As the school year looms, it’s easy for parents like me to feel a sense of intense pressure. We may worry, sometimes for valid reasons, about our children’s academic progress, independence, and social life. We get caught up in micromanaging and ruminating instead of staying grounded and clear-sighted in our planning.
How do we reduce the pressure and still give our children what they need? A long-term focus on the resilience of our children—their ability to overcome challenges independently—is what can really help them thrive in school.
As a developmental pediatrician, I believe it’s the proven basics that matter most for a child’s resilience: their belief in their own self-efficacy, strong self-management skills, and reliable relationships. If we can let go of other pressures created by our busy family life, fads and trends within our communities, and information overload on the Internet, we can confidently focus on the tried-and-true instead.
As we start this new school year, here’s what child development research shows builds resilience in our kids.
1. Consistent relationships
Dr. Robert Brooks, one of the foremost experts on resiliency, emphasizes the benefit of having at least one “charismatic adult” in your life throughout childhood. Dr. Brooks defines this vital role as someone from whom a child gains strength and who meets their emotional needs. Healthy relationships of this kind start with consistency, positive feedback, and low-key, fun time together.
So, before filling up your calendar with extra activities, protect family time, play time, and social time in your child’s weekly schedule. For example, research shows that in families who eat meals together more frequently, adolescents have higher well-being and better relationships. Unstructured play time helps kids build relationships and contributes to the development of their social-emotional and self-management skills—which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a recommendation that physicians “prescribe” play for children.
2. A sense of self-efficacy
In everyday life, encourage your children to believe in their own strengths—whether around their behavior, a sport, creativity, or whatever you else you see—by praising and valuing them yourself, particularly when they find school challenging. Perhaps even more importantly, notice and comment on their hard work when you see it. When children hear that solid effort leads to success, rather than getting the message that they should be smart and get good grades, they persist more. This helps them become more resilient when they suffer any setbacks in doing their schoolwork.
Most children are also driven by short-term achievements and have a hard time persisting when they don’t taste success. They will be more motivated when they focus on incremental goals that sustain their interest and sense of accomplishment, rather than protracted long-term plans. For example, if your child has been struggling in French, “successfully stick to your new study plan this month” may be more motivating then “get a B+ in French this year.”
3. Self-management skills
“Executive function” skills include all mental abilities that allow us to envision the future, organize our lives, persist at long-term tasks, and make plans. Since these skills only mature as we become adults, it isn’t typical for younger children and even many teens to manage their academic lives independently until they learn how from adults.
Without these more concrete managerial abilities, our children may find that success is elusive. Because of that, many require direct guidance around academic routines right up until they show themselves capable. In fact, what appears to be poor effort on their part often reflects a lack of knowing what to do next, or how to adjust and stick to a plan.
By understanding how executive function develops, we can accept the reality that many students need involved parents and teachers to figure out how to study, manage time, and handle whatever hurdles they encounter around school. Teach self-management skills by creating detailed routines around homework, managing projects, writing assignments, and studying, and then assist children in maintaining those plans. We can change the course of an entire school year by establishing useful academic habits right from the start.
4. Addressing skill deficits
Whenever children fall behind, it’s vital for their future that we intervene early. Around executive function, language, reading, and anywhere else, the sooner children catch up, the better. That catch-up requires that we honestly, compassionately evaluate where work is needed, then implement appropriate supports. Many students require parents and teachers to lead and initiate these interventions, since problem-solving and self-advocacy are also part of their (still-maturing) executive function.
One specific way to improve executive function is through mindfulness—a focused, nonjudgmental attention towards everyday experience that can be developed with practice. Children can learn mindfulness through formal meditation, such as a few minutes built into bedtime. More informally, it can grow from paying detailed attention to activities like eating or walking in the woods. Whatever works for your family, these types of practices are also something to consider when prioritizing family time.
While nothing is guaranteed, focusing on these proven basics—healthy relationships, emphasizing effort, self-management skills, and early intervention—is bound to make a difference to your children. While countless other details, plans, and challenges will no doubt be part of their school year, it’s their resilience that will provide the strength to persist through it all. As a parent, coming back to this simple framework when you feel off balance or overwhelmed will help you let go of any pressure to do even more. And you can rest assured that you already are setting up your child for a successful school year.