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How To Promote Resiliency in Children | Print |  E-mail
What Children Need to Grow and Thrive

Many children grow up in circumstances that would challenge the strongest individuals. Some flourish and some flounder but the reasons have not been well understood.  In the past, improving the self esteem of children was the viewed as the way to help children succeed. Some people thought that giving children lavish praise for performing minor tasks was the way to do this.  Children, however, discovered that the work they were told was “fantastic!” was not as great as they had been told it was. The children also craved praise for their deeds, instead of understanding that they were just doing what was normally expected of children their age.  Their “victories” were hollow.  It became clear that just making children feel good about themselves did not give them the ability to succeed at school or to overcome adversity. In the 1990s researchers started looking at what characterized successful adults – those who had been successful at school and now had fulfilling work and relationships – even if they had grown up in poverty, in homes or communities in which violence was common, or where hopelessness pervaded every day life.  The research uncovered a characteristic they termed “resilience”

“Resilience” refers to the ability to cope, and remain hopeful, even during times of adversity. Self-confidence, the ability to identify and control feelings (emotional regulation), to solve problems, and the ability to understand how other people feel (empathy) are all characteristic skills and abilities of resilient children and adolescents. While many children seem to be optimistic by character, others have learned from adults around them to deal with adverse conditions like poverty, community violence, parental depression or illness. The children who fare best in life have learned from nurturing adults how to maintain  realistic optimism about the future and how to accept their own skills, abilities, and challenges.

Rather than relying on exaggerated praise, resilient children develop a quiet confidence in their abilities, whether at school or in their home and personal lives. They know they have gifts, they know they have weaknesses, but neither overwhelms their sense of self.  Primarily, they know they can weather almost any storm in life because they feel competent. This sense of personal competence arises from having positive but realistic attitudes and skills.

Of course, in order for children to feel competent, they need praise, too. However, when children know that they have people in their lives who support them, that they are capable of developing friendships and loving relationships that will provide sustenance to them, it gives them strength.  Some children who are raised in homes that don’t provide for their emotional needs, often seek out another adult or family who help them get the emotional care they need.  That’s why mentoring of young children is so valuable.  It can take only one interested and caring adult to turn a child’s life around and give them a future that couldn’t be predicted by their situation.

Learning to be positive, committed, and persevering distinguishes children and teens who just get by from those who excel. People who are chronically pessimistic, a characteristic of people who lack resilience, can become depressed, primarily because they think in self-defeating ways: that their current difficult situation will never change; that there is something permanent and unchangeable about themselves that brings on their problems; that one bad incident is bound to bring on another. Research has shown that changing unproductive thinking styles like these is an effective way of enhancing resistance to developing depression and increasing resilience.

It appears that even toddlers can be taught these concepts when they are voiced and modelled by their parents and other caregivers. Teaching the parents these skills probably helps them, too. (See The Bounce Back Book: Building Resiliency Skills in Your Toddler http://www.amhb.ab.ca/news/MH%20week%20attach/AMHB_bounce_book.pdf). Reaching teenagers who are at risk for delinquency, dropping out of school, or developing depression is extremely important. That’s why well-constructed recreation programs are crucial. In the past, recreation programs for children and teens had the goal of “getting them off the streets,” as if that were the end of it. Programming now is becoming more oriented towards helping teens develop skills that will prove useful to them in school and in their future jobs.  These programs are termed “outcome based,” the outcomes being new attitudes and behaviours that can be measured or otherwise demonstrated. So instead of having an “out of sight, out of mind effect” (that is, that the teens aren’t on the streets looking threatening or getting into trouble),  programs need to report on outcomes for the participants. Programs that reduce petty crime or incidents of graffiti are certainly laudible, but they don’t necessarily have a demonstrable effect on the adolescent participants’ long-term outcomes. In outcome-based programs, the child and teen participants are tested before and after the program and must demonstrate that they have acquired new skills and more positive attitudes.  The best programs are long term, and involve staff members who act as supervisors, with the participants being given learning requirements that they must show they have mastered. Whether stick handling in hockey, or mastering a dance step, recreational programs give children and adolescents new skills that they can take with them back to the classroom and use as they mature into adulthood. These skills make a difference to how well people get through daily problems or life crises.

Thus, a recreation program becomes therapeutic recreation when it is used to remediate functional deficits – cooperating with others, making constructive plans, learning persistence in tasks, making commitments to personal and team goals, and learning to have confidence in one’s own abilities and trusting others’ motivations.  These characteristics are those found in resilient people who tend to be successful even in adverse circumstances.

Access to sports and other recreational activities are particularly important for children who are at risk for school failure, mental health problems, or involvement in delinquent activity.  Participation without the stigma of poverty (like having to prove they are so poor they are unable to pay) helps to level the playing field in many ways – by reducing shame experienced by children who feel second best because they lack money for equipment, travel, or lessons; by giving poor children regular contact with middle class children who model higher aspirations; and by broadening their experience by taking them out of their immediate neighborhoods.

A Canadian Parks and Recreation Association National Policy Statement on access to recreation for low-income families states that recreation participation enables children to:

  • develop skills and competencies
  • be exposed to program leaders and positive adult role models;
  • achieve better physical and emotional health;
  • develop psychosocial skills;
  • improve self-esteem, academic performance, peer and family relationships;
  • acquire pro-social values and develop life skills such as leadership, decision-making and problem solving;
  • form healthy habits that can be transferred into their adult lives;
  • participate, volunteer and take pride in their community; and
    have fun and be with friends.

Sources

Canadian Parks and Recreation Association National Policy Statement. Access to recreation for low-income families. http://www.cpra.ca/e/initiatives/documents/NationalPolicy_August18.doc
Donnelly P, Coakley J. The Role of Recreation in Promoting social inclusion. The Laidlaw Foundation’s Working Papers Series. Perspectives on Social Inclusion. December 2002. Toronto, ON.
Offord DR, Jones MB. The Ottawa Project: A Compensatory Recreation and Skill-Development Program. Presented at the Annual Meeting, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC, February 14-19, 1991.
Offord DR, Last JM, Barrette PA. A comparison of the school performance, emotional adjustment and skill development of poor and middle-class children. Canadian Journal of Public Health. 1985; 76: 174-178.
Resilience Research in Children. The Penn Resiliency Project. http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/prpsum.htm

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 February 2009 13:18