The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

The ordinary magic of resilience

What life throws at us might dent or break us  – but the '7 Cs' of resilience can help us recover and rebuild. John Dabell explains how.

‘Resilience’ is a buzzword heard pretty much everywhere these days and certainly within the mental health narratives of schools.

How do you define resilience?

Resilience is commonly defined as the ‘ability to bounce back’ and the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It describes how we pull through from adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. It is the way individuals cope and respond positively to challenges.

Being resilient helps us face our challenges head on and protects us from becoming overwhelmed by our experiences.

The problem with resilience in schools and society at large is that the ‘bounce back’ definition doesn’t allow us to be broken

The word stems from material science to describe a substance that returns to its original shape after being stretched or compressed having absorbed severe stress. Now we use it to describe the ability of an individual or organisation to deal with change without getting bent out of shape and staying that way.

However, if we define resilience this way, then we are saying that in order to ‘soldier on’ and function then we return to our original shape – but that might not be fit for purpose in a post-epidemic world. Perhaps the way we were doesn’t dovetail with what is happening now and the way we need to be. 

In reality, what life throws at us does dent, bruise and break us, and we don’t simply spring back from stressful and traumatic experiences unharmed.

Kintsugi resilience

Perhaps a more accurate definition is that resilience is the ability to accommodate challenges, adapt, manage and rebuild. It’s having the courage to come back.

The Japanese have a word for this – kintsugi.

Kintsugi is the art or repair related to ceramics and it is also a really useful metaphor for how to handle the broken bits of ourselves and improve our sense of self and wellbeing.

In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of a smashed pot are carefully picked up, pieced together and glued together with lacquer inflected with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.

Teaching children about resilience isn’t about bubble-wrapping them, but giving them the roots and the wings to become their best selves

Kintsugi resilience celebrates the fault lines. It embraces the flaws and imperfections and makes a stronger object by revitalising it with a new look and giving it a second life. This method celebrates each object’s unique history by drawing attention to its fractures and breaks, instead of hiding or disguising them.

Isn’t this a less ‘macho’ view of mental health that schools should be aspiring too? The problem with resilience in schools and society at large is that the ‘bounce back’ definition doesn’t allow us to be broken.

Kintsugi resilience allows children to ‘fall to pieces’ under life’s major stresses but rebuild and find strength in imperfection. This is surely a healthier way of dealing with life’s trials and tribulations.

The 7 Cs model of resilience

Resiliency for many students can be a DIY experience unless their schools offer some sort of curriculum provision to equip them with strategies for overcoming adversity.  

As there is no clear definition of what resilience is, and schools are defining it for themselves, then school leaders need to look carefully at models of resilience that are multi-faceted and go beyond the simplistic.    

In his book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens, Dr Kenneth Ginsburg, a child paediatrician and human development expert, proposes that there are seven integral and interrelated components that make up being resilient:

  • competence
  • confidence
  • connection
  • character
  • contribution
  • coping
  • control.

Dr Ginsburg developed the ‘7 Cs model' to provide a practical approach for parents, teachers and communities to prepare children to thrive. His work around resilience has been influential in how we understand what it looks like in children and how to develop the skills needed.

He says that: ‘Resilience is the capacity to rise above difficult circumstances, allowing our children to exist in this less-than-perfect world, while moving forward with optimism and confidence.’

So what does fostering resilience involve?

1. Competence

Competence is the ability to know how to handle stressful situations effectively. It requires having the skills to face challenges, and having had the opportunity to practice using these skills, so that one feels competent in dealing with situations.

How you can help

  • Encourage children to focus and build on their strengths. When they handle a situation capably, acknowledge what they have done well and how that will affect others and themselves.
  • Let children make safe mistakes so they have the opportunity to make corrections and right themselves. Avoid trying to protect them from every stumble and mishap.
  • Break down ideas one step at a time so they can truly understand your points and feel ownership over the lesson they learn.
  • Avoid the urge to be over-protective, which could send the message that the child isn’t capable of handling a situation.

2. Confidence

Confidence is the belief in one’s own abilities and is rooted in competence. Children gain confidence by being able to demonstrate their competence in real situations. They need confidence to be able to navigate the world, think outside the box, and recover from challenges.

How you can help

  • Point out and help children recognise when something was done correctly or well.
  • Don’t just focus on achievements but encourage the development of personal qualities like fairness, integrity, persistence, and kindness.
  • Praise children honestly and unambiguously. Specific praise is more helpful and your feedback will have more impact.
  • Encourage children to strive for goals that you think they can achieve but are a bit beyond what they’ve already accomplished. Do not push children to take on more than they can handle.

3. Connection

Children with close ties to friends, family, and community groups are likely to have a stronger sense of security and sense of belonging. Connections with other people, schools, and communities offer children the security that allows them to stand on their own and develop creative solutions.

How you can help

  • Allow children to have and express all types of emotions and teach them not to suppress unpleasant feelings.
  • Show that relationships matter by addressing conflict directly and working to resolve problems rather than letting them fester.
  • Encourage children to take pride in the religious or cultural groups that are important to them.
  • Encourage children to develop close relationships with others and set an example by fostering your own healthy relationships.

4. Character

Children with “character” enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and confidence. They are in touch with their values and are comfortable sticking to them. They can demonstrate a caring attitude towards others. They have a strong sense of right and wrong and a commitment to integrity and are prepared to make wise choices and contribute to the world.

How you can help

  • Talk to children about how their behaviours affect other people in good and bad ways.
  • Encourage children to consider right versus wrong when making choices. Help them look beyond immediate satisfaction or selfish desires.
  • When you make decisions or take actions, express out loud how you think about others’ needs.
  • Work with children to clarify and express their own values.
  • Be a role model. Your actions speak louder than your words.

5. Contribution

If children can experience personally contributing to the world, they can learn the powerful lesson that the world is a better place because they are in it. Children who contribute to the wellbeing of others receive gratitude and learn that contributing feels good.

How you can help

  • Communicate that many people in the world don’t have as much money, freedom, or security as they need.
  • Teach the important value of serving others and the concept of the greater good.
  • Model generosity with your time, energy, and resources.
  • Find or create opportunities for children to contribute in specific ways, like volunteering.

6. Coping

Children who have a wide repertoire of healthy coping skills (social skills, stress reduction skills) are able to cope more effectively and are better prepared to overcome life’s challenges and will be less likely to turn to dangerous quick-fixes when under pressure.

How you can help

  • Assist children in understanding the difference between a real crisis and something that just feels like one.
  • Teach positive coping strategies and model step-by-step problem-solving behaviours to help children adopt effective responses.
  • Demonstrate the importance of caring for your body through exercise, good nutrition, relaxation and adequate sleep.

7. Control

When children realise that they have control over their decisions and actions, they are more likely to know how to make choices in a way that they can bounce back from life’s challenges. When they understand privileges and respect are earned through demonstrated responsibility, they learn to make wise choices and feel a sense of control.

How you can help

  • Help children understand that many events happen because of our own actions and choices.
  • Allow children to make decisions so they can learn control.
  • Reward demonstrated responsibility with increased freedom.

The bottom-line of this model is the belief that while you can't control everything in your life, there are many aspects you can control, including your attitude.

And finally….

Interventions that focus on enhancing the home and school environment through resilience awareness training have demonstrated particular effectiveness in improving outcomes for children.

When we look at resilience through the 7Cs model then we see that it is not about having a constellation of personal qualities, or being heroic, or displaying extraordinary invulnerability, but what Masten (2001) describes as ‘ordinary magic’ and something built through the basic systems to facilitate adaptation and recovery in development, such as meaningful support, security and love from others.

The 7Cs model of resiliency helps us consider what we are doing and what we are not doing. It is just one model that can be considered within the broader concept of resiliency to help children develop good mental health profiles.

Teaching children about resilience isn’t about bubble-wrapping them, but giving them the roots and the wings to become their best selves; the application of the 7Cs resilience framework encapsulates the possibility of positive outcomes in the presence of adversity.

Prepare for launch!

Pupil Resilience Award

Build and strengthen resilience, self-belief and confidence in all pupils with the Pupil Resilience School Impact Award

Containing eight benchmarks of best practice, including developing healthy relationships and encouraging a growth mindset, the award will help deliver impact for learners across a term. Find out more

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