Children around the world face adversity in their day-to-day lives. The hardships they experience can be extreme. It is estimated, for example, that 65 million school-age children globally are directly affected by emergencies and protracted crises, such as natural disasters and war. Others experience more personal trauma, such as health issues, the loss of a parent, or an unstable home life.
This adversity can have significant effects on children’s development. Stress manifests physically as increases to heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones such as cortisol. When children experience these stress responses within an environment that offers various protections, the physiological effects can be mediated and children will develop healthy stress response systems. However, if the stress response is extreme and long-lasting, and mediating factors are unavailable to the child, the result can have cognitive, physical, and emotional repercussions that negatively affect the course of a child’s life.
Reducing these negative effects is essential to the progress and prosperity of any society. Unfortunately, children do not respond with equivalent levels of resilience in the face of adversity. Understanding why some children are more resilient than others can lead to development of policies and programs that support resiliency and therefore help more children reach their full potential.
Research has identified some keys to fostering resiliency in children:
• A stable, caring, and respectful relationship with at least one adult. Such relationships provide a buffer from stressful circumstances as well as a model for adaptive behavior during adversity and prosocial behavior in general. Caring relationships provide children with a sense of belonging that can counter the negative emotions triggered by adversity.
• High expectations focusing on strengths and assets. High expectations convey optimism, hope, and confidence in students, and recognize their capacity to succeed. Children gain experience with “manageable stress” as they work toward expectations within their ability level, thus promoting a sense of self-efficacy as they overcome obstacles and experience mastery.
• Stabilizing routines and practices. If children who are experiencing adversity can rely on some consistent routines and practices, they gain a sense of security and perceived control even in otherwise disruptive and precarious circumstances.
• Age-appropriate, health-promoting activities. Regular physical exercise, stress-reduction practices, and programs that actively build executive function and self-regulation skills can help children cope with, adapt to, and even prevent adversity in their lives.
• Tapping into faith and cultural traditions. The comfort, optimism, and sense of belonging to be found through faith and cultural tradition also serve to create a mediating, buffering environment during times of adversity.
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