This is equivalent to 560,000 Australian children and adolescents.” (p.4)
It also claims that schools play a significant role in providing services to young people with mental disorders and are often where emotional and behavioural problems are first identified. Add to this the fact that 1 in 5 students have also received informal support from teachers and you start to see the magnitude of the problem. For more information and this report, please click this link The reasons for this terrifying growth in mental health issues, as explained in the report, are incredibly wide-ranging. The services available to support young people and their families are there, but need more financial aid as well as people willing to do this difficult work.
But this is not a piece of writing about that. One of the things we need to realise is that the pressures, both external and internal, are not gong to go away for our kids. The world they are inheriting is exciting but also fraught with uncertainties and all we can do is try our best to equip them for whatever will be. Resilience is a word that is banded around whenever there is mention of mental health. That ability to bounce back, to accept the inevitable pitfalls that will come, learn from them, give it another try, and repeat. As a teacher, I found the classroom to be an excellent place to learn this much-needed skill. I often tell my students that in the secure environment of my classroom, where it doesn’t impact on their earning potential, they aren’t going to be “sacked” and they have a “boss” (me), who really cares about them, they can try, risk, fail and try again, safely. They can learn what it feels like to struggle, attempt and fail, whilst all the time knowing that I will still be there tomorrow, helping them and encouraging them to “give it another shot”. I play games, particularly before exams and assessments, that have definite winners and losers, so that students can experience the emotions that come with both these states and can see that these are fleeting. We are all in the same place with the same people sharing the same moments regardless of whether we came first or last. The propensity to not distinguish between achievements, awarding everyone with a certificate for instance, is not assisting in the building of resilience. All it is doing is delaying the opportunity for children to learn how to deal with not always succeeding until it actually affects their ability to cope.
Now I have an even younger, much less sophisticated mind to be concerned about. Having my own child has really brought home to me how much a parent can, and should, do to assist with healthy mental development. If I can start to foster resilience in my 27 month old then I will be genuinely preparing her for the times I won’t be there when she struggles, fails or comes up against adversity. With the push for kids to start formal schooling earlier and earlier, this could well be when she is only 4! That is just too young to have to deal with these occurrences which we all know are inevitable. Attachment parenting itself will certainly be assisting in growing her fortitude. The more attached she is to me, the more she undoubtedly trusts that I am there for her. She is more likely to try things, safe in the knowledge that if and when she falls, figuratively and literally, she will be caught by me. Daily she widens the gap between me and the unknown, building confidence, experimenting and trusting that all will be ok because in the end, there is always mum. But there are many other things that can be done to assist in resilience building with very young children.
One of the easiest things to do is to let them see your mistakes. We are all fallible. We make mistakes daily and we survive. Let your little ones see this. My husband and I are constantly pointing out to Little M. when we make errors. For example, it could be getting lost on the way to somewhere in the car (this is very regular for me, I have no sense of direction) “Mummy is lost again. Never mind. How can we find our way? We will be a bit late but that doesn’t matter”. Or it could be dropping and breaking something (again, common for me) “Mummy can be so clumsy sometimes. Oh well, let’s clean it up and try again”. Or any number of other ‘failures’ in our day. Things go wrong and if we show our kids how we recognise the difficulties in our day-to-day and yet find a way around them and keep going, they too will start to embody this. Problem solving and brain storming skills are vital and this encourages a safe way to role play them. There is no point trying to be perfect in the eyes of your little ones, they will not learn from this.
Linked to this is letting them make small, safe mistakes. They need to see the consequences of their actions and learn how to deal with them. Stopping them from doing anything, the wrapping them up mentality, again just delays the inevitable. They will have to experience failure and deal with the emotions that it brings. But with everything, that requires practice.
Give language to the emotions that failure and success bring. I truly believe that as our children become adults, E.Q. ( Emotional Intelligence) will be much more highly valued than I.Q. Ensuring that your child is fluent in recognising and expressing emotions appropriately will stand them in much better stead as they enter the work force. All emotions are valid and a response to a stimulus. How you then choose to focus these feelings, what actions you then take, are what are important. Children have inborn empathy and they are very receptive to you talking to them about emotions. Simple facial drawings showing a variety of expressions can assist in eliciting the name of the emotion. You can then get the child to tell you when they felt this, or with young toddlers who are just developing language, you can give the example of when you saw them Happy, Angry, Scared etc. “You were angry with X. when she took your hat”, “You were scared when you heard the loud noise of the vacuum”. “Babies often cry when they are hungry.” This is not inferring that the emotions are wrong, just explaining where they come from. As children grow, you can then start to brainstorm ways to deal with the emotions that are beneficial, non-violent and accepting of the situation that has caused them in the first place.
We often heap praise on our children. And why not, we are immensly proud of them. But we must be cautious as to how we phrase that praise. Congratulate the process not the person. If children believe that their efforts are what create success not some innate ability, then they are more likely to keep trying after a failure. Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Co-Founder of Character Lab, completed research into the benefits of praising process over ability in children. Her TED Talk on Grit can be viewed here. She explored how when we praise a child for an ability and then they somehow fail in this field, they have less strength, or grit, to bounce back. When a child is praised for their attempts, “you worked hard on that puzzle” as opposed to “you are great at puzzles”, they are more likely to keep going even when the going gets tough.
Finally, we need to be great role models and when it comes to growing Resilence and Grit, we are what are children learn to be. Model empathy for others. Show that you try hard, sometimes fail, but keep going regardless. Explain your emotions – why you have them and what you do about them that is a healthy response. We have all developed healthy strategies that make us resilient, we need to tap into them and share them with our kids. It is terrible that the mental health statistics for school age children are so grim, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do something to equip our babies with the skills they need to enter school. It is never to early to start to teach resilient thinking, grit and emotional management. As a final thought as you send your loved ones off to school next week, be thankful for the committed and loving professionals that spend their time with them, not only teaching them the ABC’s but also going the extra mile to nurture and grow their mental wellness. Say thanks to a teacher today, and wish them luck as they enter that classroom for the first time this academic year, prepared to tackle whatever comes their way.
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