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On topic . . . Waimataitai Primary School principal Jane Culhane looked at the resilience of young people during her sabbatical. PHOTO: GRETA YEOMAN

by Greta Yeoman

Promoting the importance of resilience in young people was the aim of a term’s work for Waimataitai Primary School principal Jane Culhane.

Miss Culhane took a study sabbatical in term 2, completing a research paper on the importance of early intervention to build children’s resilience.

“What I’ve noticed over the years an increasing lack of resilience in a lot of children.”

So she decided to look at research regarding ways of building children’s abilities to cope with stressors, trauma or even tricky day-to-day tasks.

“Children do not need to know all these adult issues.”

“[This] ensures when the tough stuff comes along, they can cope.”

One recurring theme was the importance of a child having a strong relationship with at least one consistent, reliable adult.

“[They can] help them work through it.”

“Early intervention is . . . potential prevention.”

She said even children that had undergone trauma early in their short lives coped better if they had a supportive, trustworthy adult who could support them.

This had been demonstrated by a New Zealand study that had looked at the coping abilities of children in care, and how they reacted differently and coped better if they had a trusted adult in their lives to listen to and support them, Miss Culhane said.

“It all comes down to communication and relationships.”

In a school situation this was about encouraging pupils to acknowledge and understand the emotions they were feeling, as well as focusing on positive words about themselves and others.

“It all comes down
to communication
and relationships.”

This was particularly important as often the harshest, negative words could be in “the little script in our heads”.

In a wider community context, continuing conversations about mental health helped people of all ages become more comfortable with expressing and understanding how they were feeling, she said.

Another university study undertaken by the university’s students had involved half of them writing down what they had done each day, while the other half were asked to only list three positives from their day, Miss Culhane said.

The study found that even while it was in the depths of winter (which is known to affect people’s moods) those that listed three positive experiences had a more positive mindset at the end of the project.

Jane Culhane

Miss Culhane said a lot of children were also worried about “the big stuff” like natural disasters or other world news.

“Children do not need to know all these adult issues.”

“That impacts on their anxiety.”

Teaching problem-solving skills (rather than giving up on something) would also benefit them in the long run.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said of her study findings.

“But all schools will say they’ve seen kids who don’t know what to do [when they get overwhelmed].”

Other easy ways of building resilience included “simply being grateful” and acknowledging the good things in life, using simple breathing techniques when stressed – a deep breath gives you more oxygen and enables you to think more clearly – and rather than “I can’t do it” thinking “I can’t do it . . . yet”, Miss Culhane said.

Perseverance, not giving up and aiming for goals were part of being resilient even when a task or experience seemed impossible to work through, she said.

“[We are] setting kids up for better mental health later.”