Building Resilient Students: How to Get Out of Your Own Way 

Eight years ago, researchers began to discover that children today acquire more allergies than children in past generations. For instance, no one had any idea why “peanut allergies” are surging in our day and age, since so many parents and schools are protecting kids from such exposure to peanuts. While such allergies were low among kids until about the mid-1990s, they’ve soared from that point until today, according to a study reported on WebMD in 2010.

Most parents today recognize that children are vulnerable, and they must be protected from exposure to certain bacteria or harmful foods. It’s interesting to note, however, that the same study I cited above began revealing what likely caused the surge in allergies. Researchers recruited 640 parents of infants who were at high risk of developing peanut allergies and discovered that the children who were protected from peanuts were more likely to develop a peanut allergy. About one in six had problems, compared to only 3 percent in the kids who were exposed to peanuts.

Did you catch that?

Could it be it is precisely because we’ve sterilized their environments so much that they’ve failed to develop strong immune systems? Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik explains the hypothesis:

“Thanks to hygiene, antibiotics and too little outdoor play, children don’t get exposed to microbes as they once did. This may lead them to develop immune systems that overreact to substances that aren’t actually threatening—causing allergies. In the same way, by shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that aren’t risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills that they will one day have to master.”

This is a Picture of a Principle

Believe it or not, kids are naturally anti-fragile. Watch a toddler learn to walk; they fall down dozens of times and it does not phase most of them in the least; they just get right back up. It’s a portrait of the human spirit. Over time, our intuitive display of compassion (which we all need) is overdone. We begin to communicate that they are unfortunate; they’ve had a tough break and deserve some special attention; they need special perks or to be let off the hook. And once in a blue moon—that may be true. Every child needs a caring adult who supports them in tough times. However, we can communicate the wrong message in such times if that’s our singular message.

Empathy is essential, but it is incomplete.

When your children (or students) encounter adversity, they will feel pain. Depending on their temperament, it will affect them slightly differently. At this point, they look for cues from their adult leaders—teachers, parents, coaches and employers. Our cues we give them can make or break the development of resilience in them. We’ve all seen toddlers bump themselves or tumble to the ground and look up at parents. If they see us scrambling frantically and emotionally to their aid, they likely burst into tears. When they see us calmly respond, they usually begin building a resilient spirit.

I remember having two significant bicycle accidents as a kid. The first time I fell off my bike I was in elementary school. It hurt. In response, my mother took great care of me, patching my wounds, and giving me hot chocolate. But I recall she also said: “Good thing you’re an Elmore.” By this she was instilling the notion in me: “We get back up and try again in our family. We don’t give up. We don’t let these obstacles determine our future or fate.” I remember looking at her for a moment and suddenly gaining resolve. It was as if she gave me new perspective.

Empathy Plus Belief

What’s essential is that we respond with both EMPATHY and BELIEF. These two qualities will send a perfect message and can cue their response. The younger they are, the more they’re looking for such cues and will almost always follow suit. It’s all in how we respond to them when they face adversity. If it is only compassion and “feeling” we may foster an emotion, without a will. If it is compassion with belief—we foster a more robust will. We can cultivate determination in them over time.

  • The emotional part of their brain needs empathy from us.
  • The volitional part of their brain (their will) needs belief from us.

My point is to remind you of the power of your personal narrative. While we look back at the discovery of the “Placebo Effect” with a smirk, we all know there are many times that what we believe about someone completely affects our reaction to him or her. Authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff put it this way: “We are not saying that the problem facing students, and young people more generally, are minor or ‘all in their heads.’ We are saying that what people choose to do in their heads will determine how those real problems affect them.”

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Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World

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Building Resilient Students: How to Get Out of Your Own Way