Many of us know kids who seemed headed for disaster when they were young and in school. Maybe they flunked out of classes, or they did drugs, or they were depressed loners. But then something happened later and they blossomed into healthy, happy adults who contributed to society in important ways.
How did they accomplish this? Researchers who study risk, resilience, and recovery throughout the lifespan have identified several ways that children move through adversity and find their way to thriving. Among the most important is the ability to see life’s setbacks and difficulties in a new light—to reframe them, if you will.
1. Provide opportunities for kids to feel they belong and to contribute in meaningful ways.
To feel we belong and that we have something important to contribute are universal needs. Yet, some struggling children don’t experience either of these until they’ve reach adulthood. One way to prevent this is to provide kids with important jobs and responsibilities that teachers and others value. Maybe a kid who talks a lot would be a great student ambassador for their school, or a child who’s very artistic can create a mural for the classroom.
2. Raise the bar and level the playing field.
Many of those who failed at school remember the well-intentioned adults who tried to help them. But they also remember how some of that help drew unwanted attention to challenges they viewed as shameful and embarrassing. Many eventually stopped accepting help as a result. While it’s important to level the playing field by offering support to kids, it’s also important to raise the bar for them concurrently. This begins by helping them see their challenges in a new light.
3. Don’t expect a child to succeed in isolation.
Wrap-around services for communities in need can help provide the kinds of supports kids need to do well in school, especially in high-risk neighborhoods. Restorative justice programs, which move schools away from a zero-tolerance, punative approach to a more educative process where children take responsibility for their actions and make amends, have been shown to build trust among and between students, teachers, and others in the school community.
4. Reward struggle as well as achievement.
It’s easy to say, but so difficult to do this, because we are trained to evaluate children based on their successes. But Carol Dweck and others point to the importance of fostering a growth mindset, in which kids are praised for their efforts more than their achievements, allowing for and even encouraging mistakes.
5. Be a talent scout.
The opportunity to do what we love to do and do well can reveal personal strengths and qualities that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Find children’s unique strengths and talents, then highlight and celebrate them. Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences can be a helpful resource.