The more we learn about resilience in children, the more we begin to understand the powerful role that adults can play in fostering it, even in kids who face daunting challenges.
As the latest science from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard shows, resilience is fluid and compounding, nurtured by the essential fertilizer of an adult’s caring attention. A new three-part video series produced by the center explores — in clear and simple terms — exactly how that happens, answering questions about why some children who face serious problems can cope and thrive.
Resilience is a broad set of “capacities and skills and abilities that give people a sense of mastery and management of difficulty,” says center director Jack Shonkoff, one of a number of neuroscientists and early childhood experts who paint a picture of resilience as a quality that is built over time, resulting from the interactions of people and their environment.
Think of resilience like a scale, the scientists say, with a fulcrum in the middle. Things pile up on both sides of that scale — our experiences of bad things and of good things. Our genes affect where the fulcrum is positioned at the beginning; some of us are inherently more or less sensitive to stress, and so the fulcrum might start out closer to one end of the scale than the other.
But our experiences move the fulcrum, providing adults with a powerful opportunity to shape a child’s outlook and abilities. When positive experiences accumulate, children gradually gain the adaptive skills that help them manage stress, and the fulcrum slides. When that happens, the scale tilts more easily toward positive outcomes, counterbalancing adversity now and in the future.
How do we generate more of these positive experiences for kids who sorely need them? By creating opportunities for caring, reliable, and responsive interactions with adults. Parents are key, of course, but they are not the only adults who can make a significant impact. Coaches, teachers, extended family, foster parents, social workers, mentors — all of these figures can form relationships with kids that build resilience down the road.
As director of the Center on the Developing Child, Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., is using the science of early childhood development to drive innovation in policy and practice, with the goal of transforming life outcomes for disadvantaged children and reducing the consequences of early adversity.