Resilience in early years—continuing the conversation

dogbod2018, blog

by Dr Caralyn Blaisdell

Dr Caralyn Blaisdell continues our discussion on the theme of resilience and how this term is being used.

“We like to think of childhood as a time of joy and innocence—for many of us it’s just not true.”

…so opens the trailer for the Resilience documentary, an American film currently touring through the children’s sector in Scotland. The film is a public service announcement dealing with the “biology of stress and the science of hope”. It explores the ways that exposure to trauma, particularly during childhood, affects a person’s whole being, and looks at associations with future health outcomes. Research suggests that prolonged stress is associated with poorer health outcomes in childhood and adulthood. The film specifically focuses on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study but resonates with a wider body of research—for example, hypotheses about the ‘weathering’ effects on health of chronic stressors such as racism.

The tagline for the film is ‘the biology of stress and the science of hope’. It is perhaps the ‘hope’ elements of the documentary that are particularly important to interrogate. The film is from a US context and – perhaps unsurprisingly, given its origin – focuses largely on individualised remedies. These are important. But the documentary does not spend much time questioning how inequalities come about on a structural level. For example, the film looks at an intervention that involves drama therapists listening to children about their lived experiences. But why is this such a departure? Why do we not already create space for children’s voices and seek out their perspectives—and believe them? The film does not unpack children’s subordination and the institutional practices that silence them. It’s sad, but not surprising, that we need reminding that children are human beings with complex lives and relationships.

At Strathclyde University, the initial feedback from students who have seen the Resilience documentary suggests they see a role for themselves. From vowing to avoid making their classroom stressful for children, to understanding that ‘bad behaviour’ may not be about children being naughty, but instead stem from stress, to making a commitment to be brave and ask children about what worries them, the students are thinking about how their own practice might create a more just experience for children. For example, how do early years professionals deal with racist incidents in the playroom? Do we gloss them over in the name of being ‘nice’ and ‘all being friends’ (Konstantoni, 2013)? Are teachers aware of the structural causes of poverty and the ways poverty impacts on school life (Kustatscher, 2017; Treanor, 2017)? Do early years professionals have an understanding of how cultural, political and legal contexts shape the choices that are available to children and families, and their sense of belonging in country and community (Tillett and Wong, 2017)?

In previous CRFR blogs about resilience, the authors have asked us to consider who is responsible for resilience. Are we cheering when children and young people successfully ‘steel’ themselves against a deeply unfair society, or are we going to look at our own contributions to dealing them a better hand, as Ariane Critchley asks? Remedies for resilience, such as mindfulness, are increasingly popular in early years, but we need to ask ourselves WHY environments are stressful for children and how we can change our own ways of working.

About the Author

Caralyn Blaisdell is a Lecturer in Early Years Education at the University of Strathclyde. She completed her PhD at CRFR on ‘Young children’s participation as a living right: an ethnographic study of an early learning and childcare setting’.