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A recent study by Harvard University examines the factors that help children to develop resilience.

I recently caught up on some professional reading and was interested to read an article by the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (AGSA) that talked about resilience (Issue 10/2020: June 17, 2020). The report quoted research conducted by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, including its 2020 paper, Connecting the brain to the rest of the body. Many children develop resilience — the ability to overcome serious hardship — while others do not. 

As educators and parents we know that resilience is a key factor in determining how a student deals with adversity, unexpected events and new experiences. We also know that there are some students who instinctively seem to be more resilient than others. So, if we accept that we live in a world that does and will repeatedly present these challenges, it then follows that anything that we can do to proactively develop the resilience of our students, will be of great benefit to them as they approach their senior schooling and subsequent adulthood.

I have often talked about education being a tripartite responsibility and endeavour. That is, when parents, their children and the school work collaboratively together, we can expect the best outcomes possible for our students. 

So what did the Harvard research report find? One of the factors identified in the report, that predisposes children to be more resilient in the face of adversity, is having at least one stable, caring and supportive child-adult relationship. It is indeed fortunate that in addition to parents, our students have a large range of adults at school who can provide strong and appropriate child-adult relationships. 

The Harvard research shows these strong, appropriate and positive relationships provide the foundations for the development of resilience. Furthermore, they “buffer children from developmental disruption through providing the personal responsiveness, scaffolding and protection that they need” to allow them to adapt to adversity and thrive.

At Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School we have long been aware of the need to set high expectations for our students and to ensure that they are each "stretched" out of their comfort zones regularly in order for them to develop to their unique potentials. For example, we provide our students with strong role models, we differentiate the learning challenges within the curriculum and we provide regular opportunities for our students to experience constructive failure. This may sound counter intuitive, as schools are touted as places where children learn to succeed, however preparing children to emerge from school as independent and successful adults means they must also know how to overcome disappointment and face adversity and they need to be comfortable with failure as becoming one step closer to success.  

The Harvard research refers to this as “positive stress” and describes it as children experiencing manageable levels of stress with the help of supportive adults. The authors report that “over time, both our bodies and our brains begin to perceive these kinds of threats as increasingly manageable … and we become better able to cope with life’s obstacles and hardships, both physically and mentally.” That is, we become more resilient.

At Ivanhoe Girls’ there are many ways we provide students with the opportunities to experience positive stress. Examples can range from students arranging and organising House events and running assemblies, students being required to be involved in assemblies and public speaking in the Junior School, and students in Year 9 undertaking elective subjects that require them to learn entirely new skills such as running a small business or designing and constructing a billy cart. 

Wherever there are opportunities, we will ensure that students have both experiences of success and experiences of challenge. In this way we hope to foster not only the development of greater resilience in our students, we also want them to develop greater cognitive flexibility, creative and critical thinking skills and to ensure that our students are better prepared to face a world of uncertainty beyond school and beyond COVID-19.

Dr Deborah Priest
Principal

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