Resilience is a particularly pertinent concept; it describes a positive psychological adaption that allows a person to overcome any damaging effects of adversity. In this article, we explore the concept and consider how to develop and foster this ideal in children and young people in adverse circumstances.

Recently, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson cracked the metaphorical whip, promising “firm action” to prevent schoolyards turning from “a place of joy” and into “a jungle”. He reasoned that long periods at home and a lack of parental discipline caused a decline in "discipline and order".

Rather than understanding that these young people’s behaviour was a communication of their experiences of the last year, where they have been subjected to a unique set of stresses and anxieties, Mr Williamson decided that a reassertion of authority would be enough to get back to business as usual.

Mr Williamson's comments are not without a broader context; they reflect a growing tension in educational circles between those whose automatic response to bad behaviour is with zero tolerance and those who seek to understand a child’s problematic behaviour as a reflection of what’s happening to them internally.

In the latter group, Doctor Rob Long, a Chartered Psychologist with a doctorate in educational psychology, has authored the timely introductory guide, ‘Building Wellbeing and Resilience’, on children and young people’s mental health. Dr Long spoke with Mental Health Today about his new book and why we need to move on from a "discipline and order" educational model.

Analyse behaviour, don’t personalize

In response to Mr Williamson's comments, Dr Long said: “In a mainstream school, perhaps 3% of the children are responsible for 50% of the discipline referrals. When I talk to teachers, they say that they know who these students are in their class. Now, the trouble is that the child, because of past experiences, they may have potentially become used to the stick.”

“So much so that the child is actually getting what they prefer. Suppose the child has triggered you to react in a certain way, and the child is more used to having the metaphorical stick than the carrot. In that case, you're actually perpetuating, reinforcing, and maintaining the same behaviour, you're trying to change.”

“When I speak to teachers, they suddenly get a realization from studies on child development and psychology, of whatever frequently happens to a child becomes the norm. I think schools that rely on rewards and sanctions haven't come with us in developing a language to understand behaviour as a form of communication.”

“So, I repeat to teachers the mantra ‘analyse, don't personalize’. Stand back and say: ‘What is the function of this behaviour? What is this earning for the child? What triggers it? What are the antecedents? What are the consequences?’”

The ACE Study

A foundational piece of research that illuminated the potential whys of problematic behaviour is the 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE), highlighted in Dr Long’s book. This study was pivotal as it was one of the largest ever conducted investigating the cumulative influence of childhood experiences of neglect and abuse and their later expression in adult physical and psychological conditions.

Predictively, researchers in the ACE study found that children who have experienced adverse events were extremely more likely to express behavioural problems and go on to develop an array of health and psychological conditions, including for example alcoholism, depression, substance misuse problems, and related physical health conditions such as liver disease.

Following on from the ACE study, in 2017, the NHS in Wales conducted the ACEs and Resilience study, which found that early protective factors more than halved the likelihood of those life-long conditions developing. The early year protective factors included wider support networks, community engagement, and the presence of at least one supportive adult.

The NHS study indicating that the negative impact of adverse childhood experiences can be counteracted with appropriate interventions. And that through positive relationships with broader support networks, children can learn to adopt healthier ways to process their past and can become more psychological resilient to any its lasting influences.

Concerning behaviour at school and in line with the ACE studies, Dr Long commented that children who have been exposed to particular risk factors are more likely to express problematic behaviours. And as social disadvantage and the number of stressful life events accumulate, these children require more attachment-based protective factors to act as a therapeutic counterbalance to their experience.

Dr Long added: “Behaviour is a form of communication; a child's problematic behaviour reflects what's happened to them. And the motive behind the behaviour is often more interesting than the behaviour itself.”

“As the brain develops, and the prefrontal cortex matures, the child begins to form executive functioning skills – the ability to stop, think, and control themselves. So, they gradually learn about their feelings through interaction with home and school and learn how to tolerate a degree of anxiety and frustration, becoming emotionally literate – being able to regulate their feelings.”

“Some children, for a host of different reasons, don't always acquire those skills. So, in terms of helping children exhibiting problematic behaviours, you're trying to crack the code of what they are expressing. Whereas in a lot of schools with a zero-tolerance behaviour policy, all they want to do is stop a behaviour. But some children haven’t grown the prerequisite emotional literacy, therefore what are those schools doing but punishing them for not having them.”

Fostering resilience

As the ACE study indicated, like a balancing scale, resilience comes through positive attachments that have the ability to mitigate negative experiences during childhood. Likewise, Dr Long, in his book, commented that resilience doesn’t come from children and young people ‘pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps’. Instead, resilience and emotional self-regulation come from a complex interaction of within-child factors and protective factors such as family, school, and community.

Dr Long suggests that a starting point to developing resilience is through improving a child’s self-control of their emotions if they have exhibited behaviour related to an externalizing disorder, such as ADHD or a Conduct Disorder. Or alternatively, by changing children's unhelpful thinking styles if they are affected by an internalizing disorder, such as depression or anxiety.

The essential crux of Dr Long’s approach to promoting resilience in children and young people is that it is necessary for the adult supporting the child to assist in the development of the young person's self-regulation of their emotions, be that either at home or at school.

Additionally, more than providing the skills of merely cope with their emotions, Dr Long said that the adult in the pastoral role can foster resilience by guiding and nurturing the young person ‘to the right path’, so to speak. The findings of the ACE study emphasizing that point and its relation to life outcomes, as the children who had an adult who ‘didn’t give up on them’ had significantly better life chances than those who did not have a stable safety net of support.

Dr Long explained in a metaphor:

"You've got a little sailing boat, and it's got a leak, that could be the child has got anxiety, depression, or something like that. The leak needs to be addressed. But you also need to address the sails because the sails are helping the child go forward. And that is where you need the positive emotions; the child needs to be nurtured to have self-belief and confidence in themselves to help them move forwards.”