Building Resiliency in Early Childhood

This is our fourth feature article from one of our ECE team members, Steven Bonnay. Steven completed his ECE diploma and postgrad certificate in autism and behaviour studies at Seneca College. This week’s blog focuses on building resilience in children that attend early childhood centres, focusing on different strategies that can be employed to promote resilience in young children and future considerations for assessment and individual programming to support the individual’s development of resiliency.

Resilience is the ability of children to “bounce back” from external stimuli, which can include traumatic events, such as violence, death, abuse and neglect. Developing this ability to internally process these events begins from birth. Parents and educators are pivotal in fostering a robust level of resilience in children in their care, and as such, there is a high value of analyzing the subject of resilience and its long-term implication on both the children and educator to improve quality programming and interactions.

Raising the level of resiliency both within the short-term and long-term of an individual’s life provides for the improved ability to cope with challenges that one may face over a person’s lifetime. The techniques, skills, strategies and observations regarding the development of resiliency within children must be shared and promoted to both the educator and family. Life does not end after the child graduates from a child care environment, it is only the beginning. The ultimate benefit extends to all stakeholders (parents, educators, children and community) by supporting the knowledge base of the educator and parent, in how they may best understand and implement individualized support and care by carefully evaluating themselves, their interactions and the environment.

Case Studies

Let’s start with a general look at resilience, in the case study Building Resilience to Trauma: Creating a Safe and Supportive Early Childhood Classroom. The focus was about the aftermath of a traumatic event that occurred involving a five-year-old child passing away, and how his classmates and educators handled this event. “Few of the early childhood teachers had specific training or experience in responding to traumatic events and many struggled to address the emotions associated with the loss.” (Berson & Baggerly, 2009). It is clear that there is a strong need to understand how to proceed effectively to build and strengthen the children’s resilience after such an event.

This is why the research outlined in article Enhancing Understanding of the Nature of Support: School-based Relationships for Youth Who have Experienced Trauma primarily focused on the relationship between the educator and child. “Student-teacher relationships play a critical role in supporting the learning and well-being of students with mental health problems the purpose of this article was to draw from both current literature and previous qualitative interview research to understand the aspects of school-based relationships that are beneficial for students who have experienced trauma.” (Dods, 2013). Dods essentially used past journals and studies to support her position on what support teachers should extend to promote resiliency. As much as Dods looks outwards, Nesheiwat & Brandwein focuses inwards in the journal titled: Factors Related to Resilience in Preschool and Kindergarten Students can inform us whether there is a “…relationship between resilience and within child characteristics.” (Nesheiwat, & Brandwein, 2011).

Only to build on the type of influencing factors that resiliency manifests itself within a child is the journal titled Emotional Resilience in Early Childhood: Developmental Antecedents and Relationships to Behaviour Problems, that takes the extra step to “… examine whether maternal sensitivity and infant negative affect project long-term emotional resilience and whether this is associated with preschool behaviour problems.” (Conway, & McDonough, 2006).

Mental Health of Children in Palestinian Kindergartens: Resilience and Vulnerability focuses on the implications of war, poverty and maternal mental health on children ranging in age from 3 to 6-year-olds in Palestine. “Exposure to adversity does not necessarily lead to the development of psychopathology in all affected children. This study examined the factors associated with resilience and vulnerability in mental health in the Gaza Strip in 2007.” (Massad, Javier Nieto, Palta, Smith, Clark & Thabet, 2009).

Whereas Preschool Children’s Adjustment Following a Hurricane: Risk and Resilience In The Face of Adversity focused on the before and after effects of a hurricane in Oklahoma. “Family functioning and child characteristics might be factors that influence the impact of disasters on young children.” (Kithakye, Morris, Myers, Terranova, & Morris, 2015).

On the topic of family, Promoting Resilience in Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence Through a Developmentally Informed Intervention: a Case Study, discusses the method in which an intervention was planned and executed for an individual child. “This case study considers the treatment of Alexis, a 6-year-old, African American girl who was referred for services following exposure to IPV (Intimate Partner Violence).” (Howell, Miller, Barnes & Graham-Bermann, 2015). The intervention success is what really makes this journal article important with regards to how the intervention plan may be generalized to other children exposed to intimate partner violence.

The value of recorded and measured intervention methodologies promote possible solutions. Functional Assessment and Positive Support Strategies for Promoting Resilience: Effects on Teachers and High-risk Children uses two tools to document and establish “…intervention planning for children identified with challenging behavior in prekindergarten through first-grade classrooms.” (Stoiber & Gettinger, 2011).

Reinforcing the need for early intervention and support for both the child and the parents can be found in Resource Factors for Mental Health Resilience in Early Childhood: an Analysis with Multiple Methodologiesconducted a “… longitudinal study aimed to identify preschool resource factors associated with young children’s mental health resilience to family adversity.” (Miller-Lewis, Searle, Sawyer, Baghurst & Hedley, 2013).

Factors that Affect Resiliency

A major take away from these case studies is the importance of establishing a supportive environment, this means both home and school should be a place that decreases stress, anxiety and frustration. “Teachers need to create a classroom environment that is safe, nurturing, and responsive to the needs of children who have been exposed to traumatic events. In this context, educators will find many opportunities to attend to children’s basic needs for comfort and reassurance. Resilience can be fostered by creating a culture of support and care in the classroom” (Berson, & Baggerly, 2009). The article goes on to mention: “…this includes maintaining a balance between adherence to family routines and making accommodations for children’s individualized needs” (Berson, & Baggerly, 2009).

Another important consideration is that traumatic situations affect children differently depending on the severity of the situation. As the Palestinian case study proposes: “…about one-third of the children in our study sample met our definition of resilience in mental health. The notable exception were the study participants in Beit-Hanoun City, where half of the children and the majority of the mothers had poor mental health, and only one-sixth of the children were resilient; this may be explained by the particularly high conflict/confrontation level in this town, being only a few hundred metres from the Palestinian–Israeli border” (Massad, Javier Nieto, Palta, Smith, Clark, & Thabet, 2009).

What is fascinating in the case study in Palestine is that as much as war being a factor an even more important factor was reached: “Poor maternal mental health, in turn, seems to contribute to children’s vulnerability, which is in line with our previous study showing that poor maternal mental health was associated with stunting (Massad et al.,2008 unpublished). These results reinforce earlier research emphasizing the importance of maternal mental health for children’s well-being in traumatic conditions” (Massad, Javier Nieto, Palta, Smith, Clark, & Thabet, 2009). This means that the maternal influence on a child’s resilience has the potential to counter the environmental impetus surrounding the child. This means that with proactive education to mothers and mothers-to-be on the practical ways they can promote resiliency to their infant, should have positive long-term effects on their child.

Another component that appears to be very effective in addressing levels of resilience for children at the preschool age is the positive support system that teachers and parents can provide them. Much like environment a key component is the people that also occupy that environment. It would be not too far off to also include peers and the community within this support system. It is having a support system that addresses the observed expression of trauma through new behaviours never displayed before by an individual. It is the steps in which educators and parents can intervene and support the individual through their difficulty in processing and interpreting past traumas. “Furthermore, our sensitivity analyses indicated that greater child self-concept, self-control, and child–parent relationship quality were prospective antecedents of subsequent parent-reported resilient mental health outcomes. These results suggest that more can be gained within intervention programmes with every additional resource that is promoted. This aligns with the contention that ‘cumulative protection’ is needed to counteract cumulative adversity [5,18]. The results also highlight the importance of promoting factors from several systems, including the family, school, and the child, to achieve the largest benefit [4].” (Miller-Lewis, Searle, Sawyer, Baghurst, & Hedley, 2013).

What You Can Do

What this means for the future of child care centre’s is that the educational/professional development should include the tools and rationale for addressing low resiliency. “During the formative preschool years, children begin to foster meaningful social relationships, successfully navigate interpersonal problems, and regulate emotional reactions, all of which contribute to healthy psychological functioning as development progresses” (Howell, Miller, Barnes & Graham-Bermann, 2015). The most powerful tool for anyone is knowledge, why would understanding behaviour stop at just treating the signs and symptoms of a trauma rather than address the core of the child’s challenge? This is a valuable question as long as it is not considered rhetorical. The understanding of children and why they do what they do must be taken to a whole new level. This does not mean that the language and concepts of addressing resiliency in an effective manner should be complex and unapproachable. There is a strong need to change the perception of the early childhood field towards first and most valuable point of interaction and intervention for children typical and atypical in development. Based on the journals specific tools have been proven to increase resiliency and self-efficacy not just for the child/children but also for the early childhood educator. As written in Stoiber & Gettinger’s 2011 study on the use of functional assessment and positive behaviour support:

“As a result of recent conceptual and empirical developments, functional assessment (FA) combined with positive behavior support (PBS) has emerged as one example of what works in promoting social competence and social−emotional resilience among students in school settings. Within a FA framework,the key to effective practice is to understand variables that reliably predict and maintain children’s problem behavior prior to the design and implementation of interventions. Knowledge of the function underlying behavior guides the design of intervention strategies that accommodate the unique needs of children with behavioral challenges. Furthermore, knowledge of classroom variables that “trigger” problem behavior contributes to the development of behavioral support strategies that are preventive. Specifically, information obtained through FA enables practitioners to design classroom environments that both minimize the occurrence of problem behaviors and promote the development of positive behaviors. In this regard, FA combined with PBS is viewed as useful for developing more positive adaptation or resilience in children with challenging behaviors. Because of the varied and complex factors leading to their challenging behaviors, without a systematic focus on increasing the social competence and resilience in these children, they are faced with difficulties that might otherwise lead to significant social and emotional problems, such as anxiety, peer problems, and aggression. Social competence is conceptualized as a multicomponent construct that allows the child access to desirable social relations, conditions, and situations, which promotes their capacity to be resilient, or to develop positive adaptation or “bounce back” when faced with difficulties and cope effectively.”

A suggestion for practitioners would be to continuously professionally develop within the realm of clinical psychology and its derivatives. Specifically the reported clinical successes they may have under very specific situations, using possible interventions and putting them to situations that one may encounter is a definite advantage for the future. The other aspect that would be important is to promote strong support to parents and their need to be informed about best practices in order to make a strong and functioning partnership. “A benefit to studying child characteristics is that they are perhaps the most easily influenced component of resilience while educators have little influence over a child’s family in larger environmental factors it can be said that they have the power to influence certain child characteristics, such as self-concept” (Nesheiwat, & Brandwein, 2011). As an educator you can make a serious impact. Success is a matter of finding the important combination of skills, strategies and apply it the right way, consistently over time.

This notion is echoed in Berson & Baggerly’s 2011 article: “Teachers are ongoing sources of calm, compassion, and hope in the lives of young children. In particular, teachers can help frame children’s perceptions of the world and events they encounter. They may guide young children as they confront overwhelming situations, foster their understanding, respond to their questions, and even articulate their questions. Amid all the discussion, the most important words are those messages that convey a sense of hope for the future. Young children have a limited repertoire of coping skills, and teachers can provide reinforcing messages to confirm that the adults in children’s lives are working to keep them safe and to take care of them. These reassurances help children believe that the world will continue to flourish even though incidents of devastation and sadness may periodically interrupt their lives.” This is why it so important to adhere to a strong long-term commitment to professionally developing in the field of child development. The perception of behaviour and where it comes from and why it occurs becomes less and less of a mystery and more of a part in a formula you can assemble to determine the outcome. Though this field is not the same as other fields such as experimental physics, the ideas of working with children as they are individuals, supports their specifics needs that perhaps the education system was not capable of doing 20 years ago.

The other consideration is that there must a balance struck between qualitative and quantitative assessments on children. Not all children are the same, nor does the environment stay the same either, and time especially does not stand still. There are components that an educator must consider in the moment and at the particular child(ren). The functional assessment of behaviour is a tool that can be applied to observable and measurable behaviours to further put measures in place to support positive change over time that is once again observable and measureable. “Behavioral challenges remain a major concern in the schools. Most children with behavior problems begin to display challenging behaviors during the preschool or kindergarten years. Thus, teachers of young children require both conceptual and instrumental knowledge of strategies to develop instructional coping strategies to prevent behavior problems from escalating or to minimize existing challenging behaviors in their students” (Stoiber & Gettinger, 2011).

It is very valuable to perceive the child as a partner that is here to learn just as much as you about the world and events that have and will transpire. In the end what matters is that there is a shift in the importance of cognitive development of preschoolers and the need to provide more effort in the beginning of a person’s life while their mind is malleable. There is great steps towards success but there are still many questions that must be satisfied to convince the community at large on the importance of promoting resiliency at an early age with effective tools and knowledge that the ECE can access for themselves as well as the parents/guardians.


  2. Berson, I., & Baggerly, J. (2009). Building resilience to trauma: Creating a safe and supportive early childhood classroom. Childhood Education, 85(6), 375-379. doi:10.1080/00094056.2009.10521404.
  3. Kilgo, J. (2010). The role of preschool quality in promoting resilience in the cognitive development of young children. Childhood Education, 86(5), 346.
  4. Kithakye, M., Morris, M. D. S., Myers, S., Terranova, A. M., & Morris, A. S. (2015). Preschool children’s adjustment following a hurricane: Risk and resilience in the face of adversity. Early Education and Development, 26(4), 534. doi:10.1080/10409289.2015.994463
  5. Nesheiwat, K. M., & Brandwein, D. (2011). Factors related to resilience in preschool and kindergarten students. Child Welfare, 90(1), 7-24.
  6. Conway, A. M., & McDonough, S. C. (2006). Emotional resilience in early childhood. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1094(1), 272-277. doi:10.1196/annals.1376.033
  7. Miller-Lewis, L. R., Searle, A. K., Sawyer, M. G., Baghurst, P. A., & Hedley, D. (2013). Resource factors for mental health resilience in early childhood: An analysis with multiple methodologies. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 7(1), 6. doi:10.1186/1753-2000-7-6
  8. Massad, S., Javier Nieto, F., Palta, M., Smith, M., Clark, R., & Thabet, A. (2009). Mental health of children in palestinian kindergartens: Resilience and vulnerability. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 14(2), 89-96. doi:10.1111/j.1475-3588.2009.00528.x
  9. McEntire, N. (2009). The teacher’s role in promoting resilience in young children exposed to violence. Childhood Education, 86(1), 63.
  10. Howell, K. H., Miller, L. E., Barnes, S. E., & Graham-Bermann, S. A. (2015). Promoting resilience in children exposed to intimate partner violence through a developmentally informed intervention: A case study. Clinical Case Studies, 14(1), 31-46. doi:10.1177/1534650114535841
  11. Dods, J. (2013). Enhancing understanding of the nature of supportive school-based relationships for youth who have experienced trauma. Canadian Journal of Education, 36(1), 71.
  12. Stoiber, K. C., & Gettinger, M. (2011). Functional assessment and positive support strategies for promoting resilience: Effects on teachers and high‐risk children. Psychology in the Schools, 48(7), 686-706. doi:10.1002/pits.20587