How Can Students Develop Resilience?
Today’s young people face unprecedented mental health challenges. Never has it been more important that we understand both why this is happening, and how to support young people to develop strategies which can shore up their mental wellbeing.
Teens face increasing pressures at earlier and earlier ages. Social media inundates them with incessant opportunities to publicly succeed or fail at being liked or rejected, followed or unfriended. Humiliation is immediate, viral and heartless. Online bullying is on the rise. The National Crime Prevention Council states 43% of children have experienced online bullying. The COVID-19 crisis has forced teenagers to live under unprecedented uncertainty.
So how best can young people be supported in the face of these challenges? Developing resilience – the ability to withstand the challenges we may face – has been deemed to be a crucial tool in this regard. Organisations such as The Association for Young People’s Health concur. There are many ways in which students and their families can work together to develop their resilience and create a home environment which fosters greater happiness and support.
How to Build Resilience
What if our children are naturally happy and it is the way we live, as Rousseau suggested, that makes them unhappy? How can parents support their children to develop greater resilience in a complex and hyperconnected world? Fostering self-esteem from a young age can be a crucial step towards sound mental health. Taking the time to connect and ask about your child’s experiences and feelings builds the kind of relationship that reminds your child that their experiences matter. Minimising screen time during times when families have the chance to connect in person develops healthy bonds that foment inner resilience.
It’s important to remember that resilience isn’t developed in isolation — it is often isolation that causes the need for resilience in the first place. Interpersonal connection, the kind fed by regular daily injections of family engagement (around the dinner table at night, in the car on the way to school) are powerful tools for supporting young people’s wellbeing. It’s important too to be aware of the warning signs of a child or teen who may be feeling overwhelmed – such as a teen who is isolating themselves, never sharing about their life even on good days, avoiding time with peers and family, and focusing on privacy to the point of paranoia. It is just when it is hardest to communicate that it is most important to keep that connection going. Even if there is no ‘breakthrough’, the effort to connect without pushing can remind a disheartened teen that they are not alone.
Building Resilience in Youth
Another way in which young people can be supported to become more resilient is by being encouraged to establish an increased sense of meaning for themselves. This may lie outside the parameters of academic achievement. Fostering an interest or hobby such as creative arts, martial arts or athletics can provide purpose — and purpose can fill the gaps where a burgeoning problem can fester. Others find solace in volunteering. If a young person doesn’t appear to be deriving the kind of meaning they seek at school, it’s worth having a conversation about what they think may give them a greater sense of purpose.
The presence of meaningful human connection and a sense of purpose in a young person’s life can offer a bulwark against the pull of some of the more dangerous sides of social media. Establishing a clear sense of identity in their real lives offers young people a vital sense of perspective when participating in their digital ones. Exercise, time spent in nature, mindfulness (which is now taught widely in schools) and community engagement are also excellent tools students can use to further build their resilience.
Finally, physical health is a crucial facet of mental health. As my psychiatrist friend states, “We have never invented a pill or a therapy that is as effective as exercise.” When it comes to managing mental health, physical health can be a crucial stabilising factor.
Resilience and Self-Care
The benefits of self-care – taking active steps to prioritise one’s own wellbeing – for adults are now widely appreciated. However, the same too applies for young people. Mental health can be strongly influenced through self-care. How young people take care of themselves is rooted in their relationship with their future self. It’s important for young people to be encouraged to ask themselves: What does my future self want me to do? If someone else were enforcing on me the exact decisions I make for myself every day, how would I feel about that person? Perhaps this means going to bed earlier, exercising more regularly, or having regular breaks from social media. The right balance for each of us is different, but the outcomes universally beneficial.
Self-care implies self-knowledge: a key part of self-care is knowing what makes us happy and unhappy. Resilience, then, begins with understanding what we want of ourselves. Too often, young people are told what to expect: pressure (constantly), effort (indefatigably), success (the right to compete for the next pressure). We can risk asking our children to find their way in the world without asking them who they really are.
It can be of enormous benefit to young people, therefore, to create opportunities for them to get to know themselves. Know thyself were the words written over the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi. To know oneself was literally to hear the words of the gods. Teens are frequently pressured to perform socially and academically without their first considering what they are struggling for. How can we develop resilience until we know what it’s for – until we know what we are for?
When I worked in Skid Row, a neighborhood in Downtown Los Angeles with the largest stable population of homeless people in the United States, we discussed myriad allocations of social resources to deal with mass addiction, crime, mental illness, poverty and violence. It turned out that the cheapest and most effective way to resolve these issues was psychotherapy. Most people there did not have someone to talk to. As Irwin Yalom says, “It is the relationship that cures.” Caring about each other and connecting with each other is an essential nutrient for resilience. The most healing factor can simply be knowing someone wants you to heal. Young people want to know that their world wants them to be happy, not just function. As Freud wrote, “The needs of society run contrary to the needs of the individual.”
Resilience in Education
Students who are able to take ownership of their learning and life-course derive more meaning and happiness than those obediently performing tasks without knowing why. As author Simon Sinek argues, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” Resilience implies meaning. If young people are able to be rooted in a strong sense of their own identity and meaning, it becomes that much easier to withstand the challenges that they will inevitably face. It offers a constant to return to a lighthouse in the storm, a beacon amongst disarray.
Waldorf schools, for instance, are built upon self-discovery such that the student’s self-awareness comprises much of the curriculum. The ability to learn why we are compassionate means more than a sterile essay on Locke’s human freedoms. Calculus taught me that maths is beautiful more than it did problem-solving. Biology taught me that my body embodies more mystery than I can possibly imagine. Surrealism taught me that rendering dreams visible makes us more awake. Cosmology taught me that the universe was once an infinitesimal speck of light. Caring about what we know helps us care about the world. Integrating your child’s personal interests and view of the world with their education enables them to better understand themselves and their place in the world, and therefore builds resilience.
Victor Frankl beautifully stated: “[I]t is equally conceivable that everything is absolutely meaningful and that everything is absolutely meaningless, in other words, that the scales are equally high, we must throw the weight of our own being into one of the scales.” Perhaps building resilience in youth is faith that our weight will tip the scales.
When I teach at the Oxford Scholastica Academy, we spend our first class talking about what we care about, why we are here, and why our work matters. This approach prepares students to do for themselves what we do at Oxford Scholastica. This is how we respect the adult developing inside every child. Building resilience in students in particular amounts to asking them to maintain the idealism of childhood while integrating the pragmatism of adulthood.
Resilience is a muscle. It is something which needs to be actively developed, and its strength improves the more we use it. In encouraging young people to better understand who they are and what they are passionate about, in offering them regular opportunities for human connection and in giving them a strong sense of what anchors them in their lives – their family, their friends, their interests – we offer them safe ways in which to build their resilience. It is impossible for students to be innoculated against challenges or failure. Nor should we want to – life is texture, and insight is often borne of difficulty. But we all have an opportunity to equip them with a well calibrated internal compass that they can use to chart their path forward.
Mitch Artman, a 3rd generation teacher, attempts to create the classes he wishes he had attended as a student. He teaches psychology, sociology, public speaking, political theory and literary theory. He lives in Oxford with his wife and twin daughters.
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