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Research has shown that many who face adversity in childhood feel its impact into adulthood. But that does not mean those who experience early challenges cannot thrive. McLean Hospital is a place where many patients get help with the problems they have faced that started in childhood. There is a huge role our researchers and clinicians can play, not only in treating adults who have faced childhood adversity, but to help children build resiliency before they become ill. Gil G. Noam, EdD, founded The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience at McLean because he believed a key to understanding and supporting this perseverance was by building a strong partnership between research and practice.
Preventing all adversity in childhood is not realistic. We cannot protect children from all challenges, particularly when those challenges may have deep roots in systemic issues like poverty and racism. But while we cannot bubble wrap our children, we can do more to promote the resilience that helps children thrive despite adversity. To do this, we need to focus on understanding the strengths within each child that can help them persevere. The psychiatric field has created detailed methods of parsing problems and symptoms, but we have a long way to go to better understand strength, creativity, and resilience.
There are lessons we can learn from education. The field has recently become more interested in promoting positive mental health and non-academic skills, often referred to as “social-emotional learning.” While this shift toward considering the needs of “the whole child” and acknowledging the impact of trauma and adversity is a positive one, we must be careful not to treat a student’s social-emotional needs as something we can assess like a math grade or diagnose like a disease. Labeling or “pathologizing” students who have experienced adversity is to dismiss the strengths within these students that could help them become more resilient.
The PEAR Institute works directly with schools and afterschool programs to reach students where they spend most of their time. They help educators better understand the social-emotional needs of their students through student self-reporting, coaching and training, and social-emotional curricula so educators are equipped to assess, understand, and reduce the effects of adversity.
It is important to be prepared and have the resources to respond when a crisis hits. Take, for example, the story of our partnership with Hoosick Falls Central School District in rural Hoosick Falls, New York. For many, the name will be familiar because of the well-publicized water crisis the village is experiencing after a toxic manufacturing chemical was found in the drinking supply. The impact of this revelation was felt profoundly throughout the community. Not being able to trust your own water and feeling betrayed by the company that allowed the pollution was traumatizing for students and adults alike in the school district.
Because the district had already taken steps to put a social-emotional focused program in place, they had the knowledge and resources to address this crisis head-on. By using The PEAR Institute’s student social-emotional self-report survey, the Holistic Student Assessment (HSA), and through distance-learning work with PEAR trainers, the district was able to learn directly from the students what their social-emotional needs were and was able to provide targeted support in the form of mindfulness education, meditative breathing, and equine therapy, among other intervention initiatives. This example is one of many that show why having proactive resiliency strategies in place is so important. Educators need to prepare themselves and their students before the situation becomes a mental health crisis. To do that, it is critical that the psychiatric and education fields work together to learn more about resiliency, both how to identify it and how to inspire it in our young people.