Harvard University Graduate School of Education

The Science of Resilience

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When confronted with the fallout of childhood trauma, why do some children adapt and overcome, while others bear lifelong scars that flatten their potential? A growing body of evidence points to one common answer: Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed rela­tionship with a supportive adult.

The power of that one strong adult relationship is a key ingredient in resilience — a positive, adaptive response in the face of significant adversity — according to a new report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a multidisciplinary collaboration chaired by Harvard’s Jack Shonkoff. Understanding the centrality of that relationship, as well as other emerging findings about the science of resilience, gives policymakers a key lever to assess whether current programs designed to help disadvantaged kids are working.

“Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways,” says Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. “It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”

As a growing body of research is showing, the developing brain relies upon the consistent “serve and return” interactions that happen between a young child and a primary caregiver, the report says. When these interactions occur regularly, they provide the scaffolding that helps build “key capacities — such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate be­havior, and adapt to changing circumstances — that enable children to respond to adversity and to thrive,” the report continues. The developing brain is buffered by this feedback loop between biology and environment.

But in the absence of these responsive relationships, the brain’s architecture doesn’t develop optimally. The body perceives the absence as a threat and activates a stress response that — when prolonged — leads to physiological changes that affect the brain and overall systems of physical and mental health. The stress becomes toxic, making it more difficult for children to adapt or rebound.

The experiences of the subset of children who overcome adversity and end up with unexpectedly positive life outcomes are helping to fuel a new understanding of the nature of resilience — and what can be done to build it.

Here’s what the science of resilience is telling us, according to the council’s report:

  • Resilience is born from the interplay between internal disposition and external experience. It derives from supportive relationships, adaptive capacities, and positive experiences.
  • We can see and measure resilience in terms of how kids’ brains, immune systems, and genes all respond to stressful experiences.
  • There is a common set of characteristics that predispose children to positive outcomes in the face of ad­versity:
    • The availability of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and an adult caregiver.
    • A sense of mastery over life circumstances.
    • Strong executive func­tion and self-regulation skills.
    • The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions.
  • Learning to cope with manageable threats to our physical and social well-being is critical for the development of resilience.
  • Some children demonstrate greater sensitivity to both negative andpositive experiences.
  • Resilience can be situation-specific.
  • Positive and negative experiences over time continue to influence a child’s mental and physical development. Resilience can be built; it’s not an innate trait or a resource that can be used up.
  • People’s response to stressful experi­ences varies dramatically, but extreme adversity nearly always generates serious problems that require treatment.

Additional Resources:

  • Read Part II of our exploration of resilience, about the public policy implications of our new understanding of the science of resilience.
Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.

As director of the Center on the Developing Child, Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., is using the science of early childhood development to drive innovation in policy and practice, with the goal of transforming life outcomes for disadvantaged children and reducing the consequences of early adversity.

Where The Smart Kids Are

The Brilliant Blog, by Annie Murphy Paul

Friday, August 23, 2013

Note to Brilliant readers: What follows is my review of a new book by journalist Amanda Ripley, “The Smartest Kids In The World: And How They Got That Way.” The review will appear on the cover of this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. I found Ripley’s book to be powerful and persuasive reading, and thought I’d share my take on it with you.—Annie

“If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in “The Smartest Kids in the World,” may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. “American educators described Finland as a silky paradise,” she writes, “a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved.”

The appeal of these books, which include “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” “Bringing Up Bébé” and “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (excerpted in The Wall Street Journal under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”), comes from the opportunity to wallow enjoyably in envy and self-loathing — and then to close the cover, having changed nothing. We’re Americans, after all. We’re not really going to do it the Chinese way or the French way, superior as they may be.

But Ripley, a contributor to Time magazine and The Atlantic and an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation (where I am also a fellow), has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests — and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.

In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, “a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee.” Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim’s school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.

This is the first hint of how Finland does it: rather than “trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as we do, they ensure high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America. A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.

Kim soon notices something else that’s different about her school in Pietarsaari, and one day she works up the courage to ask her classmates about it. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” But now, she points out, “everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”

Rigor on steroids is what Ripley finds in South Korea, the destination of another of her field agents. Eric, who attended an excellent public school back home in Minnesota, is shocked at first to see his classmates in the South Korean city of Busan dozing through class. Some wear small pillows that slip over their wrists, the better to sleep with their heads on their desks. Only later does he realize why they are so tired — they spend all night studying at hagwons, the cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.

Ripley introduces us to Andrew Kim, “the $4 million teacher,” who makes a fortune as one of South Korea’s most in-demand hagwon instructors, and takes us on a ride-along with Korean authorities as they raid hagwons in Seoul, attempting to enforce a 10 p.m. study curfew. Academic pressure there is out of control, and government officials and school administrators know it — but they are no match for ambitious students and their parents, who understand that passing the country’s stringent graduation exam is the key to a successful, prosperous life.

Ripley is cleareyed about the serious drawbacks of this system: “In Korea, the hamster wheel created as many problems as it solved.” Still, if she had to choose between “the hamster wheel and the moon bounce that characterized many schools in the United States,” she would reluctantly pick the hamster wheel: “It was relentless and excessive, yes, but it also felt more honest. Kids in hamster-wheel countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder and do better. They were prepared for the modern world.” Not so American students, who are eased through high school only to discover, too late, that they lack the knowledge and skill to compete in the global economy.

The author’s third stop is Poland, a country that has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors. In the city of Wroclaw, Ripley meets up with Tom, a bookish teenager from Pennsylvania, and discovers yet another difference between the schools in top-performing countries and those in the United States. In Tom’s hometown high school, Ripley observes, sports were “the core culture.” Four local reporters show up to each football game. In Wroclaw, “sports simply did not figure into the school day; why would they? Plenty of kids played pickup soccer or basketball games on their own after school, but there was no confusion about what school was for — or what mattered to kids’ life chances.”

It’s in moments like these that Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.

For Best Results, Create a Partnership with Your Child’s Teachers

From the Huffington Post

Kyle Redford

Teacher, Marin Country Day School and Education Editor, Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity

When You Want To Fire Your Child’s Teacher

Posted: 06/05/2013

As the mother of a dyslexic son, I cannot count the number of times I’ve found myself crazy upset when my child would report feeling hurt or shamed or unfairly treated by a teacher. When teachers speak damaging words or make unfair decisions about our children, it can spur us into impassioned action. In most cases, action is good. But the nature of that action matters. It matters a lot.

Parents of children with complicated learning profiles frequently tell me stories of their children being incorrectly labeled lazy, careless or unintelligent. Hoping to leverage my teacher perspective, they ask for advice about how to respond to decisions they perceive as unfair. Often these conflicts are further complicated by their child’s retreat from school and loss of general confidence. The upset parent’s sense of urgency and frustration is understandable. However, after many years teaching I can say with certainty that venting at or sending snarky emails to a teacher — or, worse yet, taking frustrations to an administrator before talking directly to the teacher — is a mistake. At best, those responses will be ineffective. At worst, they can damage the very important relationship between teacher and student. Even when a teacher appears insensitive or disengaged, it is always in your child’s best interest to assume a teacher’s good intentions and channel your frustration into designing ways to support your child and teacher in the classroom. Here are six things you should do:

1. Advocate.

When a child first reports a problem with a teacher, try to assess the issue and see if there is a way to help them solve the misunderstanding or upsetting situation directly with that teacher. After hearing your child’s problem, consider asking the child to talk to his or her teacher about it. Children may need your help planning, practicing and previewing potential teacher responses. In particular, children in the early grades may need help communicating with their teachers about problems and/or challenges in the classroom. However, students are never too young to take their issues directly to their teachers.

Teachers are much more likely to extend assistance to a child who asks for it. When a child talks with his or her teacher, it gives the teacher an opportunity to better understand that child’s experience. Additionally, the child will be communicating that he or she is trying and cares about his or her work. Teachers will typically move mountains to help a student who makes an effort to talk to them. Through direct conversation, your child will be engaging the teacher on a personal level, and therefore a teacher will be more likely to employ a greater variety of measures to help him or her succeed.

2. Report.

You are the only one who knows if your child is staying up late to get work done, not having time to pursue other interests, or melting down out of frustration or humiliation. Don’t hide this information. Teachers can’t make adjustments if they don’t know the whole picture. Consider sending a nonjudgmental email or placing a phone call to let the teacher know what it looks like at home. Giving teachers a glimpse of what kind of adult support is required outside class also helps them adjust workload expectations. Let teachers know if your child requires books read aloud, papers transcribed or any other kind of heavy parental involvement.

3. Inquire.

As in conflicts of any kind, there are two sides. Before expressing any concerns, it is best to lead with curiosity when you speak to the teacher. Ask questions about your child’s situation before drawing any conclusions. It is likely that you will learn important information by listening and communicating respect for the teacher.

4. Recognize.

Teaching students with learning challenges is usually more labor-intensive. Anyone who denies this is probably being evasive. For example, dyslexic students can be challenging when their deficits require ongoing adjustments and accommodations in a regular classroom. But this difficulty is not necessarily due to the child’s lack of work ethic or intellectual curiosity — or an inability to understand the concepts. A teacher might have to identify how to teach spelling differently or help your child find adapted spelling strategies. In writing-intensive classes, a teacher may have to become your student’s scribe, figure out a way to get him or her composing on a keyboard or make adjustments related to time.

However, teachers (including myself) frequently say that students with learning challenges are some of the most satisfying students to teach. Having students who learn differently in one’s class also acts as a litmus test for best practices. Every student benefits from lessons that break concepts into smaller parts, connect to big ideas and have objectives that are transparent and thoroughly outlined. Students with learning differences cause teachers to reflect more deeply. Teachers have to wrestle with important questions like: “What am I really trying to teach with this activity?” They also have to distinguish between the skills they are asking the students to apply (i.e. handwriting or spelling) vs. skills that the activity intends to assess (i.e. inquiry skills or comprehension of information). Teachers frequently report that struggling students push them to improve and evolve their teaching practices.

5. Appreciate.

Teachers are human. A little appreciation goes a long way. Remembering to acknowledge special things they do for your child makes them much more likely to go out of their way again. Even if you feel like something is an entitlement or a basic expectation, resist communicating that. Showing appreciation for the teacher and exhibiting awareness that your child is not the only student in the class will go a long way toward establishing understanding. Teachers who feel appreciated are much more likely to put in the extra time and effort that may be critical to your child’s academic success.

6. Collaborate.

When possible, offer support that will make the teacher’s job easier: gather information, help your child stay organized, provide a supportive environment for homework and support school policies and classroom rules. These actions will extend support to your child’s teacher while building invaluable goodwill.

Finally, a confession: as much as I care about all my students, I still possess blind spots and occasionally I make decisions that unintentionally cause them distress. Therefore, I need and welcome thoughtful feedback from parents and students in my class. Next time you find yourself strategizing about how to fire your child’s flawed teacher, consider exploring ways to strengthen the partnership between home and school instead. Your child will be much better served.

“Ask the Teachers”


Here’s an interesting article from Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, a local clinical psychologist and parenting expert, on the value of gathering information from teachers prior to the conclusion of the school year

Ask the Teachers

Now that school is winding down, many parents are assessing how successful this year has been–for example, how well their kids performed, what went smoothly, and what they hope will be better next year. When kids have struggled academically, socially, or behaviorally, mothers and fathers often have nagging questions: Should they be concerned, or are they just expecting too much? Do students have the skills they need for the next grade? Should kids work on improving their weaknesses during the summer? As you know, by the time students are in middle school and, especially, in high school, it is harder for parents to know what is really going on and to get answers to these sorts of questions.

If you have found yourself in this situation, you know that without definitive information you’re left to do a lot of speculating: “Maybe it was all the absences from the flu…,” “She just didn’t get along with her teachers this year,” “Not making varsity basketball killed his confidence…” In desperation, you may also turn to friends or relatives you think will be knowledgeable, only to become more confused by conflicting or unwise advice. In the past, maybe you decided to just wait and see how things went the following school year.

But I’m proposing an alternative. Before school empties for the summer, why not take advantage of an invaluable resource: The teachers and guidance counselors who have gotten to know your teen or tween best during the past school year? When I observe students in school or attend school meetings, I am continually impressed by teachers’ insights. By reaching out, you might tap into a wealth of information that can either reassure you or guide you in how best to help your child.

Why Ask Educators

In my experience, teachers and guidance counselors are the exact right people to whom you should turn with your questions and concerns because they are:

Objective. A close family friend, aunt, or grandparent is hardly able to offer an objective view. Chances are, they will jump at the chance to champion your teen and assure you that you’re worried for nothing (“she’ll outgrow it,” “many teens go through this,” “my own son was like that, and look how he turned out”). The problem with these comforting words is that they may be based solely on the fact that these people adore your child–and you–and therefore desperately hope that everything is okay. Teachers, on the other hand, can offer neutral, matter-of-fact answers to your questions.

Knowledgeable. Because teachers have spent part of every single school day with your teens, they have had ample opportunity to get to know them. Just because high school and middle school teachers spend less time with students compared to their elementary school counterparts, you should not discount their insights. Just recently, a high school sophomore told me that her teacher asked her why she suddenly started sitting in the back of the classroom and stopped participating. When Jasmine confessed that three girls were publicly humiliating and systematically ostracizing her from her social group, her teacher not only initiated an intervention with the teens, but also added lessons on bullying and bystanders to her curriculum.

Able to observe progress over time. Because they’ve seen your kids for a period of ten months or more, teachers are in the best position to say whether they improved over the year, held their own, or are demonstrating an ever-widening gap between their skills and those of their classmates. Teachers can describe your tween’s struggle to keep up with the pace of work or the content of the curriculum. They can suggest what your student can work on over the summer. Educators can also recommend placements for the upcoming year.

Able to offer broad perspectives. As you think about whether your teen’s issues are typical, you probably compare only to siblings, cousins, or family friends. Teachers, on the other hand, work with dozens of students every year of similar ages and educational backgrounds. Now multiply this number by the number of years they’ve been teaching and their reference group expands to the hundreds or thousands.

Educators also can see the bigger picture: how your child fits into the context of her entire class and the overall grade. Recently, a guidance counselor assured the anxious mother of a late blooming eighth grade boy that he would do fine in high school because he was not alone; there were many boys like James in this particular class. Knowing whether the school perceives your student’s struggles as typical or unusual can be the first step in figuring out whether there is an issue to be addressed and, if so, what you might do about it. If summer tutoring is needed, teachers may be available themselves or make referrals to their colleagues.

What to Ask

The most common questions parents have are about their kids’ academic progress. Report cards give some information about mastery of subjects, but they rarely tell the whole story. Did your child perform differently on the various components that made up her grade, such as tests and quizzes, homework completion, projects, and class participation? How were his work habits, level of organization, and preparedness for class?

Teachers can give you insight into your child’s behavior in the classroom, as well. What have they observed this year? Does your tween seem to know when he needs help? Can she ask questions and seek additional help appropriately? Does your teen respond well to criticism? How do kids work within groups and use unstructured time? It might give you additional clues if you learn that your child’s teachers see him as similarly as an engaged and conscientious learner–or if she blurts out answers impulsively in, say, Spanish but not in her other core subjects.

If you have concerns about how your teen is doing socially and emotionally, don’t hesitate to ask what she’s like at school. Many parents wonder whether their kids seem generally happy and comfortable with their friends at the lunch table. They would give anything to be the proverbial fly on the wall to see if the monosyllabic teen who lives in their home actually has fun and laughs in school. This is your chance to find out. Teachers can essentially be your eyes. Does your son sit only with his teammates in the cafeteria, or does he branch out? Is your daughter still walking with her head down in the hallway?

What you learn may be unexpectedly illuminating. For example, it was only when Marni’s mother found out from her guidance counselor that she often asked to go to the nurse during math, but not in other classes, that she became aware of an escalating conflict between her daughter and this particular teacher.

How to Get Information

Once kids are in middle school, they usually have teams of teachers. So it’s harder for parents to know who to ask. Most often, it is best to direct questions through your teen’s guidance counselor, who can email her team of teachers to gather information. Or, you can contact one or two teachers directly if circumstances warrant–for example, if your student has had difficulty in that subject, formed a strong relationship with the teacher or, conversely complained about anything throughout the year.

Because teachers are extremely busy, perhaps send an initial email and find out whether they prefer to email you back or to schedule a brief phone conversation. Make sure to convey to any teachers you contact that you welcome their honest feedback and will be open to their suggestions. Otherwise, I find that many educators are reluctant to speak candidly with parents; they are understandably hesitant about how their concerns will be received.

To get unbiased information, ask clear, open-ended questions. For example, how does the teacher describe your son’s strengths and weaknesses? Should any skill deficits be addressed over the summer or next year? If you want to know if your child has been affected by a stressful life event, ask his teachers if they have seen a change within a certain time frame. For example, to learn whether her daughter’s trial of new medication had been effective, the mother of a 7th grader asked the guidance counselor to survey her team of teachers to ask about her behavior during the previous two weeks.

Because the end of the school year is extremely busy for educators, be extra respectful of their time. Don’t wait until they are headed off for summer vacation to approach them, and make it easy for teachers or guidance counselors to respond to your questions. Of course, it is always thoughtful to express your appreciation not only for the teachers’ input about your teen or tween, but also for their efforts throughout the year.

Original article

About Roni Cohen-SandlerDr. Roni Cohen-Sandler is a clinical psychologist specializing in parenting; the issues of women and adolescent girls, mother-daughter relationships; and neuropsychological assessments (e.g., for learning difficulties, attention disorders, etc.). Described as an energizing, humorous, and inspiring speaker, she presents lectures and workshops to public and private schools, community organizations, hospitals, corporations, and universities. She is the author of three books, including the national best-seller I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You! , Trust Me, Mom–Everyone Else is Going! and her most recent, Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure.Dr. Cohen-Sandler is a frequent expert for national media, appearing on The Today Show, Good Morning America, NPR, and Oprah. She has been quoted in publications such as Newsweek, The New York Times, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, Marie Claire, Better Homes and Gardens, Seventeen, Parenting, Teen People, Family Circle, Teen Vogue, Redbook, Working Mother, and Glamour.