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Bouncing Back
Tammy Davis, Ed.D.
Wednesday July 01, 2009
by: Tammy Davis, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” This phrase, from “A Tale of Two Cities,” written in 1859 by Charles Dickens, could accurately describe what today’s 15-year olds in the United States have experienced in their  young lives. You don’t have to go far back in time to realize that although our kids have seen the best of things (greater technology, greater opportunities and, of course, iPods), they have also seen the worst of the world. In an informal survey of fifth-graders in a Northern Virginia school, the following list indicates their response to the question: “What is the worst thing that has happened in the world?” There responses included:

• 9/11
• Hurricane Katrina
• Living during the war (most of their life, the United States has been at war)
• Virginia Tech shooting
• Terrorism
• Mom and Dad fighting
• Elementary students being shot
• Watching the Towers fall town

In the same interview, students responded to the question “What’s the best thing that has happened in the world?” with the following list:

• iPods
• Computers/technology
• Being born/Being with your family
• NFL Football
• Cell phones
• People who need help get help
• Swimming pools

So, how can it be that this world that offers our youth amazing opportunities also exposes them to the worst of things? More importantly, how do we explain to students why things happen in the world today? It may be that explanations are not necessarily what students are looking for. Maybe what they are looking for is just a reason to feel hopeful.

You’re in a unique position to be an ambassador of hope to foster resilience and give students the tools for helping them bounce back from adversity or tragedy. It is not enough to try to explain why bad things happen; sometimes there is no explanation. Instead, you can help students focus on the things that will help them deal with and overcome the overwhelming feelings of hopelessness that may come as a result of what is going on in the world or in their neighborhood.

So, how do we equip students to deal with difficulty and obstacles? What “shields” do we give them to prepare for battle as they learn and grow and develop? Three protective factors connected to student strength and resilience may be the answer to helping kids develop the capacity to cope when things go so wrong: internal assets, external support and hopefulness for the future.

Internal assets: Students who recognize their internal assets and strengths can then use those strengths to help them during difficult times. For example, if a student realizes she is helpful to others or is a good friend, there is a good chance that in difficult or adverse circumstances/situations, she can use those skills (benevolence, helpfulness) to help her deal with her own feelings of despair, fear or sadness. After 9/11, almost everyone felt the need to be kinder, more helpful and more willing to reach out to others. In our darkest hour, we tried to soothe ourselves by reaching out to others. There is healing and resilience in using internal assets as transferable skills in difficult times.

A simple activity to help students identify their assets is to take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, and on one side write “Strengths” and on the other side write, “Ways this strength helps me cope.” Have the students identify internal strengths or talents they possess that could help during adverse times. Talk about how those strengths and talents transfer to various situations and how they can be useful when struggles arise.

External support: One of the most difficult things for some people, and especially young people, is to know when to ask for help. More specifically, students sometimes may know they can ask for help, but they don’t know who to ask or how to ask. One activity you can use is to ask students to make a list of all the people they can talk to about things in their life. Once they have made the list, have them write next to each name the type of problem or issue they can share with this person. It is important for students to have an arsenal of support so that as certain things happen in the world or in their lives, they can easily tap into the support systems they need at that time. Make sure students do not isolate themselves and that they reach out to others who can provide support and encouragement.

Hopefulness for the future: One the best ways to help students feel comforted or hopeful when times seem dark is to focus on the future. Giving them the feeling they have some control over what happens to them in the future gives them hopefulness. An activity you can do is to have students draw a horizontal line across a piece of paper. Starting with the present, have students indicate what they would like to have happen in their future from now until the “end of their story.” That is, have them identify their goals, what they want to achieve and what their life will look like for the rest of their lives. Then, go back and ask students to identify who has control over whether or not these events happen. Students will realize that despite anything that has happened in the past, as they become adults they have more control, and also more responsibility, over the success of their future.

Allowing students to visualize a positive future and goal achievement is the first step to getting them there. You may also want to discuss potential barriers to those goals with them so they realize the road to success may not be without bumps. Anticipating possible barriers and considering options to work around or through those barriers is an important conversation that reminds students the unexpected does happen. How we deal with the unexpected has a great deal to do with the likelihood of overcoming the unexpected.

Feeling Their Feelings
If students have emotional or extreme reactions to adversity, you shouldn’t view it as inappropriate. What is more concerning is the student who shows no affect. Because students today have had more access to visual images and information, they have seen and heard more and may be more desensitized to tragedy or adversity. You should encourage students to express their feelings of frustration or fear. If students stifle those feelings or seem numb to them, it is much more difficult to recognize and respond to those needs.

Encourage this by having students write or describe something that makes them angry, upset or hurt. Once they have identified something, have them talk about what they would like to do in this situation, based on their feelings. Talk about the consequences of those actions. For example, if a student says, “I’d want to hurt the bully who is hurting me,” discuss what the consequences of retaliation would be. Then, help the students come up with an alternative way to handle the feelings. Discuss the consequences of handling feelings in a more appropriate way – and a way that keeps them from getting into trouble.

We hope this generation of young students learns lessons of resilience from those who have gone before. One of the best ways you can help students develop greater resilience is to model it yourself. When students observe significant adults in their lives overreacting or acting out in inappropriate ways, they learn this is an acceptable response. Modeling effective and appropriate resilient behaviors is one way to teach students how to respond when crisis or adversity occurs.

Some quick tips for fostering resilience in students are:

• Acknowledge that what has happened is not fair and that it is tragic. It is OK to feel bad or sad because something bad has happened.
• Allow students to feel their feelings. It is when they are not feeling their feelings or expressing anything that the real problems may begin.
• Allow yourself to feel your feelings. One of the best ways students learn to cope with or handle difficulty is by observation. Seeing adults express emotions and exhibit healthy coping behaviors is reassuring for students.
• Try to see the glass half full. While tragedy and hardships are difficult to deal with, there is typically some positive that exists among the negative. Try to help students find the silver lining in the seemingly dark cloud.
• Maintain some sense of normalcy. Sometimes, it is difficult to get away from the media or the rumors when a tragedy occurs. It is helpful for students to have routine and to maintain some schedule or sense of normalcy to realize that despite everything, life does go on, and they will have to find a way to continue.
• Encourage students to give back” Engaging in activities that help others, particularly those who are affected by tragedy or crisis is a good way to help students deal with the negative impact of difficult life circumstances. Every child has a way to can give back, whether it is the gift of time, making contact with others or developing a project to help those in need. It is never to early for students to learn the intrinsic value of giving back.

The world, with all its wonder, is often scary. Events happen, tragedy occurs, and although sometimes it’s short-lived, sometimes it lingers. Regardless of the tragedy, you have the task of helping students feel hopeful and confident that the future is bright. As a catalyst for change and champion of hope, you can help students be resilient and look to the future with optimism and courage.

Tammy Davis, Ed.D., is a professor at Marymount University, Arlington, Va. She can be reached at drd4unc@aol.com.