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By Oxford Owl, posted on 16th March 2021

Building kids’ resilience and confidence

How do you help build your child’s confidence and resilience? Teacher and child psychologist Jean Gross CBE shares her tips for helping children believe in themselves, and discusses how you can encourage them to be determined and to enjoy challenges.

This blog post is a transcript from a film recorded in 2017.

Video: Building kids’ resilience and confidence

How do you help build your child’s confidence and resilience? Teacher and child psychologist Jean Gross CBE shares her tips for helping children believe in themselves, and discusses how you can encourage them to be determined and to enjoy challenges.

Hello. My name’s Jean Gross and I’m delighted to be part of the Oxford Owl team of experts.

I’d describe my career, as a teacher and child psychologist as all about children who need extra help to overcome barriers to doing well in school and in life. And over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that possibly the most important element in overcoming these barriers lies within children themselves. It’s all about their capacity to show resilience – to ‘bounce back’ in the face of setbacks.

I wonder if your children are resilient? They are if they can stick at things, and see mistakes and failures as a chance to do things differently, rather than a disaster. They are if they don’t give up easily, and if they enjoy new situations and challenges.

Key factors for children’s resilience

So what makes some children resilient, and others less so? Let me tell you about some amazing research that looked at children who had all sorts of difficulties in their lives. When they were followed up over time to adulthood, the researchers found that a third of them not only survived, but thrived.

There were three key factors explaining these children’s resilience:

  • High academic achievement
  • Social support – having some really good relationships in their lives
  • Self-belief (the belief that they could make a difference to their own lives through their own effort), and self-control (the ability to handle the strong emotions that they experienced when they faced obstacles: frustration, disappointment, worry).
The three key factors for resilience: academic achievement; self-belief; social support

As the diagram shows, doing well at school is one of the three factors that help children thrive in the face of difficulties, and you will find lots on the Oxford Owl for Home website to help you support your child with their school work.

Look beyond academic achievement

Doing well academically isn’t the whole story. There are many children who always get ten out of ten at school, and get lots of praise. But the trouble is they may never learn to cope with getting things wrong or with being criticised. So if any of these do happen they just crumple. They aren’t resilient.

So we need to look beyond academic achievement. In this post, I will explore ways parents can build social support and self-belief and self-control.

Social support

First, social support. In the research I told you about, the children who thrived had at least one strong relationship with an adult. If you’re watching this you do, I’m sure, have a really supportive relationship with your child. But there are always ways you can strengthen it. So if your child is going through tough times you might want to try planning extra ‘golden time’ with them – maybe 15 minutes a day doing whatever they choose – playing, reading, cooking, going on a bike ride together – whatever they enjoy.

Self-belief

You can also plan to give them extra praise. But how you praise them is very important. You need to praise in ways that build their self-belief – the belief that you can make a difference to what happens to you, through your own efforts.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. Some children (and adults too) never take responsibility for what happens to them. Whether it’s getting into trouble for hitting someone, playing badly in a football match, or doing badly in a test, they will always put it down to factors outside themselves. It’s the other person’s fault for winding them up, the teacher’s fault for not explaining things properly, the coach’s fault for shouting at them at the wrong time, or your fault for making them do football when they don’t like it anyway!

It works the other way as well – some people never take any credit for success. When things go well for them they will pass it off as good luck, or other things outside their control. So if they win at football they might for example say that it was just because the other team were rubbish.

Giving praise

So what can we do as parents to help children take both credit and responsibility? The most important thing is to point out what they’ve done – they themselves, no one else – to make something turn out well.

Often we praise our children in very general ways; we might say ‘Good boy’, ‘Good girl’ or ‘Well done’. But research shows this isn’t anywhere near as helpful as praising them for the effort they put in, or the successful strategies they used. Like saying ‘It was fantastic the way you stuck at that’, or ‘I really liked the way you went back and checked the answers in your homework’. The idea is that by using this sort of praise you are building self-belief; you are praising what the child did so they are clear it wasn’t just luck or someone else.

As well as praising them, get them to notice their own effort and strategies. If they win the football match and they say ‘Oh, it’s just always easier playing at home’, you can say ‘Well yes sometimes it is, but what do you think you’ve been doing lately that helped you play well?’ If they do well in a spelling test ask them what they did that helped them succeed.

Dealing with mistakes

Also important for self-belief is what you say when things don’t go right for your child. Your own schooling may have made you think mistakes were always a bad thing. But they are actually how we learn. You can say that to your child… ‘If you didn’t make any mistakes you wouldn’t need to go to school. Mistakes are great – they’re how we learn’.

I really love this story about Edison, who invented the lightbulb but only after years of trying – and failing. When asked what it was like to fail so many times, he said ‘I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every child was able to take this approach? We need to celebrate mistakes, not see them as disasters. And when children get stuck – like on some homework – put them in control and say ‘What worked for you last time you got stuck?’ Try to stand back and let them figure things out for themselves. Then praise them for putting in the effort or using a particular strategy.

‘You can’t do it… yet.’

Sometimes your child may say that they can’t do something or they are useless at it. Here the magic word is ‘yet’. So if they say ‘I’m rubbish at spelling’ you can say ‘You’re not good at it yet… but you’re learning.’ When they say ‘I can’t do it’, you can say ‘You can’t do it… yet.’

It’s very important that you yourself model ways of coping with difficulties. I am actually pretty rubbish at parallel parking but I never say that to my grandchildren. Instead I say things like ‘Whoops that didn’t go well – I need to practise this more’. I’m trying to get across the idea that I can always change and improve.

So … I hope this post has given you an idea or two you can try. You might also want to watch the film below for strategies that develop children’s self-control.

Video: Developing kids’ self-control

How do you help your child learn self-control? Teacher and child psychologist Jean Gross CBE talks about how your child can set goals, keep going when things get tough, and keep calm when they are upset or angry.

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