Clinical Psychologist, Dr Helen Care, shares her views on children's resilience during the pandemic and supporting this as we look ahead.
Many young people have faced huge challenges over the pandemic all whilst being outside of school, for the most part, and without the normal safety nets they can rely on. Across the age ranges, many struggled with their mental health during Covid – some with learning new skills, some with the widespread uncertainty, some with illness and loss, some with a combination of all these and more. Yet, during this same period, many students coped brilliantly, and their resilience seemed to grow. Why might that be? And is there encouragement we can take from such foundations?
I’m lucky that much of my life is spent working with young people and those around them. These young people constantly inspire me, even though, as a psychologist, I often meet them at difficult times in their lives. In my work, I have seen many children endure incredibly challenging experiences – and cope. Research backs me up in this. In 2013, a summary review of research on resilience in children concluded that “recovery and resilience appear to be the norm”. That’s why I’m not surprised many children have shown resilience throughout the pandemic.
What is resilience?
As psychologists, we tend to think of resilience as "adapting well in the face of difficulties or challenges". Navigating the differences and difficulties of the pandemic has given many students a sense of achievement, and an increased awareness of how much they can cope with.
How has it been affected by the pandemic?
Much research is underway on the impact of Covid-19 on children's mental health. A survey by NHS Digital found one in six children in England had a probable mental disorder in 2021 – similar to 2020, and up from one in nine in 2017.
According to a recent Pearson survey in April 2021, one in two primary teachers think student mental health and wellbeing is the biggest challenge facing their students for the remainder of the academic year. Although some of the research shows positive signs and almost a quarter (24%) of participating teachers noticed an increase in resilience in their students following the lockdowns.
What I take from the Pearson survey results on resilience is firstly that many young people have shown resilience because they themselves are awesome! But they have also had great support from schools, families and communities. Teachers should feel proud of the part they played in this. And there’s so much we can build on: keeping that sense of strength in place for those who have it, sustaining the links that have helped resilience grow up to this point, and making time for those who feel less strong.
What we can take from research
Happily, there have been decades of research into what works. Since 1945 there has been a lot of interest among researchers into how young people flourish and thrive, despite enduring significant hardships. While some will thrive, other young people will be struggling and need more help. It’s important to realise that ‘normal’ resilience doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
In 1995, ERIC (the Educational Resources Information Centre in Illinois, US) published a paper about increased resilience in young people. They identified three main factors:
- Caring relationships – having people who cared for and supported them. (Teachers can be vital in this role, especially when home doesn’t provide this.)
- High expectations – believing they will achieve, and providing resources to support them to do so.
- Opportunities for participation – feeling part of a community where their participation is important to others.
All of these factors are helpful for educators to keep in mind, since they may not be available to every child, in every area of their lives. These factors can consequently be transferred into practical steps for encouraging resilience in schools.
Top tips for building children's resilience in school
- The power of words: focus on what has been learnt and what can get better, e.g. “What did you learn from working at home?” “What strengths did you discover about yourself when you were working on your own?”
- Recognition and praise: in busy schools, this can be hard, but we all know what a difference teachers can make in noticing and praising students. Pay particular attention to rewarding effort, rather than achievement, since this is something a struggling student may feel more easily able to improve – e.g. “I can see you’ve put so much attention into this, well done,” rather than “This is a brilliant essay”.
- Reward resilient behaviour: use existing school reward systems to reward effort, celebrate mistakes, and persevering even when things are difficult. Try noticing the child who got an answer completely wrong and praise them for having a go! Research shows that mistakes increase a child’s capacity to learn and grow the brain, so let them know that, by exploring and embracing their mistakes, they are growing their brain power
- Create new rewards for resilience and community involvement: some schools encourage pupils by sending a postcard home, or give points out as class incentives, to reinforce how important a child’s efforts have been in supporting someone else.
- Share stories of resilience: in newsletters, classes and assemblies, share stories about what people did to cope when things were tough.
- Keep your expectations high! Try to keep expecting great things from them and telling them they can achieve, e.g. “You are going to have to work hard to get around having missed that time, but I know you can do it!”.
- Be part of the community: try to get children involved in their local communities as much as possible. My children’s school is involved in a local tree planting project. Could you do a litter pick, wildlife survey or letters to an old people’s home? Show children that their efforts matter, and connect them to their community.