Phoenix was 5 when she climbed into the laundry chute and landed in a tangle of towels. She couldn't wait to try it again. When she was 10 and her bike brakes failed, sending her halfway up an oak tree, she immediately strategized ways to get higher next time. But now that she's in that self-concept nightmare called middle school, it takes her three days to rebound from one bad-hair day.
Teacher Says: Revitalize her snap-back factor. The ability to navigate life successfully despite hot spots or obstacles is no mystical talent reserved for a gifted few. Given the right learning environment, healthy transitions can happen in kids no matter their age or hair condition.
"Don't label people resilient or not. It's not basic nature, it's educational," says Kathy Marshall, executive director of the National Resilience Resource Center in Minneapolis. According to Marshall, successful learning and development are stimulated by three "protective factors": caring relationships, high expectations that build on a person's strengths, and opportunities to participate in meaningful ways.
Family relationships are critical to a kid's ability to snap back. In the "MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, 2002," 65 percent of middle and high school teachers say that more parental involvement would be the most important factor in helping students be more successful. And the kids want that, too; 54 percent of secondary school students wish they had more time to be with their parents.
But you don't have to be related to a kid to provide good rebound ground. Sociologist James Coleman calls it building "social capital," making connections in a community that allow people of all generations to take care of and watch out for one another. Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, for example, builds social capital. A comprehensive evaluation found that kids participating in the program were 46 percent less likely to initiate drug use, 27 percent less likely to initiate alcohol use and almost one-third less likely to hit someone. Sometimes it only takes two to make a caring community.
Participating actively in school classes, sports programs, clubs and activities can also recharge a kid's bounce-back ability. The MetLife survey found that teachers (72 percent) and students (48 percent) see participation in activities as being important for school success. Humanities teacher Carol Tureski of the International High School in Queens, found that a free-choice independent reading program not only promoted reading, it gave her a connection to the lives of her students and developed mutual trust and respect. "The books they choose mirror what they are going through right now and provide me an entry into their lives," she says.
To boost the snap-back factor in kids of all ages, try the following ideas:
* Show them you care. At home: Use multisensory symbols of success to make memories easier to retrieve on a frizzy day. Have the family join hands and dance around Phoenix whenever she brings home a grade higher than she thought she'd get. Tape an artificial flower on her bedroom mirror each time she settles an argument between her siblings. Give her a soft, Granny-style pinch on the cheek whenever she's particularly polite. In school: In assemblies, have one class stand and applaud for another class's achievements. Don't wait for the newspaper or yearbook; routinely take photos of students at events and post them on a central bulletin board. Add names and captions. As new events happen, make past photos available to starring kids.
* Expect the best. Instead of dwelling on deficits and weaknesses, asking students "how they've successfully handled other challenges in their lives may provide direction and ideas for approaching the current problem," says John J. Murphy, author of "Solution-Focused Counseling in Middle and High Schools" (American Counseling Association, $41.95). Turn challenges into opportunities for Phoenix to do better, get farther, learn more.
* Make participation meaningful. In school and in the community, give Phoenix the chance to take part in fulfilling ways. The Tucson Resiliency Initiative, a coalition of schools and social service and law enforcement agencies, recommends including kids in managing school or community facilities and having them be part of interview teams for personnel selection. Or give Phoenix a pivotal role -- beyond hallway host -- on Parents' Night and other informative school functions.
The ability to snap back is no easy thing, but given the right conditions it can grow strong and reliable. Good friends, budding opportunities and a chance to do significant work make the ground fertile for a rebound whether you're in middle school or middle age. So let's join hands and dance.
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