Do you, for example, crumble and rock in a corner or take a deep cleansing breath and deal with the problem in a calm and structured way? We all respond to stress differently and our reaction is usually linked to influences from our own home, family and schooling lives. We know that lack of sleep or food and a build-up of stresses can cause us to respond in different ways as well, so we try to ensure we have routine in our lives and are kind to ourselves.
It is important that we recognise our own emotional resilience before we start thinking about the children in our care because they will be watching us when we are faced with tricky situations and emotional pain and learning from our responses. Of course, we don’t care for children in a vacuum – they learn from their home, family and, where relevant, other setting lives as well.
Emotional resilience is closely related to children’s brain development because stress causes the brain to react in different ways. These reactions are often observed to be linked to attention, problem solving, impulse control and regulating emotion. For example, a child who is under stress cannot sit and concentrate or solve problems effectively and may dash head first into a new situation without considering the consequences; they will also often react with strong and sometimes destructive emotions.
Very young children who are learning to walk and talk will not be able to express their anxieties and fears. They might, for example, hear or see something that frightens or worries them at home or in the setting and be unable to express it in words or signs. This can lead to their behaviour changing, loss of sleep and general failure to thrive. When they are little and cannot tell us what is wrong with them, it is up to parents and practitioners to unpick what is happening and support them. Routines are especially important for little ones – they need to know when they will be fed and held and that there is a safe, cosy, warm and quiet place to sleep at the end of the day.
Toddlers are, by necessity, egocentric. They do not think about the needs of others – it’s all about them and what they need to happen – now! We should plan lots of activities such as modelling how to respond to others and how to work through problems, puppet play, feelings fans, role play, emotions games, turn taking and sharing, books and storytelling etc as we focus on their personal, social and emotional development. The 3 prime areas link together – children’s health and self-care needs must be met before they can join in with group activities - they need to move around and be physically active before they can sit still – they need to listen before they can join in with storytelling.
When children reach school starting age, they should have learned about the needs of others and understand the ‘social order’ of playing in a group. It is important that children are protected from arguments and fighting – children who witness, for example, domestic abuse may become aggressive and display anti-social behaviour. There will be some children who struggle with emotional resilience in the pre-school years and need extra support to help them prepare for life in a busy classroom.
Executive function is also connected to resilience – children need secure routines, good friendships and strong key person relationships because these are all essential for building executive functioning skills. For example, if a child has a chaotic home and family life they will often find it harder to behave well in a group setting because they may not have a good sleep pattern, regular meals or know who is going to be in the house when they get home - these home concerns will mean they may become anxious or overwhelmed during the day.
Executive function is closely linked to working memory (how much you remember when you are engaged in activities), flexible thinking (considering different ways to tackle a problem) and self-control (what the experts call inhibitory control). We have all seen children who arrive in a setting after a difficult time at home unable to concentrate, think things through or stop themselves from shouting out or hurting others.
To build executive function, children need to learn how to recognise the stress or problem, pause for a moment, think through their options and choose the one which is most appropriate for the situation. In many cases, they need to work through this process quickly which they will struggle to do if they are tired, hungry or stressed – can you see how it all links together?
Emotional resilience works alongside executive function to help children deal with and recover from stressful situations and find a solution in a calm and measured way. One way we can model executive function is by talking through how we, as adults, deal with stressful situations – for example, you might say out loud – ‘oh, this is tricky, how am I going to deal with it, let me think. First let me stop and take a breath and then I will…’ Similarly, we can model emotional resilience by, for example, suggesting ways of handling stressful situations such as blowing bubbles, taking a breath or going somewhere quiet to read a book when they are feeling overwhelmed.
To support children's emotions, some settings have a quiet place for children to sit and chill if they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed – this can be especially useful first thing in the morning when they arrive in the setting and at transition times if they are struggling to wait. With support from a trained practitioner, yoga can be a useful tool for helping children develop emotional resilience as well – sitting quietly, listening to your body and stretching out are all activities shown to reduce stress.
We also need to ensure children learn how to deal with risky situations – such as being rebuffed when they ask to play in a group. This is a very risky activity for many children who struggle to approach other children or who cannot manage their emotions when told ‘no’. It is also important to teach children essential life skills, for example, cleaning up after themselves, cooking and being independent.
Chat soon, Sarah