The Difference is Resilience:
When trouble hits close to home for gifted children
Maureen Neihart, Psy.D., Laurel, Montana
When he heard about the destruction caused by the tsunami last December, seven year old Jesse Taconelli asked his mother if somebody might have lost their teddy bear in the Tsunami. The realization that he had received so much over the holidays while other children had lost everything they owned disturbed him. He decided to use the money he'd been saving for a puppy to start a tzedakah, a Jewish tradition of charity, for tsunami survivors. On his own, he came up with the idea of a gratitude tax, to be calculated by blessings. With his mother's help, Jesse came up with 18 questions people could answer to determine the blessings in their lives and the gratitude tax they owed. His questions included items like, "How many kinds of cookies are in your cabinets?" "How many pillows are on your bed?" "How many people say I love you to you every day?" Jesse suggested that people pay one dollar for every blessing in their life. His family's total came to $63. Jesse's efforts raised more than $1,000 for Save the Children and he persuaded merchants to donate $5,000 worth of teddy bears. His mother, Stephanie, said the experience has been a life changing experience for him.
Some Children are More Resilient than Others
As educators, we naturally wish for the safety and well being of our students, and we do what we can to keep them from experiencing extreme adversity, but stuff happens. The world is not a safe place for many children and there is evidence that for many it is becoming increasingly dangerous. Fortunately, circumstances do not determine outcomes in life. If they did, people who have suffered a great deal would be less well adjusted than those who have suffered less, but we all know individuals who have been through a lot and yet do remarkably well. They're emotionally strong, physically healthy, achieving, happy and making a difference in the world. Similarly, we know individuals who appear to have had every advantage, yet they crumble at the first sign of trouble. The difference is resilience. Some people are more resilient than others and bounce back more easily. Studies tell us that children are generally much more resilient than we give them credit for, and that gifted children in particular tend to demonstrate positive adjustment overall. What steps can we take to increase the odds for resilience in our students?
Identifying Resilient Behaviors
What do resilient children look like? Numerous studies over the last half-century have compared resilient and vulnerable children and concluded that children who do well in the face of adversity often possess similar characteristics noted in the box below (Anthony & Cohler, 1987; Neihart, 2002; Seligman, 1995; Werner & Smith, 1982).
Characteristics of Resilient Children
- Compassion for others
- Sense of humor
- Persistence in the face of failure
- Moral conviction, or a strong code of ethics
- Interest in spirituality or religion
- A respectful manner
- Capacity to get attention in positive ways
- Ability to plan ahead
- Skill at problem solving
- Feeling of autonomy
- Maintaining a positive outlook on life
- Belief that one's effort can change things
- Talent or Hobby
- Flexibility in gender roles
Even in the face of the most devastating losses, simple supports and structure go a long way to support children's health and hopefulness. One way you can increase your students' ability to bounce back from adversity is to strengthen these characteristics when you see them, model resilience yourself, and help students build a strong social support network. In addition, there are five things you can do to mitigate the potential emotional harm when tragedy strikes close to home.
Nurturing Resilience in the Classroom
First, establish a sense of safety and trust by returning to daily routines quickly. Upsetting events should not become a reason to overlook misbehavior or to disregard classroom routines. Rules and routines tell children that although their world has taken a big hit, they are still secure.
Second, limit students' exposure to adults' intense emotional reactions. Fear and distress is contagious, especially for younger children who take their cues from adults. Save your strong emotional reactions for times when you are alone with trusted friends or family, and monitor your students' media exposure.
Third, nurture and strengthen children's relationships. Helping children find the right friends is important because relationships develop healthy self-esteem, strong social skills, and positive attitudes toward school and achievement. They help children deal with the everyday stressors of life, reduce their anxiety and loneliness, and foster in them a sense of well-being. Gifted children often have different friendship patterns than other children so they may need extra assistance finding and connecting with others who share their interests and motivation. Social connections are extremely important during stressful times. Many studies have shown that children with strong social support networks are more resilient.
Fourth, support children as they learn to lean on their faith. Tragedy and loss in particular often prompt curiosity about the big questions of life. What happens to us after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are we here? If God loves us, why do bad things happen? Gifted children in particular, given their advanced cognitive maturity, their sensitivity, and their heightened awareness of spiritual or moral issues, may verbalize such questions at younger ages than other children. Most children are raised with some sort of faith tradition and the research is robust that religious practice increases resilience. You don't have to pretend to have all the answers, but it is helpful to affirm that these are valuable questions to ask, and to validate the child's wonder about such things.
Finally, tell stories, especially stories of courage and selflessness. Stories that instill a message of hope reinforce the habit of turning in that direction when times get tough. Stories of others'courage and hopefulness prompt us to ask ourselves, what would we do? For example:
The destruction of Hurricane Katrina caught the attention of many students as they headed back to school in September, 2005. Elizabeth Zorrilla, a freshman explained: "I saw the pictures of the devastation on the news, and it struck me that there is life outside the 'perfect teenage world.' Just the thought of living in a house with so much stuff, while kids down there don't even have food for the day, made me want to help."
Elizabeth and her classmates and teachers at Lampeter-Strasburg High School in Pennsylvania set a plan in motion to transport an entire homecoming weekend to the hard hit communities of Long Beach and Pass Christian in coastal Mississippi. Students collected about $40,000 and lots of other donations, including dresses for the girls, ties for the boys, food, and transportation from local businesses. A group of 40 students were selected by lottery to travel over 1,000 miles by bus to help organize a pep rally, cheer at a football game, decorate for a dance, and share a life-changing experience with newfound friends in need.
As a teacher, you are a constant in the lives of children. You are a source of hope too. You model discipline, perseverance, and self-control, often without even realizing it. You give children strong messages about their worth and develop in them a perspective that they are competent individuals, capable of coping and succeeding with whatever life brings them.
Reinforce traits of resilience when you see them. Demonstrate the conviction that life is good and worthwhile. Focus on children's strengths rather than on their weaknesses and help them to develop their talents. Support their hobbies and special interests.
Preserving hope is something we should work at every single day. Affirming people's connections, their strengths, and their effort, even when life is distressing or disappointing, helps people to feel more hopeful. Mastery of stress can serve as a type of inoculation against future disorienting stress. The experience of having endured what once seemed insurmountable can become a shield of confidence and self-esteem that provides a perceived invulnerability against future stressors in life and builds a child's optimism about the future.
Stories of Courage and Hope
CinderEdna by Ellen Jackson (Lothrop, Lee & Shephard, 1994)
Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez (North Point Press, 1990)
Developing Resiliency Through Children's Literature by Nancy L. Cecil, Patricia L. Roberts (McFarland & Co., 1992)
A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind (Broadway Books, 1998)
Kids With Courage by Barbara Lewis (Free Spirit, 1992)
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 2005)
Life Doesn't Frighten Me at All by Maya Angelou (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, 1996)
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (Scholastic Press, 1997)
Peach and Blue by Sarah Kilborne (Alfred Knopf, 1994)
Weslandia by Paul Fleischman (Candlewick Press, 1999)
The Wolf by Margaret Barbalet (Macmillan Publishing, 1992)
Anthony and Cohler, (1987). (Eds.) The invulnerable child. New York: Guilford Press.
Neihart, M. (2001). Risk and resilience in gifted children: A conceptual framework. In M. Neihart, S. Reis, N. Robinson & S. Moon (Eds.). The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know? (pp. 113-124) Waco, Texas: Prufrock Press.
Seligman, M. (1995). The optimistic child. New York: Harper Perennial.
Werner, E.E., and Smith, R.S. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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