How to Build Resilience in Children Under 5

September is a time of change for many families, and in our expat culture the start of a new term is often when families arrive in the country, move house, and when children start (or change) school or nursery.
How to Build Resilience in Children Under 5
By Jenny Mollon
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As adults, we all know how quickly stress can build around times of change.  That unmoored, unanchored feeling where we are set adrift from our normal routine, familiar faces and places. 

For children under five, change can be especially unsettling – children of this age find it much harder to conceptualise the future and imagine a time when ‘normal’ life will return.

Overcoming change for this age group is an exercise in resilience – a real ‘buzzword' in today’s educational circles, but what does it mean for our child as an individual?  How do we help our under 5s to build and draw upon this inner strength, and what part to trusted Early Years Educators have to play in building resilience?

In practice, resilience is defined as the ability to overcome a negative experience with a healthy and positive outlook.  Children who grow into resilient adults are more successful, happier in relationships, live longer and are less likely to suffer with anxiety and depression. 

Last week, we looked at the importance of building a routine to create stability and security for your child, but what about those life events that take children well outside of their normal routine and comfort zone?  A new sibling, a new nursery, a new home – even a new country?  How do these changes – both positive and negative, impact upon your child’s ability to recover ?

Looking at our children as individuals is a first step here, and the good old nature vs. nurture debate certainly comes into it . Are some children born more resilient than others or is resilience an inherent or learned trait? This is a subject of many an academic research project. 

Research and experts aside, many parents experience dramatic differences in the behaviour of siblings from newborn – some babies appear to be born placid and contented, whilst others are perhaps more challenging from the off. And, just as for adults, a child’s ability to respond to a challenge with resilience will vary throughout life depending on a multitude of factors.  Resilience is a work in progress for all us!

So then, the picture isn’t entirely clear on what fundamentally makes a child resilient.  Most research on this subject points firmly to a combination of inherited and learned factors – with almost all data pointing to stable, loving and secure start in life being the single most important factor over which parents have influence. 

Outside of the home, and with many children spending significant amounts of their time in childcare, carers and educators at nursery play an important role in creating a resilient outlook. 

So important is this need for stable relationships, it is in fact written in to one of the most popular early years curricula, used extensively in nurseries across the UAE – the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

Laura Henry, Director of Children’s Oasis Nursery told us:

“Stable relationships are the key to resilience.  A resilient child is one who is able to communicate their emotions and, so importantly, be heard and understood by the adults in their life."

"With this in mind, an important cornerstone of the EYFS is the concept of the ‘Key Person’.  This person may or may not be the lead teacher in your child’s class, but they will be someone who has been designated to get to know and understand your child well and to form a warm, reciprocal bond.

"This bond and close relationship ensure consistency and individualised attention for each child.  Don’t be afraid to ask your nursery who you child’s key worker is – your focus does not necessarily need to be the class teacher at all times.  Communication with the Key Person will ensure consistency between home and childcare and help the other adults in your child’s life to understand any challenges at home”.

Other than enabling a positive Key Person relationship – what are nurseries doing to build resilience, during the hours your child in in their care?

It’s all a matter of choice

Ex Nursery Teacher and’s Early Years Editor, Jenny Mollon, feels that nurseries have an important role to play in encouraging children to express their own power and individual agency.  A child who can express their own needs and wants and has these choices heard and acted upon (within reason!) is one whose self-esteem and resilience is being nurtured. 

“One important way in which adults can help build resilience is by allowing children choices and then, crucially, allowing them to experience the consequences of those choices."

"Influencing the world around them, (even in ways which might seem small to adults – which play area, which hat, which food?) gives children an inkling of their own power, and helps them to understand that their voice and choices are respected.

"Not only that, but feeling the consequences of their choices, whether positive or negative (and yes, I’m asking you to let them make mistakes here!), helps to create the thought processes around trying something repeatedly until they get it right – a key element of resilience.

"Modern Early Years education is very much geared to hearing and understanding children and allowing them to express their choices – you are very unlikely to see a class of nursery age children engaged in one single activity.  More likely, the class activities have been carefully planned with a view to offering a wide range of interesting choices, thought out with the interests and developmental needs of each child in mind.

"A combination of outside support and inner strength is what every child needs to cope with challenge and change. 

"Every significant adult in a child’s life should give lots of loving attention, comfort and empathy.  By listening and responding to our children with authentic, genuine interest, we help them to understand that we respect and value their ideas and opinions.  Placing value on our children’s thoughts and feelings will help them become resilient adults who are able to cope with the ups and downs of life”.

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