As published on Kiddipedia on 10 August 2021:
All parents have come to know the feeling well—the nervous stomach and in-take of breath each morning when checking the news. One day it’s relief that no news is good news; the next may bring alert to significant disruption in our community’s rhythms and routines. None of us anticipated that we still be contending with these disruptions, and understandably, we are all tired of the hypervigilance and the need to stay aware of our communities’ collective health and wellbeing.
In our research and practice, we share this message with parents, teachers, and allied education professionals: Unpredictability equals risk. It’s a theory that has arisen from our teams which helps us understand that when we perceive the world as unpredictable, the unpredictability itself feels risky to us. Thus, we will do things to mitigate the risks to our routines and to our safety for the care and education of our children. Sometimes we make healthy choices to account for this risk (e.g., checking-in with each member of our family, preparing healthy food) and sometimes, we choose some less-healthy choices to make it through the day (e.g., going straight for the carbs!).
Working together, parents and teachers have the necessary and ambitious task to maintain a resilient mindset to bolster our children through the ongoing disruptions to the world they inhabit and particularly to classroom learning. The research clearly suggests that resilient children are flexible when managing everyday speedbumps and can meet their own needs in developmentally healthy ways. We can understand why the continuing challenges to our collective flexibility and the seemingly unending need to make healthy choices are tiring us out.
So, what can we do to renew ourselves to keep taking the next step—one step at a time?
Here are three strategies for adults to enact in support of the children we parent, educate and support. When parents and teachers work together and consistently model these strategies for children, our evidence suggests two things happen: Children begin taking on these resilient mindsets for themselves; and adult wellbeing also increases. While many of us are running on reserves, this is promising practice. It can be energising to know that these strategies serve dual purposes.
Strategy One: Increase Co-Regulation
Co-regulation occurs when adults behave in deliberate ways to soothe the heightened central nervous systems of children. The sympathetic nervous system is activated when we perceive threat and uncertainty in order to mobilise the body’s resources for survival, and when we soothe this system, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which allows our bodies to rest and de-escalate. It’s helpful to consider that we hold our stress non-verbally, stored within the body. We all feel it as we check the news each morning and sigh with empathy for communities that are doing it tough.
Successful co-regulation of children can be most effective through non-verbal positioning when children are heightened. Instead of standing over children in times of need, lower your own body’s position to be eye-to-eye with them. Even better (if you have the flexibility) crouch lower than the child’s eye level to look up at them when soothing or supporting. We also suggest side-by-side, shoulder to shoulder interactions to avoid eye-contact in a less confrontational way.
The best strategy for co-regulation? Move forward to together. Walking to the park, taking care of the family pet, or riding in the car. All of these examples of side-by-side interactions co-regulate both child and adult; and can allow for open dialogue to begin.
Strategy Two: Increase Micro-Moments of Relationship
A healthy relationship between a child and adult is often thought of a big thing, as in, strong continuous attachment over time. While this is certainly true, we find it useful to narrow our focus all the way down to micro-moments of interaction. These micro-moments occur when children look up to parents and teachers for the silent nod of approval or a compassionate smile. They also occur in the ways we request children to manage their own tasks and chores or take responsibility for a momentary rupture.
We can make micro-moments count, and these moments have some big payoffs. The momentary release of positive neurochemicals (e.g., oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin) fortify the body’s ability to manage stressors which can allow children to see adults as safe haven for their times of need and secure base to explore the world. Everyone can use more micro-moments of positive relational interaction. By considering healthy relationship building as a series of small, everyday moves, it can feel more possible to manage the relational ruptures that occur for all of us from time to time.
Strategy Three: Maintain Focus on What’s Working Well
The direct and vicarious impacts of stressors we face can certainly put us in a deficit-mindset. Understandable to be sure. Our negativity bias is strong and undeniable because, again, that’s kept us alive to manage significant threats in our evolutionary past.
When we encounter situations we do not want to see, our brains catastrophise as a natural survival mechanism by activating us to think, “Yikes! What is wrong here?” Therefore, it takes conscious effort to take a breath, reframe our assessment of a child’s struggle and ask the opposite question: “What’s working well?”
All children have strengths that adults must identify, articulate and help children practice. Even when a child shows stubborn persistence, it’s still persistence that we can recognise as a strength—even if it’s being overused in a particular moment. If we can reframe our assessment to spot these strengths, we can begin to recreate the conditions of success for children and fortify their internalised self-talk. Many children struggle because they catastrophise and quickly forget that they do have strengths that can serve as resources and effective strategies to meet their own needs in healthy ways.
By considering these three strategies: increasing co-regulation, increasing micro-moments of relationship, and maintaining focus on what’s working well, we can increase our children’s abilities to manage speedbumps with more flexibility, in addition to building trust and credibility with them so that they can eventually manage their everyday concerns on their own.