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The Importance Of Nurturing Resiliency
In Children

Societal pressures on families and children make resiliency an important characteristic for children to have. Once thought to be an inborn trait, resiliency can be developed and cultivated with help from educators. Included: Ideas for helping to build resiliency.

Education World: How have views about nurturing resiliency in children changed over the past ten years?

Dr. Larry K. Bendtro: As my co-author, Scott Larson, and I stress, there is little support for the notion that resilience is a trait of a few invulnerable superkids who can leap over life's challenges. Instead, we are recognizing that

  • humans are resilient by nature, and none more so than children and youth.
  • all children are vulnerable if not reared in resilience-enhancing environments.

The first point is amplified by the explosion of research in brain science. Our brains are resilient by design, endowed with programs to solve all of the major challenges that humans have commonly faced. One example: the attachment program motivates children to seek out a trusted adult in the face of fear or danger. The brain is also constantly redesigning itself to cope with effects of trauma or adversity through a process called neuroplasticity.

One could say that everyone born with an intact brain comes into the world with the trait of resiliency.

The second point is brought home by the equally exciting expansion of research on the effects of relationship trauma. Some call this developmental trauma disorder, but I try to avoid turning human problems into medical diseases for which drug companies are primed to pop pills. When caregivers are attuned to their needs, children thrive. But unstable attachments unleash all sorts of emotional, learning, and behavioral problems.

Scott DeTore
Dr. Larry Bendtro

EW: What are some of the risks to children who don't get the nurturing needed to develop resiliency?

Bendtro: Secure bonds are so essential to positive growth that tribal cultures throughout human history developed kinship systems where many mothers and fathers cared for children, ensuring positive development even if the biological parents were inadequate or absent. Today, millions of children are being reared in one-or two-parent microfamilies where needs for love, comfort, and safety are not reliably met. This is the basis of relationship trauma. And, the biggest single effect of early relationship trauma is the lack of ability to control emotions and sexual impulses. Then we give these kids labels for mental disorders. In effect, we have an elder deficit disorder in modern society.

EW: What about those who say resiliency is a trait with which some people are born?

Bendtro: This is partially answered by the principle that all brains are designed for resilience. However, this specific question reruns the nature/nurture debate that turns out to be a false dichotomy. Does a goose fly because of wing genetics or because of wind under its wings? The brain and experience are just as inexorably intertwined. It now appears that a majority of genes in the human genome affect brain development. But many of these genes are activated -- or suppressed or modified -- by experience. Thus child rearing, education, and culture shape genetics! We also know that the human brain is not finished developing pathways for 20-some years. This gives educators a lot of second chances to build resilience if earlier caregivers have not completed the task on schedule.

"Schools must become places for belonging, not zero-tolerance exclusion."

EW: What are several of the key requirements for building resiliency in children?

Bendtro: Albert Einstein advised making everything as simple as possible but not simpler. Several investigators arrive at four similar answers. Bonnie Benard summed up decades of resilience research into four factors: social competence, problem solving, autonomy, and sense of purpose. Forty years earlier, Stanley Coopersmith found that children build a sense of self-worth from significance, competence, power, and virtue. The Circle of Courage describes universal needs for Belonging, Mastery, Independence, and Generosity. These are not just arbitrary academic lists but a resilience code that applies in all cultures; nowhere does any society advocate the opposites: rejection, failure, irresponsibility, and selfishness. These are universal needs because we all have brain programs for these resilient functions. They are commonly labeled in psychology as needs for attachment, achievement, autonomy, and altruism. If schools really wanted to grade their effectiveness, these would be the gold standards for evidence-based education and positive youth development.

EW: How can teachers use this book?

Brendtro: Kurt Lewin once said that there is nothing as practical as a good theory. The most common question I get from teachers who embrace these ideas is how to apply them in their work with students. Beyond this book, Reclaiming Youth International offers training world-wide in the Circle of Courage resilience model. Over the past 16 years we have published 1,000 research-grounded, practice-based articles in our quarterly journal, Reclaiming Children and Youth. We also hold conferences on these themes. Our next book, co-authored with educators Martin Mitchell and Herm McCall of Starr Commonwealth, is Deep Brain Learning: Transforming Young Lives, which will be released in January 2009.

Scott DeTore

EW: What are some resiliency-building activities teachers can use in classrooms?

Bendtro: In all activities, the teacher seeks to build and strengthen these four core values:

  • Belonging: All are included and nobody is treated like a nobody.
  • Mastery: All students have strengths, and problems are learning opportunities.
  • Independence: Only opportunities for responsibility can build responsibility.
  • Generosity. No one hurts another person, physically or emotionally, and all try to help.

EW: Your book primarily focuses on at-risk kids. But some people have said that young people in general today are not very resilient -- even youngsters from middle-or upper-class families -- because parents have prevented them from failing and shielded them from disappointment. How would you approach that issue?

Bendtro: A parent attuned to a child or teen meets his or her needs, including balancing secure belonging with opportunities for independence. The problem with upper- and middle-class children is more likely related to selfish materialism that is perhaps the greatest risk factor in economically advanced cultures. Children need a sense of purpose beyond themselves, which is the generosity principle. As Martin Brokenleg puts it, humans survived for however long we have been around by helping one another, not by voting somebody off of the island every week.

"Humans are resilient by nature, and none more so than children and youth."

Shortly before his death, Abraham Maslow revised his hierarchy of needs to add another level beyond self-actualization which sounds more than a little bit self-centered to many. He proposed self-transcendency, meaning the commitment to some person or cause beyond self. A heart attack prevented him from sharing this enlightenment in his scheduled address as president of the American Psychological Association. At the time, most behavior scientists probably weren't ready to hear this spiritual dimension anyway.

Now they are, in part because of research on resilience and the neuroscience on human moral development. The best curative for life stressors is to help somebody else. The centerpiece of our work with delinquent youth for the past 30 years has been to get them hooked on helping in positive peer cultures. A similar theme undergirds service learning, but when schools make things as important as sex or service into courses, these sometimes become boring. But the youth are waiting; as George Gallup Jr. noted some time ago, modern youth are crying to be used in some demanding cause.

EW: What is the hardest part of your approach to instilling resilience in children for adults to adopt?

Brendtro: The realization that we can't fix our kids without changing ourselves. Schools must become places for belonging, not zero-tolerance exclusion. Mastery entails an inner love of learning, but politicians have mutated schooling into testing; as is said in rural America, you don't make a pig heavier by weighing it. Independence means responsibility in preparing children for a democratic world. Instead, we deprive children of the opportunity for responsibility and then complain about the irresponsibility of youth. In 40 years of training teachers and youth professionals, I find most to be deeply generous people by nature. We need to quit hogging the helping and enlist our youth as partners in building positive schools and communities.

This e-interview with Dr. Larry K. Brendtro is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.



Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World


Published 10/08/2008