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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Building Resilient Children

By Peter DeWitt — February 20, 2013 5 min read
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If we really want our children to be successful when they grow up, then we need to begin teaching them how to be resilient now.

Jessie lost all of his grandparents before he was five years-old. When he was seven, his dad was diagnosed with cancer and passed away when Jessie was eleven. His mom played the role of both mother and father to Jessie and his four older siblings.

Life was not easy for Jessie’s family. They lost their patriarch and their mom had to find a full-time job to support the family. They didn’t go without but they did struggle from time to time. Most of all, they had to learn to move on without their dad.

School didn’t always make it easy. Jessie struggled throughout his middle school and high school career but in the years after his father passed away, there was not a teacher who read a book, or at least offered one, on dealing with grief. They didn’t offer books that had a storyline that focused on the loss of a parent. Jessie got the message time and time again that his life was different from his peers. People either gave a constant look of sympathy or they didn’t want to talk about it at all.

Although home was sad at times, it was an escape from the struggles of school. Jessie often failed tests, or at least, skimmed by with a passing grade. As his peers flourished, Jessie felt like a failure. Luckily, his friends and family never made him feel that way. He strived to do better, and although his learning was often through the School of Hard Knocks, he came out more successful on the other side.

What was Jessie’s secret?

Jessie was surrounded by a supportive family who didn’t have time to feel sorry for one another but they were supportive of one another. He also happened to have a group of friends who didn’t make fun of him for not doing well, and those friends had good parents who also encouraged Jessie to work harder and find a niche. Although Jessie didn’t know it, he had his own professional learning community.

Jessie had one other thing that some of his peers lacked. Jessie had inner-resilience. Failure and disappointment was something he experienced often so instead of feeling sorry for himself he learned from it. Self-pity only goes so far. He didn’t look at failure as someone else’s fault, he took ownership for it. In the long run, when it mattered most, he was able to move on from disappointment and failure and try again.

The Benefits from Failure
Jessie’s story is not a made up one because as many of you may have guessed, it is my story. Although the heartache at the time didn’t feel very good, it did prepare me for the future. Let’s face it, with the economy, and accountability on steroids, we all have had to deal with failure or disappointment. People who never failed before had to come to grips with losing jobs.

Through accountability we have had to deal with not always being the best and the media was filled with negative stories about schools, teachers and administrators that we have had to hear too many times. With the collapse of the economy, and politicians who still seem not to get it, many individuals have had to reinvent themselves. Failure can sometimes be our best friend, and it is definitely the best teacher because it doesn’t care about whether we feel good or not.

Unfortunately these days, many children do not learn from failure because they are sheltered from it. Even though many students strive to get first, they know they will get a trophy or a prize even if they don’t. Sometimes even children who attend birthday parties, when it’s not their birthday, get gifts so they don’t feel badly that one child received gifts and they didn’t. Many critics say we are raising wimpy children, but I think we are at risk of something much more serious than that. We are at risk of raising children who do not know how to move forward after they fail or make a mistake. They become afraid of taking risks and begin to care more about excuses than they do about moving on.

Can Do Kids
In Can Do Kids, Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein suggest the following ten guidelines to parents. The definitions are mine because I believe educators can also take these suggestions into account. Although parents are the most important adults in the lives of children, teachers are very close behind.

Be empathetic - Sympathy is great for a little while but empathy means you are trying to understand where they are and you want to help them move on.

Communicate with respect - Stop screaming at kids to get them to stop doing something. Talk with them so they can work through the issue. Screaming at a child sends them the message that they’ll get yelled at every time they make a mistake, which will prevent them from positive risk-taking.

Be flexible - Adults want children to be flexible with them but those same adults are not always flexible with children or other adults. Practice what you preach.

Give undivided attention - Social media is great but too often adults are texting at the same time they should be listening. Take the time to listen. Really listen. If you need more advice, listen to Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin.

Accept your kids for who they are - It’s funny because when I meet with parents they talk about how they should not compare their children...and then start comparing their children. Children are different, even in the same family. Are you the same as your siblings?

Give kids a chance to contribute - We should always give students the opportunity to speak up, and we can teach them how to do it respectfully. It’s when they feel like they have nothing to contribute that we should really worry.

Treat mistakes as learning experiences - Mistakes and failure hurt at the time, but it’s a great opportunity to reinvent yourself. Don’t lose sight of the benefits of failure.

Stress your children’s strengths - All kids have strengths and adults should help push those strengths a little further. My high school running coaches used to say “Don’t rest on your laurels” after we had a good race. They wanted us to keep pushing ourselves to do better, even after we had the race of our lives.

Let kids solve problems and make decisions - Don’t always give kids the answer, which is the easy thing to do. Provide some wait time because they can’t answer something as quickly as you can. If adults always give the answers, kids won’t take the time to try to find them on their own.

Discipline to teach - Every opportunity offers a teachable moment. Everyone makes mistakes, and the important aspect of a mistake is learning from it.

If we really want our children to be successful when they grow up, then we need to begin teaching them how to be resilient now. It might be hard and it doesn’t always feel good but the future benefits outweigh the present pain.

ENGAGE with Peter on Twitter

For more about building resilient children, check out this interview for PBS Need to Know with reporter Benita Zahn.
Watch Raising a Resilient Child on PBS. See more from Health Link.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.