Resilience and optimism are among the enviable traits that some people seem born with. But according to a growing body of research, they’re also skills that can be taught and nurtured in children, particularly those who have experienced trauma.
In new initiatives, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and PICA Head Start in Hennepin County are helping their staffers build and strengthen resilience and optimism in their own lives so they can model it for their young clients.
With the help of the Boston-based Life is Good Kids Foundation, staffers are training to be “playmakers” — adults who exude “superpowers” such as compassion, creativity and courage and then foster those traits in the kids they see.
“We are taking care of sick and vulnerable kids. It seemed like such a natural partnership,” said Joy Johnson-Lind, senior director of Child and Family Services at Children’s Hospitals.
About 80 staffers at Children’s went through the first round of playmakers training last summer. It includes interactive group exercises, small and large group discussions, presentations and creative activities that involve drawing and physical play.
“Our goal is to help people realize they can develop and enhance very fundamental aspects of their disposition — things like optimism, love, compassion, creativity and humor … and then apply them to meaningful interactions with struggling children,” said Steve Gross, founder of the Life is Good Kids Foundation.
At PICA (Parents in Community Action), the nonprofit that runs Head Start preschool programs, all 375 staff members ranging from teachers to janitors have gone through playmakers training.
“It seems like an obvious thing to bring joy and fun into what we do, but sometimes we forget about it and we are not intentional about it,” said Candee Melin, PICA director of children’s services.
Steeped in science
Gross, a social worker by training, said few dispute that trauma affects childhood development. When the talk turns to solutions, however, eyebrows go up.
“We talk about the detrimental effects of trauma, but we didn’t talk about the solutions,” Gross said. “How do you help kids rediscover a sense of joy, connection, safety and inspiration?”
An answer might be found in a 2015 study conducted by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. The study said that a child’s developing brain relies on consistent interactions with a caregiver.
Those interactions help kids “respond to adversity and thrive” by building their ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior, and adapt to changing circumstances, according to the center. Without those positive relationships, the “brain’s architecture doesn’t develop optimally.”
Anne Douglass was a young teacher two decades ago when she first watched Gross, then a social worker in Boston, introduce a sense of creativity, curiosity and joy to a group of poor and working-class children at a day care center.
Douglass, now executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, has created a college course around the approach Gross used then.
“We can build resilience that can help children and their families with both the typical day-to-day stresses of life [and] … when they are exposed to trauma,” she said.
‘Your emotion regulation’
The surge in research on stress and brain development persuaded Children’s to open its doors and minds to playmakers training.
It began in 2014 when Teammates for Kids, a foundation started by musician Garth Brooks, helped Children’s build a high-tech play space for patients and their families. Realizing that people were as important as the physical space they occupied, Teammates connected Children’s with the Life is Good Kids Foundation.
Children’s vetted the foundation and decided the training matched its mission. A grant from Teammates has helped cover costs, Johnson-Lind said.
One of the first playmakers lessons is: You can’t spread what you don’t have.
There is much discussion about how staffers — often in high-stakes, high-stress scenarios with sick kids and frazzled parents — can tap into their own optimism and resilience, and spread it around.
Some of it is as simple as remembering to smile, making eye contact, listening to others — and taking a few moments to breath and regroup after an intense interaction — rather than carry baggage around for the rest of the day.
It’s about making a conscious decision to see the world as a glass half-full, Johnson-Lind said.
“It’s part of being in the moment. It’s your own emotion regulation,” she said.
The children and families at PICA often are witnesses to trauma in the form of unemployment, financial struggles, domestic strife. Gross’ antidote to trauma resonated with PICA staff, Melin said.
The science emboldens teachers and caregivers to bring more joy and fun into day-to-day activities; for example, PICA added an interactive parachute game for kids and parents at its annual parent resource fair.
“Optimism is a strategy. You can make it part of your daily practice. … It’s a choice,” said Stephanie Smith, child life specialist at Children’s Hospitals and coordinator of the child life zone that opened in 2014 at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul.
Smith, who has worked for more than 10 years dealing with children and families often in the throes of trauma, pointed out that Life is Good’s logo is a bright, lopsided yellow circle. It represents what she tells kids and families every day.
“Life isn’t perfect. Life isn’t easy. But life is good,” Smith said.
“Playmakers are committed to growing the good in the lives of children,” she said. “How you make a person feel is often more important than what was even said.”