Insights, Ideas and Strategies for Educators and for Parents

Tips for Teachers

Essential Components of Building Character and Resilience

Children Outside in Fall

I recently read a wonderful book published in the fall of 2012, by journalist Paul Tough, titled How Children Succeed. The book focuses on what some particularly excellent schools in the U.S., in concert with university researchers, have found to be the essential character skills that children/youth need to have in order to be successful not just in their education, but in life. Tough explores and documents how educators in both exclusive, private schools for wealthy kids as well as inner city schools educating poor children found that it is not necessarily the students with the best grades who end up succeeding and completing college and being successful in life. What researchers and educators are finding is that while intelligence is of course a critical component, what’s more important is a variety of character traits that enable children to overcome obstacles in their path and keep moving forward.

Some of the character traits that have been identified as essential building blocks for success are optimism, grit, self-control, curiosity, and zest (enthusiasm, engagement). Research is indicating that even when children do not acquire these traits when they are young, it is possible to help them develop these skills even as adolescents.

What struck me in reading this wonderful book, which I highly recommend, is the importance of laying the foundation for these very character traits in high quality preschools. How much better off will young people be if they have had the opportunity to develop the character traits that will enable them not only to get into college, but to complete college and find careers that are meaningful to them beginning at a very young age?!

Interestingly, one of the most important of these traits is what the researchers/ educators chose to call “grit.” Grit is the ability to weather the storms of development, the challenges in one’s life, the failures that one experiences, and not allow these challenges to derail a person from continuing to pursue his/her path to success. Preschool teachers can help children develop grit through engaging them in problem solving when they experience conflicts with peers, for example. Or when a child is frustrated over not being able to write a letter or draw a tree. Encouraging a child to continue working at it, commenting that “That is really hard! It’s so frustrating when you can’t quite make it come out the way you want it! I’m so impressed at how hard you are working. Sometimes it just takes a lot of practice to get it right. You are definitely going in the right direction.” Accepting a child’s feelings while encouraging them to keep moving forward is an essential component of helping a child develop the tenacity to go beyond momentary frustration. Sometimes children internalize their perceived failures and feel “I can’t do this because I’m stupid.” This kind of negative self-talk impedes their psychological growth. That is why it is so important and so helpful to have teachers who understand that preparing children for later school experiences goes way beyond simply teaching them their letters and numbers!

Another component of building character is developing resilience. Resilience is the ability to adapt to challenging life situations, and to not be destroyed or significantly damaged when serious disappointments or even harm occurs. Resilience, grit, and optimism all work together closely. Helping children develop these traits is a huge gift that will last a lifetime, and high quality preschools lay the groundwork for all of these every day.

For example, perhaps a child has to have surgery, or perhaps a child’s friend gets hit by a car and is hospitalized. These are scary events, and fine teachers help children cope with them through allowing them opportunities to play out their feelings in the classroom. They provide props for the children to use and they make themselves available to talk with the children as they play out their experiences or worries. They bring books into the classroom that discuss these kinds of situations in order to help children process their feelings and see that others have experienced similar situations and similar fears.

Through understanding and accepting children’s feelings while helping them go through difficult experiences and process them afterwards, sensitive teachers help children develop character strengths that will continue to support them throughout their lives.

This is just one more reason why preschool teachers should feel proud of their work! There will be more articles on this topic as we move into 2013. This is critically important work and needs a lot of attention.

Tips for Parents

Essential Components of Building Character and Resilience

Please read the article for educators, above. I’d like to add an issue that I found particularly helpful and enlightening as I read Tough’s book. He spoke of privileged children whose parents tended to take care of things for them in such a way that the children did not have to deal with many disappointments growing up. In a misguided effort to protect children from pain, too many parents deprive their children of the opportunity to develop the capacity to handle frustration, disappointment, and failure. In parents’ worry about their children’s self-esteem or even their later success, too often some may rush in to fix the problem, to make it go away. This is not to say that there are not some situations in which a parent’s help is required to find resolution. Of course, emotionally and physically available parents are needed by their children.

However, it is also true that too much parental intervention in challenging situations as a child is growing up may give a child the false impression that they are entitled to have their lives go smoothly and to not have to cope with disappointments and failures on their own. When this happens, the inevitable frustrations and failures that occur in later life may throw these young people for a loop and send them into a depression or simply lead them to a standstill, in which they are unable to move toward resolution. In these days of challenging economic conditions, when young people with college degrees may struggle to find work, it is essential that they have the grit and tenacity and resilience to cope with and overcome inevitable setbacks.

When children do not have to figure out ways of recouping from failures, find paths for improvement, and tolerate significant disappointments as they are growing up, they may miss out on critical opportunities for developing the character traits they need to be successful as adults.

This is something about which parents should think seriously. I would never suggest that parents be less emotionally tuned in to their children. My entire professional career has been focused around helping parents be more psychologically sensitive to their children! However, sometimes the way we define “being sensitive” may be somewhat off. Being sensitive does not mean stepping in and solving their problems for them. Rather, talking with children about what went wrong when they have failed at something, encouraging them to think about how they might approach the situation differently in the future, helping them think about what kind of strategies might work better and why what they did was not useful...these kinds of interventions are far more useful ultimately than stepping in oneself to make it better so the child does not have to struggle with the disappointment. Some degree of struggling is essential to building character. I believe that while one should not necessarily leave the child totally alone in their struggle, a parent needs to draw a line between helping the child sort through the problem and taking it onto him/herself (as the parent) to get the situation resolved.

This is simply food for thought. I welcome your responses and feedback and will write more about this topic as the year progresses!

Questions or comments? call Nancy Bruski at (847) 475-1828 or post them on our contact form.