Resilience has been defined as being able to recover quickly from difficult conditions. And a growing body of research suggests that kids who master this may go far in life.
Kim Schonert-Reichl, a UBC professor and applied developmental psychologist, has been a leader in researching the social and emotional side of education. In a phone interview with the Straight, she declared that there has traditionally been a “myopic focus” on academic achievement in schools, even though it is not always linked to long-term success.
“The things that predict your success are how you get along with people, how you manage your stress, how self-aware you are—and those things are called social and emotional learning competencies,” she said.
This has given birth to a movement to cultivate children’s resilience by developing these areas. Schonert-Reichl said that B.C. is a world leader in this area, noting that the Ministry of Education’s revised curriculum will promote social and personal competency.
“We’ve had people from outside come and say, ‘We’ve never been any place where ministries or superintendents and university professors and practitioners are all coming together,' “ she said. “One of the reasons for that is because the Dalai Lama Center, with its focus on educating the heart, has really played a central role in convening this together.”
Schonert-Reichl cited a 2011 New Zealand study that looked at 1,000 children from birth until the age of 32. The researchers concluded that “childhood self-control was the best predictor of physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending”.
For several years, Schonert-Reichl has worked with the Vancouver-based Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education and the Hawn Foundation (founded by actor Goldie Hawn), exploring whether mindfulness has an effect on children’s stress levels. Kids who went through the foundation’s MindUP program registered stable levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout a school year. A randomized control group, on the other hand, showed rising cortisol levels, according to Schonert-Reichl.
She emphasized that more scientific research is needed into whether or not mindfulness helps improve children’s inhibitory control. She added that when kids are feeling less stress, they’re better able to learn.
Schonert-Reichl defined mindfulnesss as "paying attention on purpose with nonjudgement in the present".
"A lot of people think mindfulness is sitting on a cushion and meditating," she said. "That really is not mindfulness. You could take a walk in nature and be mindful taking in the sights and the smells. You can wash the dishes mindfully."
She added that in the past few years, researchers are learning that mindfulness activities, including mindful listening and mindful breathing, help the development of the prefrontal cortex. This is the decision-making part of the brain. It controls impulses that might arise from the brain's emotional centre, known as the limbic system.
At the same time, Schonert-Reichl noted that a child's emotional state can also benefit learning.
"When you're in a positive mood and you're feeling good, you actually retain more information," she said. "You're more creative."
Conversely, learning is inhibited when people are feeling under stress. At these times, she suggested that they become "very self-focused" with a kind of tunnel vision taking over.
Schonert-Reichl is one of several researchers involved in the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning, which is promoting these ideas to educators. Edutopia, which is funded by director George Lucas, and the Greater Good Science Center are also offer a wealth of information about social and emotional learning.
Meanwhile, Schonert-Reichl and one of her former doctoral students, Eva Oberle, recently published a study linking higher levels of teacher burnout with higher morning cortisol levels in their students.
“Stress is contagious,” Schonert-Reichl said.
Cultivating resilience will be the theme of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education’s Heart-Mind 2016 conference in Surrey on October 21 and 22. It's being organized by former CBC broadcaster Maria LeRose, who is one of Schonert-Reichl's former graduate students.
"When I turned 50, I gave myself the gift of going back to graduate school so I could learn more deeply about how children and human beings develop socially and emotionally because I could see from all the documentaries that I was doing that we were in trouble, actually," LeRose told the Straight by phone. "We needed to really build our ability to manage strong emotions and to deal with each other socially in more complex ways."
LeRose has gone into classrooms to interview children and she's noticed how very young children are able to learn self-regulation through deep breathing, which they call "milkshake breathing". Some have also gained insight by asking themselves when they have negative thoughts if these beliefs are actually realistic.
"These very young children not only have a great deal of insight into what kinds of things cause them anxiety and stress," LeRose said, "but they can describe really clearly what a difference it makes [if] 'I just take a deep breath, just like this, and I feel better. I can pay more attention.' I was really surprised."
When asked what advice she had for parents, LeRose said the key is to "provide a caring, consistent context for that child, where you're looking into their eyes, where you're reading to them, [and] singing to them". These activities reduce stress.
"One of the dangers about all this information, from my perspective, is that parents and educators start to think of this as a mechanical thing," she added.
Schonert-Reichl echoed that sentiment, noting once again that stress can be contagious. "Even if the parents think they are holding it together, their kids are intuiting those things and they pick it up."
In other words, people shouldn't get too stressed out over creating a stress-free environment for their kids.