Nurturing resilience with positive psychology

by | Sep 27, 2021

Never has it been more important for teachers and parents to nurture students’ wellbeing and resilience. Students have lost out on so much due to lockdowns, school closures, decreased contact with friends and extended family, and even playgrounds being closed. It is no surprise that many are struggling with anxiety, frustration and sadness.

Fortunately, there is a lot that we can do to support students through these difficult times and help build their resilience. The field of positive psychology, the science of wellbeing and resilience, offers evidence-based approaches for doing just that.

There is a common misconception that resilience means being in some way immune to the effects of difficulties or challenges, but that is not the case at all. When we are resilient, we still feel the varied emotions that life can bring, but we have a belief in our own ability to cope as well as the skills and support we need to keep going.

So how do we begin to nurture this capacity in our students? Through our support, connection and care. Positive relationships are the foundation on which resilience is built. Ann Masten, an expert in the development of resilience in children, describes the process as ordinary magic. All our small ordinary interactions of support, encouragement, comfort and care add up. When students know that we are there for them and that we are going through this difficult situation with them, it can help to lessen their load.

Giving students opportunities to express how they are feeling is vital, as is empathising with and validating their emotions, rather than trying to minimise or ‘fix’ them in some way. During remote learning, teachers can maintain this with daily check-ins where students can express how they feel, sometimes using words, sometimes using a number between one and ten. Again, it is not about trying to fix things for a student but holding space for them to be heard and validated. This in itself can be very soothing and can be the first step in helping students process, express and regulate these emotions. The message ‘It’s okay not to feel okay’ is important in helping to normalise all emotions.

Emotional regulation is a key resilience skill that is vital to work on with students, especially at the moment when they may be struggling with overwhelming negative emotions. The phrase name it to tame it is a really useful one – research shows that the act of naming or labelling our emotions can help to decrease their intensity.

The Weaving Well-being program teaches children the NABB approach – name, accept, breathe, body. Many students find it very helpful in navigating powerful emotions. They are encouraged to name the emotion and then accept it, for example, saying to themselves, ‘I feel sad, and it’s okay to feel sad’. Then they connect with their breathing, taking slow deep breaths, imagining the air going right down through their bodies. This can lead to a feeling of calmness and also help students process and release the emotion, rather than get stuck in it. Of course, it is important that we as adults also model this approach and show students how we use it.

Along with regulating difficult emotions, we also need to be aware of the importance of the positivity ratio in building wellbeing and resilience. Due to our in-built negativity bias, our brains are hard-wired to notice and be impacted more strongly by negative events and emotions than positive ones. We may need a ratio of at least 3:1 of positive to negative emotions on a daily basis to help us to thrive and flourish, so think of all the ways that you can boost students’ positive emotions every day – and your own, of course!

All of those small moments of gratitude, laughter, hope, kindness, pride, joy, fun and interest are vital in buffering students against the effects of negative emotions. You might also like to introduce a gratitude intervention called three good things. It involves writing down three small positive events of the last twenty-four hours and savouring them. Encourage students to use a special notebook for this and to try it for at least a week. In the Weaving Well-being program, these are introduced as rainbow moments. Students are encouraged to deliberately train their minds to notice all the small positives of their lives, which still exist even in times of difficulty.

Reminding ourselves that our care and support is the most important factor in helping students through difficult times can be very reassuring, especially when it often feels that we can’t do enough to fix things for them. We can remind them of how proud we are of them, and of their bravery and perseverance. Once they know that we believe in them, they can start to believe in their own inner strength, even when they don’t feel it. Together, we can face the challenges while we wait for better days ahead.

Fiona Forman

Fiona is a primary school teacher with 28 years’ experience in the classroom at all levels, including resource and learning support. Her passion for children’s well-being led her to undertake an M.Sc in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) and co-author the Weaving Well-Being series.