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Promoting Resilience and Hope in Times of Trauma

04 Aug 2020 by Matt Owens
Research shows that resilient children, or children who do well in the face of serious hardship, typically have one thing in commonstrong relationships with important adults in their family or community. To learn more about resilience and the role early childhood programs can play, we interviewed Rachel Wagner, national trainer and early childhood mental health specialist for the Devereux Center for Resilient Children. Her work is part of our Interactions at the Heart of Healing series. You can read a portion of the interview below, or to hear more, you can also listen to the recording of her webinar, Promoting Resilience and Hope in Times of Trauma.


How Do You Define Resilience?

Rachel Wagner

Resilience is the ability to bounce back. We can think about a rubber band and how it stretches and we hope that the stress isn't too much. The more official definition is the ability to recover from, and adjust to, misfortune or change.

We like to put an emphasis on those two words in that definition, the change part, and the misfortune part, because we need resilience for both. We need resilience to cope with change, which may not be bad things, and we need resilience to cope with misfortune, which is clearly hardship.

All of us need resilience, because all of us, while we may not have misfortune, we will definitely have change. We all need the skills of resilience to be able to bounce back.

A contemporary researcher by the name of Ann Masten talks about resilience in terms of Ordinary Magic. Resilience is in the small things in our lives. It's not big, extraordinary things. It's ordinary things like a grown-up showing up consistently at the same time every day for you. It's those things that can contribute to our sense of resilience.

What are Protective Factors?

The truth is, we might not be able to get rid of all the risk factors in our lives. We see extraordinary examples of people who have had risk factors in their lives and have been able to achieve amazing things. That's the result of protective factors.

Put simply, protective factors are characteristics, events, and processes that buffer risk.

What Role Can Early Childhood Programs Play in Building Resilience?

An environmental protective factor can be high-quality and trauma-sensitive early care and education. 

Others are combating racism with culturally-responsive curriculums in our schools and ensuring that we have diverse representation in our staff and our decision making bodies. 

We can look at family protection. Even in families where it seems like there's a ton of risk, there's always some strengths. If you shine a light on them, they'll grow. We want to always be looking at the budding or the emerging protective factors and grow them. 

You can be born with some traits that are going to help you be more resilient. You can be born with flexibility or with an easy to warm temperament. But you can also learn some of these things early on in your life. We know that these early traits that get nurtured and supported are the ones that stay with us. So we want to do this resilience, or protective factor building, while the brain is developing.

Research tells us that if we want to build protective factors in kids, there are three categories that we should focus on.

We should focus on:

  • Attachments and relationships. If kids have the ability to know how to pick good people, be a good person, and be a good friend, then they'll pick good people later on in their lives too. Healthy attachment looks like a child who asks me to read them or play with them. healthy attachment looks like a child who has a boo-boo and comes to me for help. It looks like a child who can trust me and believes what I'm telling them. It also looks like a child who is discriminating about who they show affection to because the other extreme of sort of indiscriminately hugging and showing too much affection to strangers is also not healthy attachment. 
  • Healthy initiative in their lives. This is the ability to solve a problem or use your thoughts and actions to meet your own needs This is what helps you when you're in college and your car breaks down and you can figure out how you're going to get through that.
  • Self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to cope with their feelings. This is a lifelong process. We want to work very early in helping kids identify what's going on with them inside, their feelings, and learn healthy coping skills. We know that kids who have a lot of models of unhealthy coping, that becomes their model for coping. We want to create lots of examples and lots of models of healthy coping around emotions.

Building Healthy Initiative in Early Childhood Care and Education

We want to see kids who want to try new things. We want to see curiosity. We want to see a desire to solve a problem. When the block tower falls over, we want them to want to build it again. We want to see persistence. We want them to have a love of learning. We want them to be able to start play

So all of those behaviors are things that we're looking for. And if we're not seeing them. That's a good indicator that initiative is something we need to zero in on.

When I think about building initiative, it's in every single part of our day. Think about the kiddo who comes out of the bathroom with their pants unzipped and they wobble over to you and expect you to zip them. Instead of just (because I have 15 other kids and I'm busy) zipping them up and sending them on their way, I'm going to say, “Oh, how can we figure this out?”  I'm going to take that extra 30 seconds to a minute to help you figure out how you're going to do that yourself. Initiative in a classroom is about not fixing everything for kids and about looking at all of the challenges that we face as opportunities for learning. 

Initiative and the concept of scaffolding go hand in hand. We want kids to develop confidence and mastery of things. And if they can't do it, we have to scaffold for them until they can. We constantly want to be thinking about, if you're not willing to do a puzzle, you're afraid of it, you don't have confidence in yourself that you can do it. How am I going to scaffold puzzles, so that you start to grow some confidence? That may be starting with gigantic puzzle pieces that are really doable and then building your successes, with lots of care and reinforcement and attention to those things.

To hear more from Rachel Wagner, you can watch the recording our her recent webinar, Promoting Resilience and Hope in Times of Trauma, or reach out to learn more about our Interactions at the Heart of Healing series. 

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