Resilience in reality

Over the past decade there has been a wonderful embrace of character education in our schools. Heads, teachers and governors have recognised and celebrated the responsibility their schools have to cultivate and nurture the emotional and social development of those in their care, alongside the academic and co-curricular. Visit any school open morning or flip through the pages of a prospectus and it is all but impossible to escape messages on how schools encourage pupils to develop confidence, resilience and determination.

Parental engagement with the concepts and attributes of character education is always positive. It is without exception that parents I meet seeking a new school for their child are as preoccupied with finding an environment which will cultivate a sense of robust resilience, emotional strength and self-knowledge as one that will deliver excellent academic priorities. It is clear that schools with an ethos that espouses the virtues of ‘bounce-back-ability’ – the aptitude for overcoming adversity in moments of challenge and the capacity to recalibrate after setback or disappointment – is a need which weighs heavily on the mind of the modern-day parent. Heightened awareness of the need to be prepared for the volatile and ever-evolving world of work means that many parents recognise the need for successful employees of the future to be adaptable – able to show grit and determination whenever it is needed.

Delivering character education is not, however, without its challenges. Developing a school environment that is able to weave the nuances of social and emotional development into the fabric of the wider curriculum requires dogged and consistent determination from all members of the school community. It takes time and thoughtfulness and requires schools to get to know their pupils inside out. Helping a child or young person overcome a moment of adversity – be it disappointment in their performance in an examination or rejection from a team selection – requires patience, dedication and the understanding that helping a child through a difficult time is an investment in their capacity to face future challenges with greater ease and confidence.

It is easy to understand why the theory of character education is far easier to get behind than the reality of making it happen. The natural instinct for all parents is to protect their children from unhappiness, discomfort and disappointment at all costs. So how do you resist the temptation to swoop in if things are not going quite right?

It can be overwhelming to be faced with a child who encounters challenges in their friendships, underperforms in an aspect of the curriculum or does not enjoy part of school life in the way they had hoped. Instead of drawing upon the school’s vision or approach to positive risk taking and allowing it to support the child through the time of difficulty, parents may try to seek an immediate solution. Sadly, the all too common experience, is for approaches of character development to fail at the first real hurdle. There is no doubt that enhanced modes of home/school communication and the increased expectation for a ‘customer services’ style of interaction between parents and schools, has made it easier than ever for parents to request or even demand that a child’s experience at school is air-brushed and filtered of all negative experiences and challenges. The net effect of this culture is a significant limiting of the scope for character education and development in our children and young people. Without exposure, to reasonable levels of failure, disappointment, rejection and challenge, it is impossible for the virtues so highly regarded by parents and educators such as grit, resilience and self-confidence to be cultivated.

At the start of a new academic year, I would encourage parents and schools to look for ways to cement their alignment on character development to ensure a secure, joined-up approach to helping a child through a bump in the road with pragmatism. Whilst no one who truly believes in child well being would advocate children being left to fend for themselves without exception, the gains that can be gleaned by parents working closely with their child’s school during challenging times will see the biggest strides in character development.

Three ways parents can help nurture character development in children

  1. Try a coaching approach: spend time talking to your child about the challenge they are facing. What is it? How does is make them feel? What options do they have for overcoming it or getting through it?
  2. Resist solving the problem for them: look for ways to empower your child to take positive action to address the issue they are facing. Can you support from the back rather than the front?
  3. Collaborate with the school: make time to speak to your child’s school and find out how they plan to support your child. Adopting a joined-up approach will create a strong network of support on which your child will be able to draw.