How to Build
Resilience and Perseverance In Young Children

Two very important attributes.

Imagine life as a young child.

Everything seems new and unfamiliar. You’re not yet fully equipped with the physical and mental skills you need to do the things you want. The world seems to constantly change.

How frustrating.

And yet, children persevere. They are resilient in the face of tough circumstances. They keep going.

While some children are naturally able to persevere and stay resilient in their early years, others need help to get there, and that’s where you come in.

So, what are resilience and perseverance?

Uhuhh, time for some definitions:

Perseverance is all about continuing to try something, even when you’re facing difficulty, failure or some delay. Think, trying to book a hotel online and fighting your way through a million pop-ups offering you add-ons. Or the way this child fights failure and difficulty to succeed on this obstacle course.

Resilience is broader. It’s about overcoming negative circumstances or adversity in your life, handling your emotions, and still remaining healthy and competent. For example, this might be about children continuing to develop and grow despite an unstable home life, trauma, stress, or poverty

Here is where we get into nature and nurture. While some children are naturally resilient and persevere easily, many more will require your help to build these skills.

In fact, a groundbreaking study based on the resilience of children from the Hawaiian island of Kauai concluded that there is clear evidence of “The extraordinary importance of the (early) childhood years in laying the foundation for resilience.” You’ve got a big part to play.

How to build resilience and perseverance

As you can see, resilience and perseverance are not the same, but the tools children need to build them have a lot of crossovers.

They can be mainly split into two categories. First and foremost is the environment of the child. How stable is home life? Do they have a strong support network? What’s their community like? Do they have adult figures they can trust? Even when home life is more unstable, that’s precisely where early years settings can become a key pillar of stability in their life.

The second? That’s the skills children need to develop in order to grow their perseverance and resilience. According to psychologist Ann Masten, these include things like problem-solving, self-regulation, self-efficacy, and the effective schooling and communities we’ve already talked about.

Let’s dig into some specific ideas on how to do exactly that.

“We have found emotionally responsive caregiving to mediate the effects of high-risk environments and to promote positive change for children who have experienced poverty, family stress, and maltreatment.”

Resilience As Process, Byron Egeland, Elizabeth Carlson, and L. Alan Sroufe, 2009

1. Building relationships

There’s only really one place to start – and it’s probably something you’re already working on.

Children learn best when they feel understood, accepted, and loved. This is why the key person system is so widely adopted. A focus on attachment in your youngest children will help them to develop into healthy, happy learners.

As the historic EPPE project showed, quality of parental involvement has a considerable impact on outcomes, much more so than adversity as a way of building resilience. That’s why it’s important that you also use your position where possible to encourage parental involvement and help to make parents aware of what they can do to help grow their child’s confidence, self-regulation, and wellbeing.

2. Role-modelling

We know that children learn so much from observing those around them. As a trusted adult, it’s crucial that you are conscious of the behaviour that you model to the children around you.

One example of this is when you’re faced with a problem. Provided it’s an appropriate discussion, it’s fine to discuss this with practitioners around you, modelling how children can work together to solve a problem they’re facing.

Showing persistence and perseverance yourself has also been shown by researchers to affect the amount a young child perseveres with a task too.

3. Keep a stress-free environment

From our understanding of enabling environments, we know that a calm, comfortable environment is one where the child learns best.

Watch out for signs of stress and overstimulation in your environment – something we covered at great length in our interview with The Curiosity Approach. When you look after emotional wellbeing first, that’s when children will flourish and find a way to battle through their challenges.

As ever, this also comes down to your knowledge of your cohorts – do your key people fully understand each child’s stressors? When your practitioners understand each child’s individual stressors, they can much more easily provide an environment that each child can thrive in.

Check out the further reading section at the end for more on this link between stress and learning.

4. Support self-regulation

Self-regulation is all about how we regulate our own behaviours. It’s everything from how we cope when we might feel angry to how we behave in a way that keeps us safe.

The ability to regulate our emotions is a key pillar of resilience and perseverance. It’s something Sue Cowley has written all about in her article for us over here.

One major piece of advice is to avoid using rewards and consequences for behaviour, focusing instead on helping children to learn to do the right thing in order to learn and be kind.

5. Acknowledge emotions

When a child is experiencing new or unfamiliar emotions for the first time, it’s pretty scary.

You can help them to understand those emotions by giving it a name, acknowledging and validating what they’re going through. It shows empathy and helps them to reinforce how they’re feeling, which can help to develop the self-regulation they need.

Use phrases like ‘I know that you’re upset’ or ‘I can see that you’re angry’, and children will know that it’s OK to feel how they feel.

6. Help to understand change

Even as adults we find change difficult. Just ask the rest of the Famly team what happened the last time I had to move my desk.

So think how it must feel to a child who is constantly put through changes in their young lives. When you know that a child is going through a change or a transition, make sure you take the time to ask them about how they’re feeling. If necessary, go through activities or stories that might help them to connect how they’re feeling to the real world.

7. Allow children to problem-solve

Problem-solving skills are all too easily left undeveloped when parents or practitioners step in too quickly to offer their own solution to a problem.

This piece from Teacher Tom deals with the question of when to step in brilliantly. In general though, letting children have the time and space to deal with challenges and experiment with different approaches is crucial to developing key problem-solving skills. If necessary, you can step in with open-ended questions that might support their thought process.

Most importantly, proceed with praise and positivity, and let them know when they’ve done a good job. Your support will mean a lot to their developing confidence.

8. Choose your words carefully

The words you use have a big impact. We’ve already talked about open-ended questions, and keeping positive in the way you speak with children, but small differences can have an impact too.

For example, recent research shows us that using verbs and encouraging children ‘to help’ builds much better persistence than asking them to ‘be helpers’.

10. Experiment with risky play

Risky play is thrilling and exciting, and it’s the perfect challenge for children who want to test their limits and build their perseverance. Most importantly, it’s naturally enticing for most kids, making it the perfect vehicle to test their boundaries and develop perseverance.

For more information on how to get started, check out our article on how to introduce it to your early years setting.

Further Reading:

You’ll find lots of the pieces that we read in order to understand the topic of resilience and perseverance littered throughout this article, but here’s a few other nice pieces to read if you want to learn more.

  • From Me To You by Sarah Cox in Nursery World – If you have access to Nursery World, there’s a brilliant article from the 10 August 2018 issue about resilience based on research by Sarah Cox. Worth a read.
  • Building Resilience in Young Children by Best Start Canada – This helpful guide for parents is written for a Canadian audience, but there’s plenty of great strategies for parents to try out with their children nonetheless.
  • The Neuroscience Behind Stress and Learning by Judy Willis – For more on the actual science behind the relationship between stress and learning, this is a great overview from neurologist Judy Willis.

Rethinking Child Behaviour In The Early Years

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