Trend: School-based programs to enhance resilience and emotional/ cognitive flexibility


Dozens of pro­grams to encour­age resilience have been intro­duced in schools all over the world, both to help chil­dren recov­er from trau­ma, but also cope bet­ter with their day-to-day stress­es. Many use tech­niques such as ‘mind­ful­ness’, which some claim can fos­ter a stronger state of mind. Mean­while, researchers have been study­ing adults who have thrived under severe stress to try and iden­ti­fy what it takes to be tru­ly resilient. Can you real­ly teach peo­ple to be men­tal­ly tougher?

For sci­en­tists the con­cept of psy­cho­log­i­cal resilience began in the 1970s with stud­ies of chil­dren who did fine – or even well in life – despite sig­nif­i­cant ear­ly adver­si­ty, such as pover­ty or fam­i­ly vio­lence. For a long time a person’s lev­el of resilience was thought to be inher­it­ed or acquired in ear­ly life. This idea was sup­port­ed by the often-repli­cat­ed sta­tis­tics on what hap­pens after a trau­ma: while most peo­ple bounce back to nor­mal rel­a­tive­ly quick­ly, and some even report feel­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly stronger after­wards than they did before, about 8% devel­op post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der, accord­ing to US figures.

Den­nis Char­ney at the Icahn School of Med­i­cine at Mount Sinai, New York City and Steven South­wick at the Yale School of Med­i­cine have avid­ly stud­ied peo­ple to find out why some are more resilient than others.

Extreme stress

Peo­ple whose bod­ies respond rapid­ly to a threat – with a surge of the stress hor­mones adren­a­line, nora­dren­a­line and cor­ti­sol – but who then recov­er quick­ly seem to cope bet­ter with stress­ful sit­u­a­tions and jobs, such as work­ing in the military.

More resilient peo­ple also seem to be bet­ter at using the hor­mone dopamine – which has a role in the brain’s reward sys­tem – to help keep them pos­i­tive dur­ing stress. Researchers work­ing with US Spe­cial Forces sol­diers have found that the amount of activ­i­ty in the reward sys­tems of the sol­diers’ brains remained high when they lost mon­ey in an exper­i­men­tal game, unlike in the brains of reg­u­lar civil­ian vol­un­teers. This sug­gests the sys­tem in resilient people’s brains may be less affect­ed by stress or adver­si­ty. Each of the sol­diers’ brains also fea­tured a health­ily large hip­pocam­pus (which as well as enabling the for­ma­tion of new mem­o­ries also helps reg­u­late the release of the fight-or-flight hor­mone adren­a­lin) and a strong­ly active pre­frontal cor­tex, the brain region dubbed ‘the seat of ratio­nal think­ing’. This in turn helps inhib­it the amyg­dala, the part of the brain that process­es neg­a­tive emo­tions such as fear and anger, allow­ing the pre­frontal cor­tex to come up with a sen­si­ble plan to cope with a threat.

Through their research, Char­ney and South­wick have iden­ti­fied 10 psy­cho­log­i­cal and social fac­tors that they think make for stronger resilience, either alone or ide­al­ly in combination:

  • fac­ing fear
  • hav­ing a moral compass
  • draw­ing on faith
  • using social support
  • hav­ing good role models
  • being phys­i­cal­ly fit
  • mak­ing sure your brain is challenged
  • hav­ing ‘cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al flexibility’
  • hav­ing ‘mean­ing, pur­pose and growth’ in life
  • real­is­tic’ optimism.

Char­ney and South­wick are con­vinced that it is pos­si­ble to devel­op these 10 fac­tors, and that this can lead to a pos­i­tive change for gen­er­al­ly healthy peo­ple in their abil­i­ty to cope not just with a major trau­ma, but also with the day-to-day stress­es of life. One tech­nique, in par­tic­u­lar, might help peo­ple with this devel­op­ment. Until recent­ly this tech­nique was rel­a­tive­ly obscure. Now it’s every­where: mindfulness.

Mind­ful­ness has its ori­gins in the Zen Bud­dhist tra­di­tion, but its cen­tral ideas – involv­ing atten­tion and aware­ness – are sec­u­lar. A mod­ern expla­na­tion is that it means pay­ing atten­tion, on pur­pose, in the present moment and non-judg­men­tal­ly, to the unfold­ing of expe­ri­ence, moment to moment.

Mindful practice

Lantieri believes that mind­ful­ness and oth­er fun­da­men­tal stress-reduc­ing strate­gies are vital foun­da­tions for the kinds of changes Char­ney talks about. “Many of the fac­tors he men­tions are inter­nal strengths that can be cul­ti­vat­ed through mind­ful­ness – such as cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al flex­i­bil­i­ty or fac­ing fear. We can’t just tell peo­ple that it’s bet­ter to face their fear with­out help­ing them fig­ure out how,” she says.

Meditation School StudentsLantieri’s is one of the longest-run­ning ‘resilience-build­ing’ pro­grams for schools, but it isn’t the only one out there. The con­cept of resilience – both in schools and beyond the class­room – is a hot one. In Feb­ru­ary 2014 a UK cross-par­ty gov­ern­ment group pro­duced a report call­ing for schools to pro­mote “char­ac­ter and resilience”. May 2014 saw the launch of an all-par­ty group to explore the poten­tial for mind­ful­ness in edu­ca­tion, as well as in health and crim­i­nal justice.

Mark Williams, direc­tor of the Oxford Mind­ful­ness Cen­tre at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford, is the joint-devel­op­er of a tech­nique for treat­ing depres­sion called mind­ful­ness-based cog­ni­tive ther­a­py. It involves encour­ag­ing patients to be aware of their thoughts and to accept them, with­out judge­ment. Research shows that it may be as effec­tive as drugs at cut­ting the chances of a per­son who’s expe­ri­enced one episode of major depres­sion from suf­fer­ing another.

And Mar­tin Selig­man (some­times dubbed the ‘father of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy’) and a team at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia have devel­oped the Penn Resilien­cy Pro­gram for late ele­men­tary and mid­dle school stu­dents. Here the focus is on the con­tent of thoughts. Over 12 ses­sions last­ing 90 min­utes, stu­dents are taught to detect ‘inac­cu­rate’ thoughts, eval­u­ate the accu­ra­cy of them and chal­lenge neg­a­tive beliefs by con­sid­er­ing alter­na­tive expla­na­tions (that pop­u­lar girl just ignored me in the cor­ri­dor because she didn’t see me, not because she hates my guts). Stu­dents are also taught tech­niques for assertive­ness, nego­ti­a­tion, deci­sion-mak­ing and prob­lem solv­ing, as well as relaxation.

On what evidence?

But do these pro­grams work? The effects of Mind­ful­ness in Schools cur­ricu­lum – rolled out in six par­tic­i­pat­ing schools – have been scru­ti­nised in a pilot study con­duct­ed by Willem Kuyken at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Exeter along with oth­er researchers who have worked with Williams. The results, pub­lished in the British Jour­nal of Psy­chi­a­try in 2013, found that the cur­ricu­lum had promis­ing – but small – effects on stress lev­els and well­be­ing. The researchers would like to inves­ti­gate this fur­ther in a large-scale ran­domised con­trolled tri­al of the cur­ricu­lum in British sec­ondary schools.

The Penn Resilien­cy Pro­gram has been eval­u­at­ed in the US and the UK, and again the effects are small, although sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. There was a “small aver­age impact on pupils’ depres­sion scores, school atten­dance and Eng­lish and maths grades”, accord­ing to the UK report, but this only last­ed until the one-year fol­low-up study. By the two-year fol­low-up its impact had vanished.

This doesn’t mean the pro­grams aren’t use­ful, says Kuyken. Stud­ies that involve giv­ing an inter­ven­tion to every­body, whether or not they have a prob­lem, gen­er­al­ly only get small over­all results. “What these inter­ven­tions have the poten­tial to do is move the bell curve – that is, to help those most at risk of depres­sion at one end of the curve, but also those who are flour­ish­ing and those in the mid­dle who rep­re­sent most peo­ple,” he says.

Still, there’s no sil­ver bul­let when it comes to resilien­cy in kids, says Ron Palo­mares, a school psy­chol­o­gist at Texas Woman’s Uni­ver­si­ty. Between 2000 and 2013 he worked on the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Association’s Road to Resilience cam­paign, which it set up after 9/11 to pro­vide pub­lic infor­ma­tion on how to become more resilient. For ado­les­cents with depres­sive symp­toms, per­haps the Penn Resilien­cy Pro­gram approach may work best, he says. The mind­ful­ness pro­grams being devel­oped in schools in the US and the UK are focused more on emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion, which some kids may need help with but oth­ers won’t.

The mul­ti­fac­eted approach of the Lantieri’s Inner Resilience Pro­gramme (IRP), mean­while, may be best for a group, like an entire school, because it’s more like­ly to cov­er the var­i­ous needs of most of the pupils. Yet, com­pared to the for­mal pro­grams, Lantieri’s IRP is more of a ‘bag of tricks’ – or “a bag of prac­ti­cal strate­gies” – as she describes it. She says she wants to give adults and kids options, as many as pos­si­ble, to help chil­dren cope with what­ev­er life throws at them. “As much as we like to think we can pro­tect our chil­dren from what may come their way, we live in a very com­plex and uncer­tain world,” she says. “We have to give them all the skills of inner resilience, so they’re ready for just every­day life.”

emma_young– Emma Young is an award-win­ning sci­ence and health jour­nal­ist. A for­mer reporter and edi­tor on New Sci­en­tist, work­ing in Lon­don and Syd­ney, she now free­lances from an attic in Sheffield. As E L Young (in the UK, Emma in the USA), she is also the author of the STORM series of sci­ence-based thrillers for kids. This is an edit­ed ver­sion of an arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Mosa­ic, and is repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons licence.

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