“Early experience has a great impact on the baby’s physiological systems, because they are so unformed and delicate. In particular, there are certain biochemical systems which can be set in an unhelpful way if early experience is problematic; both the stress response, as well as other neuropeptides of the emotional system can be adversely affected. Even the growth of the brain itself, which is growing at its most rapid rate in the first year and a half, may not progress adequately if the baby doesn’t have the right conditions to develop. Like a plant seedling, strong roots and good growth depend on environmental conditions, and this is most evident in the human infant’s emotional capacities which are the least hard-wired in the animal kingdom, and the most influenced by experience.”
An extract from Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt, Page 19
So what can happen if some children grow up with disadvantages e.g. in homes where they are exposed to mentally ill, alcoholic, abusive or criminally involved parents or poverty stricken’? Some of these children may be adversely affected; have poor social and emotional development, be at risk of poor relationships with peers, academic problems, later involvement in crime and developing physical health and adult mental-health problems, whilst others can adapt and transform their lives because they have ‘resilience’ e.g.
Inherited, genetic components (nature) plus experience and learning (nurture).
'Resilience' in children is that capacity to successfully overcome personal vulnerabilities and environmental stressors, to be able to 'bounce back' in the face of potential risks, and to maintain wellbeing. Resilient children show abilities to manage and thrive in the face of adversity and we can help children develop resilience by ‘exposing’ them to ‘protective factors’.
The presence of at least one caring person - someone who conveys an attitude of compassion, who understands that no matter how awful a child's behaviour, the child is doing the best he or she can given his or her experience - provides support for healthy development and learning.
‘Protective factors’ and fostering resilience is primarily done by establishing relationships of trust, good communication and by being approachable.
Families play an important role in providing protective factors by consistency in parenting role models, being supportive and available when needed, providing a harmonious living environment, having strong beliefs and standards of behaviour, and celebrating and valuing important life stages, such as birthdays.
Schools and teachers can make significant contributions in offering external protective factors. Such schools are characterised by being caring, attentive and stable environments and which acknowledge and are supportive about personal difficulties, effort, achievements, including sporting, musical and artistic, as well as academic. They show genuine personal interest in students and have teachers who are positive role models and mentors.
By schools creating ‘the right environment’, respectful/supportive teacher-pupil relationships, by promoting emotional literacy, effective communication and problem solving, both the teacher, children can become more resilient and develop better relationships in and out of school, autonomy, a purposeful, constructive and optimistic outlook on the future.
Caring teacher-student relationships are a source of support for children wanting to succeed, especially when traditional structures providing care have deteriorated.
People within a school setting sometimes undervalue the role they play in creating and providing protective factors for building resilience in children; either as supportive individuals or the general nature of their schools as caring institutions.
And yet research covering more than 40 years, found that, among the most frequently encountered positive role models in the lives of resilient children, outside of the family circle, was a favourite teacher who was not just an ‘instructor for academic skills’ for the youngsters but also a confidant and positive model for personal identification. An articulated, caring relationship with a teacher gives youth the motivation for wanting to succeed. It is obvious that children will work harder and do things...for people they respect and trust.
Resilience is undoubtedly built through dynamic relationships with others e.g. teachers and the quality of the school milieu and not via specific aspects of the school life and context, viz. academic success and good conduct on the part of students i.e. 'They've either got it or they haven't, it's part of their nature'.