Watching my daughter struggle as she repeatedly attempted to perfect the handstand to backwards bridge combination made me acutely aware of the fact that resilience is always, and in all ways, a part of our daily lives. She reminded me of the Japanese saying, fall seven, rise eight. Dealing with challenges, change and setbacks is a shared human condition.
That being said, resilience does not just happen. We cannot cross our fingers and hope that our children will magically develop a healthy relationship with resilience. Learning a new skill takes time. Learning to be resilient involves failure, feedback and a fair dollop of optimism. The ability to bounce back and maintain buoyancy in the sea of life is a skill that can and should be explicitly taught in homes and schools across Singapore. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need to equip our children with evidence-based tools to support resilience is needed more than ever before.
All too often we hear phrases like “toughen up” or “be more resilient”. These phrases are uttered by teachers, leaders, friends and even by ourselves. We are aware of the need to be resilient, but not everyone has access to the appropriate tools to successfully balance life’s challenges. Therefore, as educators, teaching resilience is not a luxury but an ethical mandate.
Despite resilience consisting of many genetic and environmental factors, Reivich & Shatte (2002) have identified a number of key components that are within our control (and we can teach them). These components, when explicitly taught and modelled, can positively impact well-being. One of these key components is optimism. Reivich & Shatte (2002) argue that optimism is in fact the engine that drives resilience.
Developing a more optimistic pattern of thinking and explanatory style can help students more successfully navigate the inevitable failures and mistakes that appear on the road of life. Just as Seligman (1975) proved that learned helplessness exists, positive psychologists have since shared findings that learned optimism can greatly benefit well-being.
In the mid to late 90s, psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania wanted to measure the impact of teaching optimism skills as a form of intervention to students in local schools. The Penn Optimism Program (POP) was designed as a 12-week intervention aimed at supporting students to develop a more optimistic self-explanatory style along with better skills to limit catastrophic thinking. Gillham, Shatte, Reivich, & Seligman (1999) found that students who completed the programme were found to have significantly fewer depressive symptoms than their control peers, even up to two years post-intervention (Gillham et al., 1999). The POP programme supported students in greater cognitive flexibility and overall resilience (Gillham et al., 1999).
It is important to note, however, that too much optimism may leave students ignoring the negative events in life and brushing real emotions under the metaphorical carpet. Interestingly, optimists are just as likely to encounter bad events as pessimists. The significant difference is where they diverge: “Optimists habitually search for temporary and specific causes of their suffering, whereas pessimists assume permanent and pervasive causes are to blame” (Duckworth, 2017). The aim of teaching resilience skills is not about ignoring negative emotions, but rather learning to face them in a more deliberate and positive manner.
When faced with challenges, there are two simple evidence-based tools that can be modelled and taught to students to make inroads into developing a greater sense of optimism and resilience. They are “The Resilience Robot” and “The Three Ps”.
Resilience Tool #1
The Robot: A Tool Designed to Develop Agency and Control in Learners (adapted from Reivich & Shatte, 2002).
This tool references Reivich & Shatte’s (2002) work on agency and locus of control (see Figure 1). It supports students to adapt a positive and realistic outlook. This is something that Southwick & Charney (2012) argues will support students in accepting events that they cannot change and actively putting energy into controllable events.
- Step 01: When faced with a problem, challenge or “resilient” moment, start listing the variables that are not in your control. Take time to articulate your frustrations regarding the things that are immovable.
- Step 02: Take a breath. Begin to consider all the options that are within your control. What actions or responses can you take to address the situation? What are the resources at your disposal? List a number of actions that you can take to respond or begin to restore the situation.
- Step 03: Plan two specific and measurable positive actions that you can take to improve the situation. Shift the locus of control back to the individual.
This is a great tool for teachers to model and use in the classroom. It can support students in developing a greater sense of agency over their challenges and helps support them to take meaningful action.
The second tool centres around self-explanatory style. Pink (2009) spent time researching how successful salesmen remain upbeat and positive despite receiving many rejections. What he found linked back to Seligman’s (1975) work on self-explanatory style. Seligman found that individuals who were able to explain negative events in a positive manner were more likely to bounce back quicker (Gillham et al., 2001).
The continuum below indicates elements of self-explanatory style. As we move towards a more optimistic self-explanatory style, we are closer to the indicators on the right (see Figure 2). The less we focus on perceiving that negative events are all about us (personal), are stable and unchangeable (permanent), and are all encompassing and global (pervasive), the better.
We often see this language in children; when something goes wrong (such as leaving their lunch at home), they perceive it to be a “global” event. It impacts everything, and in their minds, it will last forever. Thankfully, we can support them to evaluate their self-talk and look at the healthier ways of dealing with these emotions. Otherwise, Duckworth (2017) notes that it is easier for permanent and pervasive explanations to turn minor complications into major catastrophes (Duckworth, 2017).
Resilience Tool #2
The Three Ps: Developing Optimistic Self-Explanatory Styles (Pink, 2009; Gillham et al., 2001)
The Three Ps is an abridged version of Seligman’s more detailed self-explanatory continuums. It works well for children and can be easily embedded into classroom practice. When faced with a challenge or failure, we want to be able to give our children an opportunity to intelligently answer no to the following three questions:
- Is it permanent?
- Is it pervasive?
- Is it personal?
By asking children to reflect on events and understand that the problem does not meet these criteria, we are supporting them to move on and take positive action in a more optimistic and sustainable manner.
By systematically teaching and modelling these strategies to children, in schools, universities and homes across Singapore, we can support our children to live in these current uncertain times in a more optimistic manner. These tools are not a cure-all; they will not prevent things from going wrong or tears from being shed. However, over time and with support, they will nurture our children to be happier and more resilient beings. That is something worth striving for.
Duckworth, A. (2017). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Toronto, Ontario: Canada.
Gillham, J. E., Shatté, A. J., Reivich, K. J., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2001). Optimism, pessimism, and explanatory style. In E. C. Chang (Ed.), Optimism & pessimism: Implications for theory, research, and practice (pp. 53–75). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Pink, D. H. (2012). To sell is human: The surprising truth about moving others. New York: Riverhead Books.
Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 essential skills for overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles. USA: Broadway Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: on depression, development, and death. San Francisco, New York: W.H. Freeman.
Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2012). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Published 14 September 2020