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Bravery and resilience

The concept of resilience has been discussed more often in education circles of late as policymakers and others pay more attention to trauma-sensitive learning and adverse childhood experiences.

Recently The New Yorker published an article entitled, “How People Learn to Become Resilient” focused on the work of developmental psychologist Norman Garmezy who spent four-plus decades studying the lives of children, in particular those who were considered resilient in the face of adversity.

Garmezy’s question focused on children who were “adaptive” and who had managed to contribute successfully even in the face of adversity.

The stressors that Garmezy studied fall under the spectrum of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which include challenges such as poverty, violence in the home, traumatic divorces, maltreatment, alcoholism and drug abuse in the home, and more.

The work of another development psychologist, Emily Werner, was also featured in The New Yorker piece. Werner identified various characteristics that helped identify resilient children including:

A strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor

Meeting the world on their own terms — they were usually autonomous and independent, they sought out new experiences and had a “positive social orientation”

They believed that they, and not their circumstances, would affect their achievements

Perhaps the most illuminating discovery of the research of recent decades is that resilience is a set of skills that can actually be taught.

This research matters in the face of the growing awareness around the impacts of trauma and adversity on children. Research has indicated that students with multiple ACEs are more likely to struggle with standardized tests, attendance, and more. ACEs have also been shown to have lifetime health impacts.

A few weeks ago, the PTSA and others at Knightdale High School of Collaborative Design invited me to speak on resilience at their February Academic Recognition night. The theme of the Academic Recognition nights for this school year is “Getting Smarter to Do Good” and it was my honor to meet an incredible array of students who were dedicated to finding their own path forward.

The Knightdale High School of Collaborative Design is in the midst of a powerful turnaround effort, which has shown the dedication of students, faculty, and parents to build a school that can do great things.

My remarks that evening were framed around the concept of being brave.

At EdNC, we have traveled the state speaking to students and others on the concept of bravery, particularly as it relates to taking creative risks within their education or career. We believe that failure isn’t fatal, which has been critical to our own work as we continue to experiment with building an online media and community platform that brings everyone into a conversation about educating our children, and we believe that the world in which we live will reward those who embrace that view in the long run.

The remarks were also framed around the concept of resilience. My life has taught me that we can not always control our circumstances, but we can guide our own response.

My experience teaches me that the first skill of resilience is to find your support systems. As I told the students, my experience taught me you need to lean on your friends, family, and mentors while also finding purpose in your days.

My experience has also shown me that resilience requires us to own and shape our own narrative.

Storytelling is an essential element of our life. In our daily lives we are constantly shaping and sharing our story. My belief is that it is the telling and retelling of our stories that helps shape how we perceive the circumstances of our life.

Arguably, an emphasis on owning their narrative is part of how a student might build resilience.

As I told the students at Knightdale a few weeks ago, and as I have told other students in other settings, you can look at my life and define it in any number of ways.

Being born to teenage parents who struggled with alcohol, drugs, and poverty was not ideal.

Attending four schools by sixth grade would not likely have been my choice nor did it foster learning.

Being burned with hydrochloric acid as a result of a high school prank did not make me want to trust others.

Yet those experiences forced me to adapt, to find solace in reading, and to learn to craft friendships in new and challenging environments.

NRH at Disney NRH in Kiddie Pool NRH playing football

In turn, those experiences helped me grapple with the loss of my wife, Jamie, nearly three years ago now. Nothing can prepare you for the magnitude of the loss that our family faced, yet experience can help you find a way out of the darkness. Day by day. Minute by minute.

My experience taught me that we must pay attention to adverse childhood experiences, trauma sensitive learning, and building resilience in our students.

My experience was one of the clearest indicators of why the momentum around trauma sensitive learning matters as my grades and attendance rose from the moment my life led me to the stability of living with my Great Aunt and Uncle. As I told the students in Knightdale, I wasn’t smarter than I had been, but stability allowed me to excel in school.

And, in time, my life showed me that we must own our stories. This lesson echoed in my mind recently while reading a piece on resilience by Parul Sehgal who closed her piece with the provocative question, “Why rise from the ashes without asking why you had to burn?”

It is in answering that question that our students will learn resiliency and a path forward. And in their answer, they may well find the power to build a community and a North Carolina they will always wish to call home.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.