Teaching children to be resilient is only the start

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With mental health problems on the rise and anxiety in young people at the highest level to date, Tim Wilbur talks about how we can offer meaningful support to our students.

I am delighted to have been asked to chair the afternoon session on ‘Resilience’ as part of the Optimus Education conference on ‘Supporting Student Wellbeing in Independent Education’ in April.

The topic has always been important to me, as my four educational leadership roles have coincided with the period of education encompassed by the Children Act of 1998 to the present-day focus on Wellbeing. However, my feelings towards the topic are even stronger than many expressed today. Put simply, I believe teaching children to be ‘resilient’ is only the start; we need to teach them to not only conquer whatever they are troubled by, but also, on some occasions, to carry the battle back.

In this context I was particularly struck by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book ‘Antifragility’ when it first appeared in 2012. Taleb, the populist guru of ‘probability’, famous already for his books ‘Fooled by Randomness’ and ‘Black Swan’, states in his third book ‘Antifragility’ that resilience simply is not enough.

Although ostensibly not a book about education, the more I read the more I reflected on the teaching of resilience and the more I thought that this is indeed one of the best books on education I have ever read.

Taleb’s point is that the opposite of ‘fragile’ is not ‘resilient’, it is ‘antifragile’ and hence the title of the book. He states ‘Antifragility is beyond resilience and robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.’ In Taleb’s words, ‘We don’t just want to survive uncertainty, to just about make it. We want to survive uncertainty and, in addition, have the last word.’ In educational terms, if we replace ‘uncertainty’ with all the pressures and conditions facing our young people today, the message could not be clearer.

Dealing with young people’s problems is hard enough and there are times when getting close to ‘breaking even’ in any situation is a real challenge for any responsible person involved in any given case. However, having read Taleb, it did appear to me that looking beyond ‘repair’ made it possible to offer sustained support to young people in real terms.

Of course we cannot produce antifragility in all of them, and we need to beware the concept of creating the super-human: history shows the danger in that. All our hopes and legislation are based on the realistic opportunity to create a level playing field for all our youngsters so they can live, if they choose, ‘ordinary lives’ free from interference and harm. Some of the pressure we put on them to exceed expectations are for many simply unattainable. As educational professionals we need to exercise responsibility and I know we do. However, in just a few cases, it would be great to fight back, to document success and to encourage a few people to share their triumphs with the countless others who currently struggle.

Tim Wilbur, Director of School Consultancy at Gabbitas Education, will be chairing the ‘Supporting Student Wellbeing in Independent Schools’ conference on 26th April. For more information and a special discount for places booked through Gabbitas Education, please visit https://www.gabbitas.com/wellbeing-conference-2018/ .