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Building Resiliency in Young Children

The SAA Toddler Team
We are essentially raising adults when we work with young children, and the best way to prepare children for adulthood is to foster resiliency, perseverance, and self-confidence. Parents can start planting the seeds of resiliency in young children by practicing evidence-based strategies that promote children’s long-term success and happiness in life.
There is a powerful quote from the American Psychological Association that addresses resilience in a nutshell. It states, “Life may not come with a map, but everyone will experience twists and turns, from everyday small challenges to bigger traumatic events, like the death of a loved one, a serious illness, etc. But all of us will encounter unavoidable and uncertain rapids and turns. But with the right tools and supports in place, one thing is sure: Not only will we make it through life’s challenging moments, but we will also emerge a more confident and courageous person than before.” And, these tools and adaptive skills that help us get through and overcome these obstacles are part of what we call resiliency.

Resilience is not something we are born with; it is a skill that children develop over time with the experiences in our life. So it is a skill we can teach children, and as early childhood educators, we believe that one of our most important roles is to teach young children resiliency.

You may be wondering how you can build and strengthen resiliency in your children, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak and this time of uncertainty. According to research conducted by The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “the one thing that most children who develop resiliency have in common is a consisted, committed, and attuned relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.” Consistent research over the years indicates that it only takes one consistent adult who is sensitive and attuned to a child’s needs to serve as a buffer and protective factor in that child’s life. It is important to understand that this adult does not always have to be a parent; it can be any adult in a child’s life.

Our hope is that this knowledge can alleviate some of the concerns over your children’s development during the COVID-19 outbreak. It is not the social interaction that 2-year-old children have with their peers that builds their resiliency. Rather, it is the relationship your children have with the most important adult figures in their lives that matter most in their developmental course right now. That’s great news and we should be celebrating that now during this quarantine! You can take joy in all the great changes you have seen in your children in the past two and a half months and shift your focus away from the mindset that the quarantine is stifling your children’s development.

Below are a few concrete strategies that parents can use to build their children’s resiliency.

Build a sense of self-efficacy in your children.
Self-efficacy is a belief that someone has in their ability to complete a task or reach a goal. It’s this, “I’m capable of doing it myself” mentality we want our children to have in order to thrive without us by their sides their whole lives. One way we can cultivate self-efficacy in young children is to resist our very well-intentioned urge to do everything for our children, especially things that they can already do on their own.

What often ends up happening when children have a lot of things done for them is that they develop a sense of learned helplessness, believing they have no control in positively affecting their life circumstances, even when they can change these circumstances. This may occur as a result of overparenting because when we do too much for our children; it steals their confidence to do things on their own and prevents them from feeling a sense of competency and agency over their life.

Give them the opportunity to fail. 
Obviously no one wants to watch their children fail, and it’s even hard for us as teachers to see young children struggle with a task and sometimes fail. But our children actually need to have small failures now in order to learn to react to failure in a positive and constructive way later in their life.

According to an article published by the Huffington Post, “Parents who give permission for kids to fail are building social and emotional skills and qualities that last a lifetime. Failure is part of life, and if our children don’t have the opportunity to fail or make mistakes, they will never realize they can bounce back. That is what resilience is all about. Your child doesn’t learn to bounce back because you told them they could, but rather because they experienced it. Then, when the problems get really large, they have the courage inside to realize, ‘Hey, I can do this!’”
Teach them life skills.
This may look like giving your children age-appropriate tasks that are fairly low stakes, which helps them get to a place where when things get to be higher stakes, they feel like they’ve got it and they take the initiative to do it. A few concrete examples of teaching your children life skills are to:
  1. Help strengthen their decision-making skills by asking them to make simple decisions, like whether they want to wear blue or yellow socks
  2. Ask them to help you prep a meal you make, even if it means they’re just taking the bread out of the bag and giving it to you or putting the sliced cheese on top of the bread
  3. Ask them to help you with the housekeeping, like sweeping the floor, wiping the tables, or folding and putting away the laundry.
Teach Them Adaptability
Another way we can teach our children to flourish in times of hardships and come out the other end stronger is to teach them how to be adaptable in times of uncertainty. The same way we all adapted fairly quickly to this new norm during the quarantine, your children also had to practice being adaptable by switching to online learning, staying at home without playdates, etc.

One way we can teach adaptability to our children is by giving them the experience to see that a change of plans doesn’t always mean they won’t have a good time with an alternative plan. Children often get very upset over the change of plans like when a playdate gets canceled. So if those moments come up, instead of trying to fix the problem for your children and rush to change their feelings, we can acknowledge their feelings, but offer a fun alternative. Something like, “I know you feel sad that the playdate got canceled, you were really excited about it. But now we can have a cooking night, just you and me.”

In doing this, you are giving your children the opportunity to experience manageable disappointments. If we teach our children to manage these small disappointments now, they will be far better able to manage and self-regulate their emotions in the future when they face bigger disappointments
Model Resiliency
Lastly, we need to model resiliency for our children as we do with everything else in parenting! Children need to see their parents, teachers, and caregivers fail and struggle. They need to watch us do something, mess it up, and try again; that is a powerful learning opportunity for little ones to see that adults also make mistakes and that it’s okay. This is ultimately what will help your children learn grit and persistence.
Sinai Akiba Academy is a private Jewish day school in Los Angeles, serving students in Early Childhood through Grade 8. We also offer a variety of parenting classes and programs for children through our Parenting Center. A Sinai Temple school.