By Kaitie Westbrook
Over the last several years, the term resilience has developed into a buzzword, even more so now as we globally endure and recover from the novel coronavirus. While the term is used commonly, the understanding of the term varies. Most widely, resilience is thought to be inside us and related to rugged individualism; meaning, our ability to persevere despite adverse circumstances. With this perspective in mind, it is critical to note that our society is growing more and more worried about our children and teens and their resilience. As Dr. Shanker notes in his Self-Reg View on Resilience, a significant amount of research suggests that the resilience of our children and youth is declining. Dr. Shanker notes that students are increasingly identified as unable to handle what many would consider minor, everyday stressors. As school professionals, we see more mental health challenges and diagnoses while also seeing behaviours from our students that indicate they cannot cope with the challenges they face at school or in their community—reframing resilience shifts the focus from what's inside the child to what's around the child. In particular, the calm, regulated, and well-informed educators that create healthy learning environments for our kids.
As we know, COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health needs in children, youth and adults. To speculate, this may be due to intensifying pre-existing stressors combined with limited knowledge and skills about reducing stressors and attaining a homeostatic state. Considering this hypothesis, we may veer towards viewing those experiencing increased stress, tension and mental health suffering as non-resilient or deficient in coping. This perspective can lead us to individualize the presenting problem. It can cause us to 'other' and seek to separate ourselves from 'them.' This clouds our ability to consider the presenting situation and view those expressing a need with soft eyes. Which, in turn, can lead us to try and support in unhelpful ways. This is counterproductive to our goals of developing and sustaining meaningful relationships and connecting with our students. Thus, we need to have a broader understanding of resilience, which we have a role in facilitating resilience for our students and within our schools. We are better equipped to respond relationally and more aptly promote and foster resilience by reframing the taken-for-granted assumptions about resilience.
This fundamental reframe requires us to shift our perspective away from the polarizing dichotomy that one is resilient, can cope and manage stress, or that they are not resilient and lack appropriate characteristics to support them in navigating daily stressors or adverse life circumstances. The quote that I have appreciated in illustrating the concept of resilience and access to resources as we have endured the COVID-19 pandemic is: "we are all weathering the same storm but in very different boats." Considering this quote, we are reminded about the importance of relationships, the implications of inequity and how this determines access and barriers to resources. Without the teaching, learning and resources necessary to understand how to interpret, monitor and manage stress, tension and energy levels, energy cannot be restored, and this leaves us ill-equipped to navigate the next storm. As a result, reduced access to relationships and other key resources impedes one's ability to regulate, restore and remain resilient.
As a social worker, it is crucial for me to consider the broader context for which presenting problems arise, which involves assessing the person in their environment. One of the reasons I sought a career in the helping profession and, particularly, within a school system setting is because I wholeheartedly believe that children do well when they can. From a social and systemic perspective, this idea stems directly from Dr. Michael Ungar's teachings about resilience and the social-ecological approach to helping children and youth navigate complex problems. When we consider the person at the heart of this, the Self-Reg lens and the Shanker Method® support this notion by assessing the domains of stress and how we can lend our calm to help another individual in cope and return to a homeostatic state.
As Dr. Ungar states, "resilience is not a do-it-yourself entity." Schools have a responsibility and the capacity to support student resilience. As leaders in our schools and communities who have a significant role that involves power and influence in shaping children's life trajectories, we are responsible for fostering meaningful relationships that help foster resilience. Relationships are the main component in applying Self-Reg and in supporting long-term resilience. A critical precursor to establishing and sustaining relationships and resilience involves reframing our perspective about human suffrage and the capacity to navigate life stressors and endure adversity. Applying a relational approach to supporting student resilience occurs by first considering how they are. Therefore, the environment in which they reside is interconnected and, thus, impacts their functioning, energy levels, and ability to cope with stress, tension, and adversity. Broadening our perspective to consider the student in their environment supports us in considering issues of equity and access to resources which inevitably helps us view the situation with softer eyes. When we view the problem with softer eyes, we can better see how to lend our calm and varying degrees of privilege to the relationship to support the student in regulating, restoring their energy, and ultimately developing resilience.
Now that we have contextualized the 'why' behind reframing resilience, we move onto the 'how' to reframe resilience. We can start to reframe our understanding of resilience by exercising curiosity and kindness as we listen and learn about experiences of safety, navigating adversity, and knowledge of the equity issues that impact the accessibility of resources for resilience. Once we have reframed the idea of resilience as an innate quality that you either have or don't have, we expand our opportunities to utilize Self-Reg to support resilience for ourselves, our students and our community. Further, understanding that we are important figures who play a significant role in supporting our students' healthy growth and development calls us to consider our responsibility to cope with and thrive following stress and adversity. Thus, reframing resilience from rugged individualism to applying Dr. Michael Ungar's explanation of what children and youth need to be resilient and the importance of journeying with individuals in navigating and negotiating required resources is a helpful place to start!
Dr. Shanker denotes that a central component of reframing and using the Shanker Method involves asking "why this behaviour… and why now?" We can start by asking ourselves why we view resilience as an innate quality that some have, and some don't? Why are we talking about resilience? Why would we want or need to promote, support and foster resilience? This self-reflection allows us the opportunity to pause and consider our perspectives and potential biases as we approach the presenting problem. The self-reflection exercise is a critical component of reframing resilience. Before we can lend our calm and soft eyes, we must first understand our abilities to manage our stress load and the resources we access that support this process. Understanding stress, tension and the skills associated with restoring energy to manage stress supports our resilience and ability to thrive through adversity. We can use the Thayer Matrix as a tool to consider our energy, stress and tension levels to check in with ourselves. We know that we may be more apt to negatively view ourselves, others, and the world if we feel high tension and low energy. This perspective negates our ability to access our soft eyes and will not prove helpful for supporting the regulation or navigation of resources. However, this provides an excellent learning opportunity for us to reframe our resilience. This process can support us in considering how we restore our energy and who and what resources help us return to this restored, homeostatic state. Considering who and what is in our environment that supports our regulation, restoration and resilience can help us better understand what resources a child or youth may need to manage their stress load and regulate. With this in mind, we can nurture resilience through role modelling healthy relationships with our students and their families and our colleagues and the broader community.
It is essential to remember that reframing starts with us. Before we can view others with softer eyes and make kind inferences, we need to practice self-reflection and consider our context in terms of how we fit in our environment. Looking inward to consider who and what supports us in our regulation, restoration, and resilience and what resources are available helps us better understand the implications of equity and access versus barriers to resources. This process supports us in accessing our softer eyes and positions us well for lending our calm to help the student's regulation through the stressful experience they have presented. If we start with ourselves, we can then be curious about what is occurring for the person in their environment, contributing to their stress and tension. Considering 'why does this child or youth seem more or less resilient than another student?' may also lead us to some thoughtful wonderings about the 5 Domains of Stress and what resources (people, places and things) support the child. This also helps us understand the importance of our role in the lives of our students to support co-regulation and ultimately create resilient circumstances that support the healthy, fulsome development of the students in our schools.
Reflection and reframing start with considering our thoughts about ourselves, others and the world. Reframing resilience supports us in restoring relationships, promoting safety, equity and regulation within our schools. Reframing resilience and considering our role in our students' lives facilitates learning Self-Reg and navigating and negotiating resources that prove meaningful to us. This process helps us shift our worries about whether a student is or isn't resilient into a problem-solving, actionable outcome that supports them to problem-solve and in their skill development to navigate future adversity and thus, manage and regulate their stress load. Therefore, teaching the concept as a strategy to our students by lending our calm to help them regulate their stress, restore their energy levels, and support their navigation and negotiation of resources and capacity to self-regulate. Remember, you are the strategy, and you are a key part of supporting students' resilience.
In conclusion, reframing resilience provides a foundational framework for fostering student relationships and creating healthy learning environments. This process enhances teaching and learning outcomes and ultimately nurtures resilience and opportunities for students to thrive. Recognizing factors that support our resilience and our relationships in the context of reframing is foundational to our Self-Reg application and our approach to helping children and youth to move beyond coping to thriving. Thus, the application of this strategy provides the opportunity to support students in thriving through adversity, demonstrating resilience and subsequently being well-positioned to foster resilience, which helps more people lend kindness and calm to support an equitable environment in which we can all thrive!