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Grey Matter Chatter No 3

Grey Matter Chatter

Opinion piece on the importance of good research - 22 November 2019

2020 will be a year remembered by many as one that tested the academic immune system to its limits. Academic resilience was required from educators and learners and everyone had to make the effort to succeed despite adverse circumstances; we had to change existing behaviours and develop new ones, such as discipline, practice and planning. 

In this edition of Grey Matter Chatter, Dr Janna de Gouveia, the resident Educational Psychologist at Hilton College, explains how ‘Flocking’ may be added to the notion of ‘Fight or Flight’ as we navigate and negotiate our way through adversity to positive adaptation.

In a time when we have needed each other more than ever, the Covid-19 global pandemic and the threat to our physical health have necessitated that we keep our distance from others. But where does this leave our mental health and the role that relationships play?

Moreover, how do we build resilience and focus not only on staying physically healthy, but also on maintaining or improving our psychological well-being, as a school community?

Resilience is a widely used term, specifically in the world of psychology. We use this term to describe students, families, ecologies and systems. Resilience is thought of as an adaptive process where adversity has a long-term impact on individual functioning and development (Skinner & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2007). The way in which people cope with adversity influences the outcomes that they experience (Ebersöhn, 2014). Because resilience is contextual, the culture and context within which individuals and communities function and live both have a significant influence on the decisions that people make in order to adapt to adversity in a healthy way.

In her research on indigenous pathways to resilience, Ebersöhn (2014) builds into the notion of ‘fight or flight’ (Cannon, 1932) the idea that relationships and resources can be used procedurally to change the ability of an at-risk environment to enable resilience. Where communities are vulnerable over prolonged periods of time, they experience stress and appraise risk collectively. A group may often feel that the burden of environmental demands exceeds perceived resources; a perceived lack of control over the threat may also be experienced. The consequent collective response is that of people flocking together to use relationships functionally. Connected individuals, rather than stand-alone persons, engage in resilience responses to use resources to counter shared environmental demands. In other words, individuals make use of their relationships and, consequently, are able to create a climate in which the environment can buffer the effect of risk on individuals’ well-being and development – enabling resilience (Ebersöhn, 2014).

Within the school context, the way in which a school responds to risk can enable its students to access learning, development and psychological well-being despite adversity or ongoing risk. Programmes which raise student awareness, whilst encouraging learners to find meaning and make sense of their situation together, have the potential to play a fundamental role in the necessary joint appraisal of risk which culminates in shared comprehensibility (Ebersöhn, 2014). By participating in orientation programmes, collaborating in buddy systems and mentoring younger students, children and adolescents are able to experience and deal with a shared burden, work out for themselves what makes their lives worth living (despite ongoing risk and adversity) and develop a perceived sense of control (in terms of the prevailing risk) as they become more connected to existing resources through their relationships. 

While much exciting work is already taking place to support students in developing and experiencing resilience, a few recommendations can be made in terms of processes and activities to include in programmes aimed at providing learning experiences which foster resilience. As a starting point, students can be engaged in a process of mapping their needs – they need to identify and prioritise their needs and become more aware of adversity and barriers in their environment. As a next step, students should identify and inventory the available assets, strengths and protective resources in their environment – this is called resource mapping. Relationships should also be mapped as they are the medium through which individuals begin to develop an awareness of partnerships which may be used to mobilise and sustain resources. 

The take-away message remains the importance of relationships and the time and effort that we invest in students to foster trust, agency, interpersonal skills and collaboration. In a time when it is so easy to remain distant, it is important that we help students to find ways to remain in contact with their peers, teachers, family members and the general public. We all have a role to play in helping young people to develop the skills required to make sense of difficult situations and to adapt positively and meaningfully.

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