Using pandemic to teach children about resilience

Five-year-old Jing Chen wrote thank-you notes on paper bags and helped her mum fill them up with apples, canned drinks and crackers. PHOTO: ZHUAN LEE

SINGAPORE - During the circuit breaker period last year, freelance editor Zhuan Lee, 40, got her daughter Jing Chen to help her in preparing snack packs for the people who delivered their groceries.

The five-year-old, who loves drawing, wrote thank-you notes on paper bags and helped her mum fill them up with apples, canned drinks and crackers.

Madam Lee, a mother of two, says: "Never mind that she drew some upside down. It was meant to be a fun activity, to occupy her, but I also hope it made her appreciate the hard work by people like the deliverymen, construction workers and cleaners to keep our daily lives going."

National Institute of Education (NIE) senior research scientist Imelda Caleon often cites Madam Lee as an example of someone who turned the difficult circumstances brought on by Covid-19 into opportunities to teach life lessons to her children.

Dr Caleon, whose research interests include at-risk learners, positive education and resilience, says the coronavirus outbreak has been a source of unexpected stress and adversity for many people.

More so for children, who have had to wear masks, switch to home-based learning and limit meetings with friends.

She says: "For children across the world, including in Singapore, the pandemic is the first time they've had to deal with a disruption of this scale.

"Although parents can't always alter the circumstances or shield their children from these difficult times, they should seize the opportunity to teach their children to manage adversity, what is commonly termed resilience."

She explains why building resilience in children is important.

"At the core, resilience is the ability to bounce back after challenges and tough times," she says, stressing that it is important because resilient children can recover from setbacks.

The good news is there are things that parents can do to help build resilience, much like a muscle that can be built through effort and repetition.

"Resilience develops when children experience challenges and learn to deal with them positively. It is a skill that can be learnt, practised and developed as kids grow," she says.

"If we develop their resilience, they'll be better able to move through whatever their challenge might be and emerge stronger and better after this crisis."

Drawing from research done around the world and in NIE, she shares simple yet powerful tips for parents on nurturing their children's capacity to take challenges in their stride and bounce back.

Build strong relationships

First, families must continue building warm, protective relationships with their children.

While there are many factors associated with resilience, experts say adult-child relationships are the fundamental building block.

Building positive relationships is key to offering emotional support that children need during this period of uncertainty.

To do this, Dr Caleon says it is important to acknowledge children's feelings.

"When a young child says he or she is afraid or shows signs of anxiety, instead of just telling him or her not to be silly, parents should acknowledge the child's feelings and get him or her to describe what he or she is feeling and how it is affecting the child.

"One of the first steps in being able to regulate emotions is being able to name what we're feeling," she says.

When kids can effectively recognise and name their emotions, they are able to draw on specific strategies that will help them.

For example, kids might recognise that they are feeling nervous and know that talking to a parent or caregiver can help ease their anxiety.

This sort of emotional management is a key aspect of resilience.

Practise gratitude

Dr Caleon also urges parents to remind their children, including teens, not to take things for granted, the way Madam Lee did. This will serve to deepen their sense of gratitude.

She says it can be as simple as encouraging children to write three things they are grateful for and place the list where it is visible, for example, on the fridge door.

For older children, parents can ask them to write notes and letters to people who have helped them in some way - whether it is a grandparent, neighbour, teacher or best buddy.

Madam Helen Lee, a stay-home mum, recounts how she encouraged her Primary 5 daughter to write a letter to her neighbour, a Secondary 2 boy, who taught her some "neat tricks" in solving problem sums and helped her improve her scores.

Her daughter wanted to buy the boy a cupcake and Madam Lee encouraged her to include a thank-you note.

The boy was touched by the note and continues to help her.

Dr Caleon says doing simple gratitude activities, particularly writing gratitude letters, has been found to have lasting effects on the brain.

But it is better if these activities are done regularly, for the children to inculcate a grateful disposition, which may also motivate them to do good for others.

Studies show that doing good for others can make people feel happier and reduce their stress level more than giving themselves a treat.

Doing good

To encourage children to practise kindness, a good start would be helping with household chores or attending to the needs of family members.

Dr Caleon says children can also identify specific persons who are in need of support, such as migrant workers or elderly neighbours, and parents can ask them to think about what they can do to ease these persons' difficulties.

Build optimism

Optimism is a key attribute of resilient people.

It pertains to having positive expectations about the future and seeing things in a positive light.

To foster children's optimism, Dr Caleon suggests that when helping children, it is best to point out the facts and emphasise that the effects can be overcome.

"For example, if a child worries about catching Covid-19, it's good to sit the child down and explain the facts in simple terms, including how one can protect oneself against being infected.

"If the child brings up someone who has been infected, then assure him or her how the majority of people are able to beat the virus and recover.

"During the circuit breaker period, for example, children may have expressed frustration about the many things that they were unable to do. It may be helpful to guide them to think that what is happening is just temporary and things are likely to get better as many scientists in the world are working really hard to beat Covid-19."

She says it is also important for children to see silver linings.

"Ask them about the things that they are now able to do, but had limited time to do before. Good examples would be having more time to watch their favourite movies with the family, draw or learn a new game."

Set tasks and goals

Dr Caleon suggests that families who have no vacation plans for the year-end holidays should encourage their children to set goals, such as learning how to play an instrument or draw cartoons or pick up a new sport.

Parents also need to guide them to identify the steps to reach their goals and look at solutions when they face obstacles.

At the end of the holidays, it is good to celebrate their achievements, however small they were.

She says: "The uncertainties associated with the Covid-19 pandemic can make children feel lost and confused. Having a clear target will enable children to have some focus, develop a sense of control and purpose in their lives, and boost their hope."

She says studies have found that children who tend to develop resilience are those who are clear about their goals, have concrete plans to achieve such goals and feel that they can overcome the setbacks.

Read stories of hope

For parents with young children, Dr Caleon suggests that they read stories of struggles that are followed by triumphs.

Reading such stories, fictional and non-fictional, promote resilience among children.

Parents can select stories where the lead characters manage to beat the odds. After reading the stories, it may be useful to ask the child what he or she likes about the characters in the book and what qualities helped them overcome the obstacles.

Dr Caleon also reminds parents that they must serve as good role models. "Children learn from the adults around them - how parents react to and address the current challenging situation is important."

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