Tag Archives: resilience

Teaching control to build resilience (OR what we’ve learned from marshmallows)

MarshmallowsIf you placed a marshmallow on a plate and put it in front of your child, with the promise that they will get a second marshmallow if they can wait 15 minutes before eating it, what do you think they would do? Turns out their response to this challenge may well be able to predict their future SAT scores, likelihood of finishing a university degree and even how competent they will be as adults.

A late 1960s study at Stanford by Walter Mischel used this exact scenario to see how well 4-6-year-olds were able to delay gratification. Footage taken of the children when the researcher left the room offers a poignant window into the complex mind of children: about a third of the kids ate the marshmallow right away, sometimes gobbling down the whole plate of treats from which is was offered. Others stared mournfully at the sugary treat, covered their eyes so they wouldn’t have to look at it, banged their heads on the table, pulled fretfully on their ponytails, stroked it like a stuffed animal.

In one variation on the experiment with an Oreo cookie, a little boy twists the cookie apart, eats the creamy filling and replaces it on the plate with a look of smug satisfaction (New York Times columnist David Brooks speculates in his book, The Social Animal, that this child probably grew up to be a U.S. senator).

About one-third of the children were somehow able to resist temptation for the full 15 minutes, and were rewarded with a second marshmallow for their self-control. Interesting to know, but not that helpful.

The really cool part came about 10 years later. The researcher had used his daughters’ nursery school classmates as his research subjects, and as they all got older, he idly followed up on their successes in high school. What he learned from casual conversations with his daughters prompted a full-scale follow-up research project with as many of the original 653 participants as he could reach.

It turned out that the “low delayers” (the kids who couldn’t wait the 15 minutes) had a significantly higher rate of behavioral problems in school and out, struggled in stressful situations, had trouble maintaining friendships and had lower SAT scores than their more self-disciplined counterparts. The kids who could successfully delay gratification in the experiment had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than the others.

Mischel continued to follow this set of kids into adulthood. By their early 30’s, they found that the kids who had been unable to exercise self-control with the marshmallows were more likely than the controlled kids to have weight problems in adulthood, and to have had problems with drugs.

What is it about control that’s so important? We know it is frequently cited as one of the important elements of resilience (see here for a post on coping and here for a post on connection). The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that “when children realize that they can control their decisions and actions, they’re more likely to know that they have what it takes to bounce back.”

So control is also related to competence and confidence. But it’s also about thinking creatively and critically, repressing immediate desires for a longer term goal. Dr. Mischel told the New Yorker magazine:

“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or  self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task  forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the  second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we  can control how we think about it.”

When the researchers looked closely to see how the children who successfully deferred their desire to gobble up the marshmallow managed it, they discovered these kids strategically refocused their attention away from the treat. They covered their eyes, they sang the Sesame Street theme song or pretended to play hide and seek. The key was not focusing on how delicious the marshmallow was. They’d somehow learned that it is very difficult to resist the object of your attention.

And this resistance to recklessness transfers to other things too. If you can resist spending all your time on Facebook or World of Warcraft, you can study for your SATs. If you can avoid binge drinking and partying every weekend, you’ll be better able to get into law school (and less likely to become an alcoholic). You can put aside money for a down payment on a house or your retirement savings account, rather than indulging in new clothes, vacations or a flat screen television. And so it goes.

Self-control is regarded as a critical factor for success in school; it is often seen as a more important indicator of academic performance than intelligence tests. When psychology professor Angela Lee Duckworth gave 8th graders a choice between a dollar right now and two dollars the following week, she found that the ability to delay gratification was a far better predictor of higher test scores than IQ scores.

Mischel has found that it is possible to teach kids some simple tricks to exercise self-control on experiments like the marshmallow one. If they are taught to imagine that the candy is made of plastic and not really edible or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud, the same kids who didn’t last 30 seconds could now wait the full 15 minutes.

These kind of strategies are unconsciously taught by parents who ask for occasional demonstrations of self-control by their kids. For example, my husband insists that no one in our family may begin to eat until everyone has sat down at the table. That can be mighty hard when you are little and hungry. Or else they are brought into a toy store to select a present for a friend, but nothing for themselves. Or perhaps they ask for a toy and are told they must wait for their birthday or for Christmas. Or they are told not to snack before dinner.

Through these small acts of measured self-denial, kids begin to learn that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your thoughts and attention (which is why regularly giving in to that temper tantrum in a toy store or at the candy display in the grocery store checkout may be a bad idea with much longer term consequences than you imagine).

But Mischel sees these sly acts of cognitive training as not quite enough, especially since there are big differences in how kids from different socio-economic classes are taught self-control. He told The New Yorker magazine:

“We should give marshmallows to every kindergartener,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’  ”

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Building resilience (part 2): How to give your kids a sense of connection

We spent this past weekend on a whirlwind trip to New York and Connecticut to visit my niece and two nephews. With all the holidays, school events and work obligations, it can be really difficult to find a mutually convenient time to go, so even though it meant a lot of driving for a Friday night to Sunday evening visit, we decided to just go for it.

My brother and sister-in-law’s children are still really little (3 1/2, 2 and 5 months) but the older two are now able to recognize and remember their cousins, and my girls are eager to bond with the only first cousins they have in North America, so we’ve committed to making the most of this connection where we can.

We arrived in New York at 2 a.m. on Saturday, but had the girls up and ready for a great day at the Bronx Zoo with their little cousins. They held hands, played games, sang songs and cuddled the baby. We joined them for a fundraising walk on the beautiful Connecticut shore for their local special needs provider on Sunday morning and then made the long trek back to Montreal on Sunday afternoon and evening, getting them to bed at 11:15 p.m. on a school night.

Despite the late hours and lack of sleep, my girls were absolutely delighted by the weekend away. They loved that their two-year-old cousins knows their names, and that they could sing along with him and his big sister. They particularly enjoyed spoon-feeding and holding their baby cousin.

It was worth every hour of that drive to nurture that connection.

Connection to family is only one kind of connection, of course, but it’s potentially the most powerful one there is. And we know that connection is one of the 7 C’s of Resilience, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (the others are coping, control, confidence, competence, character and contribution).

A connection to trusted people, especially adults, gives kids a sense of stability, enables them to feel loved  and appreciation (and to express love and appreciation themselves). This sense of belonging is a key part of resilience, because it helps kids face adversity and overcome challenges. They know they are part of a bigger picture of support. When they feel the security that comes from strong connection, they may be more likely test themselves and try new things. They can build the other C’s of resilience, like confidence and competence.

In addition to family, kids can also develop connection with their school, their local communities, their synagogue, church, mosque or temple or other community groups like Cub Scouts and Girl Guides. Big Brother and Big Sister programs are great examples of connection building for kids who might not have access to enough trusted adults in their own families or neighbourhoods.

So how do we help our kids build connection? Well, first of all, we need to give them opportunities and time to do so  — creating family rituals and traditions, taking part in community activities, planning a block party to get to know your neighbours, or becoming involved in their school.

Connection means seeking out the linkages that are meaningful and trust-worthy to you as a family and to them as individuals. It means listening to them when they talk, and responding to what they say with are and attention.

It also means letting them hold up their end of the connection, so that they too get to express love, appreciation, time and whatever talents, skills or interests they might have. That can be feeding a baby cousin, participating in a school fundraiser or going camping with the local Cub Scout troupe.

And while parents needn’t be implicated in every one of these connections (especially as kids get older and seek to nourish new connections of their own), we can and should be supportive of the ones they make.

There are some things kids can never get too much of: love, security, affection, dignity. And when it comes to forging connections, there is no such thing as too much belonging. Which is why I will cherish the memory of my girls and their cousins cuddling together for the few brief hours they get to see each other several times a year.

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Teaching kids good coping strategies to build resilience

http://www.everystockphoto.com/photo.php?imageId=10002466&searchId=b16b5b88c58f6e338a305cd1dc15d45b&npos=67Why do some kids grow up in two-parent homes with all the apparent support and advantages a child could need, yet still end up making poor choices that lead them to problems with drugs, alcohol or other high-risk behaviors? Conversely, why do some kids come from broken homes, dysfunctional families or communities dealing with alcohol and drugs, and yet are still able to resist the pull of these activities?

While each individual case may be different, experts often point to the complex notion of resilience to explain the qualities that enable some kids to navigate safely through the pitfalls of high-risk activities, while others seem to inexplicably fall through the cracks.

When I teach workshops about risk prevention, I always make a point of covering what the American Academy of Pediatrics calls the “The 7 C’s of Resilience.” These seven points (competence, confidence, connection, character, control, coping and contribution) cover the key elements that kids need to deal with the challenges that life throws their way.

Knowing these qualities are part of resilience is only part of the battle; the key question is how to build on them so each child is best positioned to make healthy choices for themselves during their teen years and into adulthood. In my workshops, I focus in on specific strategies parents and teachers can use at different ages to build these qualities with kids. Ideally, building resilience is something we want to begin when kids are very young, but it’s never too late to start.

But while all of them are important, the academic literature on resilience is particularly emphatic about the importance of good coping strategies. Coping strategies make the difference between a kid who crumples in tears at the first sign of adversity and the child who is able to deal with the stress and figure out how to move forward to some kind of resolution.

It’s what all parents hope our kids can do. But that isn’t always the case.

As a university professor, I occasionally met kids with poor coping skills. Many of these kids don’t even make it to college, but often enough mom or dad hovered in the background waiting to pick up the pieces and help make everything OK. But parents don’t come to university classes, and they don’t micromanage their grown up children’s class schedules the way they might have in high school.

So when someone fails a test, or hands in an assignment late without any good excuse, or misses some important administrative deadline, the students with poor coping skills just can’t cope. They either blame it on someone else (sometimes that was me, their professor), fall apart in my office or drop or fail the class.  They didn’t know how to process the stress of a demanding university program, or they couldn’t deal with the demands of a part-time job, or their romantic partners broke up with them. Or they partied too hard and it took a toll on their schoolwork.

The kind of stuff life throws at everyone is just too much for some people.

So what do coping skills look like and how do we teach them? Turns out that there are different kinds of coping, and they aren’t all equal. Passive coping skills are things like escapism and distraction: turning to television, video games or alcohol to get our minds off the crap we might be dealing with at school or at work. But while parking our brains at an occasional episode of Glee or an hour of World of Warcraft (or even a nice glass of wine, if we are over 18) isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t actually help us work through the stress we have waiting for us when the TV or computer click off.

What we need to rely on more often is active coping, which are strategies that help us actively process the physical and emotional stress that is part of life. These are things like talking with friends or family, writing in a journal, playing an instrument, going for a run or shooting some hoops at the park. It can be playing a sport (though the stress of competition may become part of the problem for some). It can be writing angst-filled songs or complex lines of computer programming, doing yoga or pitching a ball against the garage door.

Active coping strategies involve thinking, even if it isn’t about the stressors themselves. They can involve creative or physical activity that helps work through pent-up frustration. They can involve cathartic expressions of emotion, even if they are not directly related to any specific problem. They may or may not include laughter, tears, anger and sweat.

Active coping helps people think more clearly, so they can eventually turn their refreshed attention to the issues at hand.

We can teach little kids active coping strategies by literally talking them through problems they might face, whether it’s rivalry with a sibling, difficulties making friends, dealing with a teacher or learning how to multiply. We can help them discover their own outlets for their frustration and give them a place to be creative. What we shouldn’t do is always turn on the TV or turn on the computer and get lost in the pixels of virtual play.

Most importantly, we need to model these active coping strategies for them. If we constantly lose our tempers, turn to alcohol or gambling or the television when life gets tough, we are showing them how to handle their own problems. And our kids are paying very close attention.

So if your child comes home from school in a foul mood, and they don’t want to talk about it, you might not want to push it. Depending on their age, you might suggest a walk together, whip up a batch of cookies or let them go up to their room and talk it through with their friends. But encourage them to do something.

As an investment in our children, teaching resilience has a guaranteed payoff.

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