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Building resilience in upper primary

This week at OLA, we were incredibly fortunate to have the brilliant Maggie Dent visit and speak to an audience of staff and parents. Her advice, tips, humour and real life examples of successful strategies and insights into children's ways of thinking were a delight.

One aspect that she talks about, building resilience, struck a chord with me as many of the students I have taught, struggle with self-confidence and can cause social issues due to a seeming inability to feel or act positively after small incidents. Often it's girls, but not always. Maggie's interview explains how we as educators, in partnership with parents, must constantly develop a child's ability to meet life's challenges and have the fortitude to persevere when things are difficult (Dent, 2011).

Yet, in my experience I have found it a sadly rare instance where a parent is happy for a teacher to allow a student to fully experience something difficult, a failure of friendship, or a failure of responsibility. It's not surprising that parents do not wish their children to experience these difficulties, no-one does, and because of the amazing love that parents feel for their children, there are times when that protection has actually protected them from learning about failure and its implications. So what's wrong with that? Well, as a consequence of regular rescuing, by the upper primary years, often students may not be equipped with the resilience required to encounter life's challenges with strength, confidence and the willingness to have another go.

One part of my job that I enjoy most is the same part that makes it the hardest - teaching responsibility to pre-teens. In ten years, there haven't been many students that I feel as though I didn't make a difference to (if only for the twelve months!) as far as bringing out their responsibility to themselves, their friends, belongings and the wider world. It's unfortunate for me sometimes to be able to identify when responsibility is being avoided; I do tend to recognise it in people pretty quickly. And it can be very hard and confronting to learn about what you are actually in control of, and what you're not.

In 5G we are working on recognising which parts of our small incidents are under our control, and which aren't. If a student is having a disagreement with another student, there is almost always a guarantee that both children are talking and acting in ways that protect themselves and serves a purpose in their world. An example may be the good old, "She said I can't play with her". When we dig a bit deeper into the problem, the student being refused may likely be engaging in play that either dominates or ostracises others - not arbitrarily, but because it may be how she feels safe, in control or how she has seen play organised before. We don't act villainously without cause or reason. We act in ways that fulfil some sort of need within us; for power or security or freedom etc. Glasser's Choice theory can support this.

And so, the challenge becomes, how to help both students see which parts they can take responsibility for, that friendships are not set in stone and neither is failure. Failure is an opportunity for persistence and can be character building. As a teacher of upper primaries I strive to use failure as an opportunity for dedicated support and guidance, not an indicator that someone needs a life raft. I tell them stories about small failures I have encountered and my subsequent choices and actions. That's the key; you can decide what you are going to do, it's hugely empowering. It can be the first step in becoming a resilient human.

If I can get this message through to my Yr 5 students, here's hoping they pay it forward.


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