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Building Resilience in Children With Challenges

Social Skills for Children - Social Skills Activities Children An old man and a child went fishing on a river. No sooner had they gotten their lines into the water than they noticed a child floating down the river in distress. Quickly, they pulled the child into their tiny fishing boat. Soon another child came floating by, then another both of whom they rescued. The old man starting rowing toward shore when the child pointed upstream and yelled, “Wait, we have room for one more.” To this, the man replied, “No, we must go ashore and find out who’s throwing all these children into the water.” This was the allegory Sam Goldstein, PhD used to begin his presentation, “Developing Resilient Children: Changing the Lives of Challenged Children,” at a recent Learning and the Brain Conference for educators and parents. His message? Creating resilient children requires a paradigm shift in our thinking. To really help them, he says, we need to focus on prevention, rather than on treatment alone, which has traditionally used a wait-and-see approach.

“Our kids are falling into the ‘river’ at a rate faster than we can pull them out,” says Goldstein, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Attention Disorders and co-author of two books on resilience in children. This is an urgent matter, he says, especially because our children are experiencing greater rates of depression with each generation.

A concept with increasing relevancy since September 11th, resilience implies an ability to spring back “to function competently under stress” to recover from setbacks, trauma, or adversity.

According to Goldstein, three powerful predictors of resilience are:

  • A temperament that elicits positive responses from others;
  • Family relationships that promote trust, autonomy, initiative, and connections, and
  • Community support systems that reinforce self-esteem and self-efficacy.

We can’t do a lot about a child’s temperament, but as parents and educators, we can do a great deal about the other two factors. Sure, genes play a role, but resiliency is not a rare quality that you either have or don’t have. You can foster it. And, in Goldstein’s view, “Environment trumps genetics for almost everything.”

What does this all mean for our children with learning disabilities? Challenges can certainly chip away at their resiliency. Children who lack the language, motor, memory, or other learning skills to easily negotiate everyday life can quickly sink into a defeatist frame of mind. When asked the definition of a good day, a young client of Goldstein’s once responded, “A good day is when bad things don’t happen.”

“Children with developmental or emotional challenges become failure-avoiders when the well meant efforts of parents and teachers don’t work,” says Goldstein. “These children come to believe that they don’t have control over their lives, that the world is unfair, that emotions get them into trouble, that they’re dumb.”

We can do better than this.

We can provide our children a toolkit of beliefs, values and strategies to counteract these failure-focused attitudes. It requires that we adopt a “learning-to-ride-a-bicycle” mindset, says Goldstein—a “Bell Curve Model”—rather than one that immediately sees pathology in our children when something takes longer for them to do.

Goldstein offers five strategies for fostering a resilient mindset in children:

  1. Teach empathy by practicing empathy

    Listen and obtain knowledge from your child, even though this is not easy to do. “Pay more attention to the heart,” says Goldstein. Parents and educators can provide “bubbles of security” amidst the chaos, he says. He encourages us to be more sensitive when our children fail to meet our expectations. For example, a child who can’t sit still in school, says Goldstein, quickly earns the labels of “immature,” “hyperactive,” “ADHD,” and “disruptive.” To the educators, he points out that more brain cells must fire for a child to sit still than to move. The empathetic response might be to simply let this child move more.

  2. Teach responsibility by encouraging contributions.

    Goldstein emphasizes that children are born with a genetically programmed drive to help and to master skills, which we often fail to recognize and inadvertently strip away. We can encourage their sense of autonomy by encouraging them to help both at home and at school.

  3. Teach decision-making by modeling problem solving that fosters self-discipline.

    Help children frame solutions by asking, “What’s the problem? What options do you have? How can you break this up into steps?” As children become interested and involved, their self-discipline will increase. Goldstein emphasized the importance of self-discipline by talking about a study that tested the ability of four year-olds to resist cookies. It turned out that “cookie waiting” was a strong predictor of several variables of future success in school and in life.

  4. Teach optimism by offering encouragement.

    When giving feedback, always start with the positive. Instead, we sometimes get into what Goldstein calls a “dance of dysfunction” by using negativity and coercion in response to our children’s undesirable behaviors.

  5. Teach competency by providing opportunities to practice.

    All children need “islands of competency” special skills and talents to use to their advantage in life. What’s your child’s special talent? As he or she works to refine it, offer reminders that mistakes are an opportunity to learn.


In closing, Goldstein reminded us that we can keep even the most challenged children “out of the water” with caring connections and child-centered practices in our schools.

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