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Promoting resilience in the classroom

Having to face difficulties or coming from a poor background does not necessarily mean that a child cannot grow into a happy, successful adult. It takes resilience to succeed, that is, the ability to overcome the odds, to thrive in the face of adversity and to succeed despite the barriers.

The promotion of resilience in the classroom is the subject of a new book by Dr Carmel Cefai, lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta, which has just been published in London by Jessica Kingsley Publications.

One of the key messages of Promoting Resilience In The Classroom: A Guide To Developing Pupils' Emotional and Cognitive Skills, is that resilience can change the way we think about success and failure by shifting the focus from what keeps us back to what helps us succeed, Dr Cefai explains.

"By studying the success story of individuals, families and communities exposed to risk, we are then able to promote systems which facilitate the healthy development of individuals who may be at risk in one way or another in their development. For instance, we have various international studies which have uncovered the mechanisms which facilitate the positive academic and social development of children and young persons coming from adverse circumstances, such as low socio-economic status and ethnic minorities."

The school is one of three broad sets of factors that protect vulnerable children and facilitate their development into competent and autonomous young adults. Together with external support systems, such as the school, the other two factors are the dispositional attributes of the individual such as social competence and problem-solving skills, and the family, particularly in the early years.

The book, which is intended as a practical guide for classroom practitioners and educationalists engaged in efforts to promote the educational engagement and social and emotional competence of pupils, gives various case studies of teachers engaged in such practice, and the final section presents a framework to help practitioners turn their classrooms into caring, inclusive, pro-social and learning centred communities. The book is based on the local educational context, with various episodes of good practice from our own classrooms and a model built on local practice in conjunction with the international literature. Furthermore, it also contains various checklists, questionnaires, case studies and reflection boxes which will engage the reader in a continuous process of reflection, action and reflection.

Dr Cefai explained that in Promoting Resilience In The Classroom, the definition of resilience includes both academic and socio-emotional literacy. The outcome of resilience is very often defined as academic success on the basis of examination performance, which presents various problems in measuring school success solely on the basis of grades and tests. For instance, pupils may be achieving but still facing considerable problems in making friends, resolving conflict, coping with stress and problem solving. Moreover, such a definition provides a very limited and restricted view of what education is about, focusing on teaching and performance rather than on learning and holistic development.

"While some may argue that the focus on the socio-emotional aspect may weaken or detract learning and achievement, research indicates otherwise. An ethic of caring provides a foundation upon which effective learning and achievement take place and socio, emotional competence develops. It does not only foster the socio-emotional aspect of pupils' development but it enhances their intellectual abilities as well. As the eminent British economist Richard Layard says in his recent theory on the science of happiness, happy and socially competent individuals are in the end more productive in both schools and society," he said.

But is resilience is an ability that only some children possess, or is it something that can be developed and nurtured?

"The early studies construed resilience in terms of individual invulnerability and focused on individual characteristics, such as stress resistance, which harden children and young persons growing up in a difficult environment and enable them to achieve success. Indeed the earlier term used was 'invulnerability'," Dr Cefai explained.

"As later studies were to show, however, positive outcomes in the face of adverse circumstances are influenced by various processes besides individual characteristics, including the family, the school and the community. Individuals with high levels of these personal and social protective factors are thus more effective in coping with adversity. We are presently undertaking a local study to examine how these interactions provide protection for children and young persons considered at risk."

Dr Cefai's publication shows how the classroom context may operate as resilience-enhancing context for the pupils. It has been developed from an extended study in a number of Maltese classrooms which were operating as optimal learning environments, with high levels of positive social and academic behaviours among the pupils.

"A considerable number of the pupils were coming from low socio-economic backgrounds, which may constitute a risk factor for their cognitive and socio-emotional development. In actual practice, this was a study of good practice and sought to capture in as natural way as possible those classroom mechanisms which were operating as resilience-enhancing processes for the pupils."

The result was that the classrooms in the study were organised as "caring, inclusive, prosocial and learning-centred communities".

"These were classroom which operated according to an ethic of care, where the teachers built close relationships with their pupils and expressed care and support in their teaching and classroom management. The pupils were supported in their learning and were encouraged to support one other. The classrooms promoted a culture of support and collaboration, discouraging competition, while providing opportunities for pupils to learn together, to learn from each other, to help each other learn and to build learning experiences together. The staff provided good role models of support and collaboration themselves," Dr Cefai explained.

He said that learning in these classrooms was an enjoyable and meaningful experience. Pupils participated actively and enthusiastically in experiential and authentic activities that made use of pupil-centred and activity-based instructional strategies connected to the pupils' life experiences.

"The focus was on learning rather than performance, away from the excessive emphasis on achievement and examinations, from what psychologist Maurice Elias calls "the tyranny of test scores". This was a very powerful process in the classrooms, going against the prevalent culture in many schools which promote an exclusive focus on individual achievement at the expense of the other aspects of children's development."

Classroom membership was open to all pupils irrespective of any difference in ability, background or interest. The teachers believed that all pupils could learn if they worked hard enough. All pupils felt an important part of the community, and had the opportunity to be actively engaged in the activities and to be successful in their learning. Pupils in difficulty were considered an important asset for the group rather than a liability.

"Finally, the pupils were also provided with opportunities, even if somewhat limited, to make choices and air their views on the various facets of classroom life. While the classrooms came out very strongly on such processes as care, support, inclusion, collaboration and meaningful engagement, it was clearly indicated that we need to provide more opportunities for our pupils to exert more influence in their learning and to engage more in self-reliant learning," Dr Cefai concluded.

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