Imagine two twins. They are in the front garden playing happily on a summer’s day; their mother has just nipped in to get some lemonade, she is confident that her child is completely safe. They live in a very quiet neighbourhood. One of the twins has walked over towards the play house near the swing and has snuggled in to the seat inside, this twin is preparing for an afternoon nap. The other twin is walking towards the gate of the house, she has seen a furry creature and has decided to pet it. All of a sudden the creature turns around, it is a fully grown Irish Wolfhound, all 8 foot of it. Curious and excited, she pulls its tail and within the blink of an eye the dog has turned on her. It pushes it’s full height up against the gate and barks loudly. The mother inside doesn’t hear a thing. The dog owner turns sharply and drags the pet away, he thinks it is in a very excitable mood and takes it to the field for a good run. The little girl cries at the gate, unsure as to what her mistake was and petrified. When the mother comes out she sees one child crying and the other asleep and decides that they are both over-tired and need their beds. She carries them both up and turns off the light.
Many years later, when these two attend school, teachers will note the marked difference in their ability to stick with challenging tasks or respond with appropriate emotions. Child A, the sleepy twin, is seen as what some called a ‘Dandelion’ a tough flower which can survive any circumstances; whereas Child B, the curious tail puller, is seen as an ‘Orchid’ a flower which needs all conditions to be perfect to flourish.
It is possible that just such an incident could prove to be damaging for the second twin for the rest of their lives. In difficult lessons (and situations in general) they feel a terrible fear and stress ruins all their best efforts. The first twin, the napping twin, thrives in all aspects of school life. Perhaps this seems ridiculous, but studies of identical twins, where one twin has been exposed to trauma stressor but the other twin has not, have shown roughly an overall heritability of a form of stress disorder ranging from 32-38% (Southwick and Chandey, 2012.) Genetics do play a role in our ability to be resilient but that they are only part of the story.
From a teacher’s point of view this is fantastic, asked recently by a friend what I thought made successful students I stated four key factors- focus, obsession, curiosity and resilience. I don’t have space here to unpack all of them but the last of the four in many ways seems to be the most important. I think we have all taught students who need support with resilience, but often it can feel like something we don’t have any involvement in this area. However, recent research seems to show this to be not true. There are specific interventions that can be done as a whole school, but more importantly many of the lessons learnt from the study seem extremely applicable to our classrooms and in particular how we praise and manage behaviour.
In America university researchers initiated a program where they monitored high-risk children in schools and across communities and provide timely intervention to help them learn how to deal with stress
A study by Belsky et al was carried out on nearly 1,000 four-year-olds with behavioural problems or issues around stress and anxiety. They were put through a 10-year intervention program which taught them social skills and coping mechanisms. Their parents attended behaviour-management training programs. In addition, the study all provided, home visits and peer coaching sessions.
The findings were remarkable, it was found that those individuals who went through the interventional program reported lower instances of violent criminal behaviour and drug-crime convictions and higher well-being index later in life than those “orchid” children who did not go through the program. The earlier it was started the better (Bierman et al, 2015.)
What advice did I gleam from these studies and what can we do to help orchid students?
- Use duty time and corridors to correct social mistakes.
- Praise students for their hard work and resilience. Notice when they overcome difficulty.
- Manage behaviour from a positive place- explain that you believe in the students and that is why you are checking their behaviour.
- Provide scaffold for specific students- those who we struggle to manage their stress in times of challenge.
- Take responsibility for students learning explicitly- if anxious students are nervous to start explain that you have provided a structure and that if the outcomes isn’t the right one, then you can adjust the scaffold.
- Create a classroom culture which emphasises learning and not outcomes.
Albert, D., Belsky, D., Crowley, D., Latendresse, S., Aliev, F., Riley, B., , ., Dick, D., & Dodge, K. (2015). Can Genetics Predict Response to Complex Behavioral Interventions? Evidence from a Genetic Analysis of the Fast Track Randomized Control Trial Journal of Policy Analysis and Management DOI: 10.1002/pam.21811
Dodge, K., Bierman, K., Coie, J., Greenberg, M., Lochman, J., McMahon, R., Pinderhughes, E., & , . (2015). Impact of Early Intervention on Psychopathology, Crime, and Well-Being at Age 25 American Journal of Psychiatry, 172 (1), 59-70 DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13060786