“Children develop independence and responsibility through day-to-day challenges. The decisions they make, the resources they bring, and the consequences that follow are the bricks and mortar of learning to be responsible and independent. . .The internal strategies children learn to calm, encourage, and regulate themselves are important ingredients in their becoming independent and responsible.” -- Aden A. and Catherine U. Burka, “The Truth About CATs and DOGs” in Independent School, Spring 2009
In their brief but brilliant essay “The Truth About CATs and DOGs,” Aden and Catherine Burka provide a powerful reminder of the role of resilience in children’s learning. In a world filled with helicopter parents who readily (and well-intentioned but wrong-headedly) project their own insecurities and fears onto their children (goodness knows we adults DO have a thing or two to be anxious about!) thereby shielding them from fundamental learning opportunities, the necessity of understanding the role of resilience—and how to cultivate it in our children—is clearer than ever.
Operating on the premise that “the essence of a challenge is how children handle the feelings that well up inside,” the Burkas identify three stages that children go through in handling the feelings that are part and parcel of dealing with life’s inevitable challenges:
• Anticipatory Stage: Imagining how one will feel in experiencing the challenge ahead—e.g., reciting a poem in front of the entire class.
• Frustration Stage: This follows naturally when a goal isn’t easily obtainable—and can lead some children to give up and others to redouble their efforts or try new strategies
• Dealing with Feelings Following the Challenge: When the results aren’t what children hope for, how do they manage the feelings of disappointment? The Burkas note that it is during this critical step that “children gain perspective, learn from their experiences, and put self-esteem back on track.”
The Burkas link children’s feelings associated with the inevitable challenges they will face to their cultivation of a healthy sense of responsibility. In short, responsibility in the context of challenge takes the form of “personal accountability for the behavioral choices made during challenging situations.” On that point, the Burkas write,
“We learn, for example, that someone can make us angry, but how we handle our anger is our responsibility. To act responsibly, we need time between the stimulus and the response to bring in resources such as forethought, conscience, and alternative strategies and choices.”
Of crucial importance to teachers and parents is this: Children need our support not by our protecting or shielding them from life’s challenges but by our helping them be mindful or aware of their feelings about these challenges and to use that awareness to “initiate strategies to manage that discomfort”—and, ultimately, to meet the challenge.
The Burka’s thinking resonates with Dan Goleman’s writings on emotional intelligence (EQ), and drives home the inextricable link between EQ and success in dealing with the challenges and opportunities of day-to-day life. As the Burkas put it, this emotional self awareness “allows for adaptive resources to tackle the challenge.” In short, the adaptive expertise described in previous entries in this blog has its roots in emotional self-awareness and self-regulation. Our children can’t hope to approach new situations flexibly or to take the risks inherent in questioning their own expertise and attempting to move beyond their current limits (i.e., adaptive expertise) unless they have the emotional wherewithal (i.e., the emotional intelligence) to manage the complex and sometimes overpowering range of emotions that are so much a part of the challenges we humans face.
In the final section of their essay, the Burkas focus on what adults (parents and teachers alike) can do to cultivate within children both responsibility and independence. They identify two fundamental concepts:
CATs (Coping Adaptively with Tasks): “If parents and teachers recognize the incremental growth of coping resources and monitor for even small improvements, they can reinforce small and large victories.”
DOGs (Delay of Gratification): “Resilience and resourcefulness often begin with a Delay of Gratification. School achievement requires putting aside pleasures – the Wii, television, Facebook, etc. – and fulfilling responsibilities. Academic success is built on a strong work ethic, which requires the capacity to balance work and pleasure and know when to prioritize each. Adults should praise these skills as well.”
This brings us back to resilience, what authors Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein define as “the capacity to deal successfully with the obstacles in the road that confront us while maintaining a straight and true path towards life's goals.” Our work together as parents and educators is, after all, about serving the best interests of the children we love. What better way to support these children—and what greater gift to bestow—than to help our children equip themselves to meet, with confidence and competence, whatever challenges they will inevitably face?
3 weeks ago