By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Kenneth Ginsburg, pediatrician and author, is an expert on child and teen resiliency.
Pediatrician and author Kenneth Ginsburg, an expert on child and teen resiliency, visited Gunn High School in Palo Alto earlier this year after a student “suicide cluster” devastated the school community. We talked with him recently about the importance of teaching coping skills to students.
CALIFORNIA EDUCATOR: Why is there a need for schools and teachers to foster resiliency in children and teens today?
KENNETH GINSBURG: Children and teenagers need many layers of support in order to be resilient. While parents are probably the primary layer of support, teachers provide a critical support to young people within the school setting. They watch over peer relationships and teach kids how to thrive despite academic bumps. The bottom line is that teachers spend more time with kids than many parents do and are vital to children’s resilience. Teachers contribute both to helping kids thrive and to catching problems in the early stages, hopefully preventing most crises.
Is there a tendency to protect young people instead of teaching them to bounce back?
There’s no question that parents want to wrap kids in protective quilts to somehow protect them. But kids have to learn their own life’s lessons. You don’t do them a service by protecting them from every little thing, although you need to protect them from big and dangerous things. You also have to let them fall down sometimes so they learn how to get up.
How do teachers convey to students what’s important — and what’s not — when it comes to stress?
The bottom line is that if it can’t physically hurt you, it’s not a true emergency. Our body reacts to stress as if we are in a jungle running from a tiger, and that is what makes us so uncomfortable. We have to be able to distinguish between a real tiger that can hurt you and paper tiger that just feels like it might be dangerous. A real tiger is something that can chew your face off. A paper tiger is something that feels stressful, but can never really hurt you. If you don’t differentiate between real and paper tigers, you’re always “running” and therefore unable to focus.
Is it harder for today’s kids to cope these days than in previous times?
No one can answer that question. Who really knows? I can tell you kids are under an enormous amount of stress today. The desire to succeed stresses them out, and there is a deep fear of failure. They are much more afraid now that they won’t be able to succeed unless they get a certain spot in certain colleges. They sometimes feel as if they are letting down a whole village when they don’t receive a fat envelope from that certain college.
How can teachers foster resiliency in youngsters?
The specific thing is to be part of the solution by helping to praise effort rather than results. When kids are only noticed for results, it increases their anxiety and fear of failure. If teachers learn to notice and praise effort, it takes away a lot of stress. Teachers can notice when kids are in trouble, and be that extra loving adult that holds them to high expectations. The bottom line of resilience is that kids live up to or down to your expectations of them. By expectations I mean who they are as people inside — their essential goodness — not just their performance. Teachers can also embrace the “Seven C’s” of resilience: confidence, competence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control.
How will being resilient help students navigate through school — and through life?
Kids who are resilient can bounce back, handle stresses and ultimately succeed. Kids who have fear of failure in school won’t be able to think outside the box for fear of being judged. And young people who can’t think outside of the box lack the creative energy, innovation and other ingredients needed to lead us into the future.
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg specializes in adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and is the co-author of several books, including A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens.