Thursday, April 28, 2016

Teaching Resilience

This week’s article summary is How People Learn to Become Resilient.

With research and work on Dweck’s growth mindset and Duckworth’s grit, resilience—and the question whether it’s more innate or teachable—is currently a popular topic in schools.

As you will see from the New Yorker article below, resilience combines a little of both nature and nurture. 

Misfortune and disappointment will befall all of us, yet some are more prone to view sad events as the rule of their life (from a pessimistic lens) while others see them as an aberration in their life story and even as an opportunity to learn and grow.

As someone who has had a peripatetic career (moving to and working in four different schools in four different states), I’ve interviewed for—and not been offered—many jobs and positions. Yet for me, I have never questioned or doubted that my opportunity would eventually come—it’s was a matter of timing, fit, better clarity in my interview responses, etc. While my parents, teachers, and others influenced this positive, optimistic, resilient outlook, I also recognize it was always present in my make up and personality. 

The implication for us as teachers is we can help students think and reflect on disappointment through a resilient lens—and as the article attests, a critical external need to develop resilience is a "supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor figure."



Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists.

Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?

The study of resilience focuses on protective factors – the elements that allow a person to thrive in spite of negative circumstances. Protective factors fall into two categories – internal/psychological and external/environmental.

One study in followed children from before they were born into adulthood. Two-thirds of the children grew up in stable, trauma-free backgrounds, while one-third had stresses of some kind. Of the latter group, two-thirds developed serious learning and behavior problems by the age of ten or had mental health issues, incidents of delinquency, or teen pregnancies by 18 – but one-third grew up to be competent, confident, and caring young adults; they achieved academic, domestic, and social success, and were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities.

The most important external variable (basically a matter of luck) was a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor figures.

With regard to internal psychological factors, resilient children:
  • Met the world on their own terms
  • Were autonomous and independent
  • Sought out new experiences
  • Had a positive social orientation
  • Though not especially gifted, they used whatever skills they had effectively
  • Had an internal locus of control – they believed that they, not their circumstances, affected their achievements, that they were the orchestrators of their own fates.

Resilience isn’t a fixed entity. With some children, the stressors in their lives overwhelmed them and they lost the ability to cope – in other words, they had a breaking point. Conversely, some children started off with a low level of resilience and somehow got better at it as the years passed, doing as well as children who had strong resilience from the beginning. Which raises the question of how resilience can be learned.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has zeroed in on this question. One of the key aspects of resilience, he’s found, is perception: Do you see an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? The death of a loved one can be traumatic, or it can be seen as tragic but an opportunity to develop a greater awareness of a particular disease. In other words, the long-term impact of traumatic events is not in the events themselves but in how people process them.

The good news is that resilience is a set of skills that can be taught. We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things. People can be taught the cognitive skills of regulating their emotional response, and the new mindset lasts over time.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman has successfully trained people to change their explanatory style from internal to external (Bad events aren’t my fault), from global to specific (This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life), and from permanent to ephemeral (I can change the situation; it’s not fixed) – and the result is that people are more psychologically successful and less prone to depression.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Pressure of Being Successful

This week’s article summary is Is Drive for Success Making Children Sick

The number of students—including in elementary school—who suffer from anxiety and depression shared in the article is shocking.

Equally shocking is the biggest cause: school.

As I read the article, I kept coming back to our SAIS accreditation discussions this year and Trinity’s affirmation of the importance of utilizing progressive, child-centered teaching methods that celebrate the process of learning, social-emotional development, and individual voice and choice. Our ultimate goal is to have our school environment foster, not negate, children’s innate curiosity and natural inquisitiveness. 

Also, similar to the article a few ago on the importance of unstructured recess and  outdoor time, Trinity’s practice of limited homework gives kids ample time to play, to be creative, and to explore their own interests. 

Although Trinity is not immune to the external pressures  below that can lead to student anxiety and depression, it’s gratifying to me as an educator that our long-standing mission and philosophy are centered on children and their cognitive, emotional, and physical health. 

Rather than turning kids off to school or having them strictly look at school as a means to an end, Trinity truly does “foster in our students continued curiosity., creativity  and confidence for school and life."

Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician and professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, knows something about the impact of stress. After uncovering alarming rates of anxiety and depression among his medical students, Slavin and his colleagues remade the program: implementing pass/fail grading in introductory classes, instituting a half-day off every other week, and creating small learning groups to strengthen connections among students. Over the course of six years, the students’ rates of depression and anxiety dropped considerably.

But even Dr. Slavin seemed unprepared for the results of testing he did in a high school in California’s Silicon Valley. He found that 54% of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80% suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety. There is a nationwide epidemic of school-related stress. 

Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments.

Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life with students ground down by the constant measurement in schools under pressure to push through mountains of rote, impersonal material as early as preschool.

Yet instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick.

Nearly 33% of teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep.

At the university level, 94% of college counseling directors said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.

At the other end of the age spectrum, doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers. Many physicians see a clear connection to performance pressure.

In some schools, however,  teachers are re-examining their homework demands, in some cases reviving the school district’s forgotten homework guideline — no more than 20 minutes per class per night, and none on weekends. Research supports limits on homework.

Paradoxically, the pressure cooker is hurting, not helping, our kids’ prospects for success. Many college students struggle with critical thinking, a fact that hasn’t escaped their professors, only 14% of whom believe that their students are prepared for college work, according to a 2015 report. Just 29% of employers in the same study reported that graduates were equipped to succeed in today’s workplace. Both of those numbers have plummeted since 2004.

Contrary to a commonly voiced fear that easing pressure will lead to poorer performance, St. Louis medical school students’ scores on the medical boards exams have actually gone up since the stress reduction strategy was put in place.

Working together, parents, educators and students can make small but important changes: instituting everyday homework limits and weekend and holiday homework bans, adding advisory periods for student support and providing students opportunities to show their growth in creative ways beyond conventional tests.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Raising Creative Children

This week’s article summary is How to Raise a Creative Child

The overriding theme of the article summaries the past few weeks has been about empowering kids by giving them the opportunity and latitude to make choices and decisions—in areas like free, unstructured outdoor play and recess, student voice in the classroom, and time to pursue personal interests and passions.

This week’s article follows this theme in providing some advice for how to help maintain and foster children's creativity and curiosity. 

To me, the article’s two most interesting points were helping children develop an intrinsic moral, ethical code to live by rather than setting a lot of extrinsic rules and encouraging breadth rather than depth of experience.


Exceptionally precocious children rarely become adult innovators who change the world. Out of more than 2,000 finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (once called the “Super Bowl of science”) from 1942 to 1994, only eight ended up winning Nobel Prizes.

The reason isn’t that they’re nerds, lacking the social and emotional skills to function in the post-school world. The true explanation is that these child prodigies often perform within a narrow range and don’t learn how to cut loose and get creative. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves. In the words of William Deresiewicz in his recent study of elite universities, they become “excellent sheep.”

So how can parents and teachers raise children who are truly innovative? Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. One study found that the parents of children who grew up to be creative had fewer rules – one or none. They tended to emphasize moral values and developing an ethical code over following rules. As a result, their children learned to think for themselves, to sort out their own values, and discover what really interested them. These parents encouraged excellence and achievement, but they also told their children to find joy in work, and this seems to have put them on the road to being creative adults.

It’s true that spending lots of time developing talent and expertise (10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell) is important, but there are three caveats. First, hours and hours of practice can get people into a rut and make them less adaptive to changing conditions. Second, motivation is the key to being willing to put in so many hours practicing the violin or working to solve mathematical problems. The wellspring has to be the person’s passion, which often emerges spontaneously at a young age and is best nurtured by teachers who make the activity enjoyable. Third, studies have shown that creativity seems to be most common in people who have a broad range of interests. Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. Creative adults who contribute the most significant innovations to the world aren’t just experts in their field – they tend to also be lovers of poetry, dancing, arts and crafts, magic, or other unrelated fields. Einstein, who played the violin from the age of five and fell in love with Mozart sonatas as a teenager, said, “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this innovation.”

Hear that, Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads? You can’t program a child to become creative. Try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot. If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours.” 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Outdoor Play

This week’s article summary is Why Are Schools and Parents Keeping Children Indoors by Sir Kenneth Robinson. Many of you have most likely watched some of his famous TedTalks on changing trends in education.

While the article emphasizes the importance of outdoor free time for children, to me the article’s thesis extends beyond the outdoors to the voice and choice we need to provide for children at home and in the classroom. 

An article summary a few weeks ago suggested that when children have overly strict extrinsic behavioral rules and parameters, they often fail to develop an intrinsic sense of right and wrong and have difficulty making proper decisions when presented with autonomous situations.

To me,  the same holds true when we don’t give kids enough space and latitude to think, create, and imagine for themselves. Free, unstructured play lets kids practice and develop vitally importance life skills like problem-solving, relationship building, and creativity—and so does the same freedom at home and at school. 

In some ways, the most exciting question children can ask an adult is “I’m bored” or “I don’t know how to do this”: it’s an opportunity for us to give children the time (or for kids used to strict extrinsic limits, the permission) to imagine, to experiment, to try, to fail, and ultimately to learn.

I am not an extremist: I don’t  think kids should have complete latitude and choice, yet I (and Sir Kenneth Robinson) worry about the current trend of giving kids less and less free, unstructured time—be it outdoors, at home, or at school.



With spring break occurring in schools across the country, parents can use this time wisely to help develop their children’s imagination and social skills – especially by encouraging them to spend more time playing outdoors

Academic research shows that active play is a natural and primary way that children learn.  It is essential to their healthy growth and progress, particularly during periods of rapid brain development.
Allow a child to be free outside with no structure and you will marvel at what they can achieve.  Play helps children learn important social skills, use their imagination, concentrate, and be more self-directed.

Yet, too often play is disregarded as frivolous and pointless. Consequently, there’s a growing, and alarming, tendency to reduce time for active play in children’s lives - both at school and home:
  • Nearly two thirds (62%) of parents believe their children have fewer opportunities to play than they did.
  • A third of children play outside for 30 minutes or less on an average day
  • One in five (18%) children don’t spend any time playing outside on an average day
  • Three quarters of children would rather play virtual sports on a screen than sports in real life
It’s vital that schools protect playtime in the school day, when kids can enjoy less structured, fun playground, and social activities.

Play is not meaningless, nor does it represent an absence of learning.

We have to give active play its proper place in our children’s lives to enrich their development now and to help them grow into successful, well-rounded, and happy adults. We must allow them time to simply enjoy being children.