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Bouncing back is the key to survival

In the second part of our summer series, Rosemary Roberts seeks out the attributes that help children meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Everyone who reads this will have asked themselves this question at one time or another: How is it that in very similar circumstances some young people come through the challenges and difficulties of adolescence and early adulthood, while others get into serious trouble, causing havoc for those around them as well as significantly damaging their life chances?

This is becoming an urgent question, as the number of excluded pupils in the UK rises.

I have wondered for many years whether there are particular attributes that help people to be more resilient, and recently I have been studying the ways in which certain characteristics begin to develop, even in the first year of life.

Thirty years of brain research has shown us that babies' and young children's early experiences directly affect the way the brain is "wired", making a decisive impact on its architecture and on the nature and extent of adult capacities. But although these early experiences are so powerful, we also know that the brain is immensely plastic, and that it is never too late to offer experiences that can make a positive difference.

Certain characteristics and attitudes are thought to help people to cope reasonably well, and there even seems to be an ABC of resilient well-being.

A is for a sense of "agency". This essentially means children and young people feeling they can make a difference to their own lives.

With agency comes an active, positive "can do" attitude, with confidence and curiosity, and a strong sense of identity and self-esteem. These factors feed the developing power of creativity that is so important in the learning process: exploration, discovery, reflection and expression all rest firmly on a "strong-enough" sense of agency.

B is for a sense of belonging, and also boundaries. This is about the security of feeling accepted and contained by something that is around and beyond the self. This sense of belonging, rooted initially in the attachment relationship between mother and baby, soon extends to the close family, and perhaps the extended family - and young children often feel they belong in their pre-school or school, too.

Here they can learn to feel wanted and special, to trust others and to share problems. However, membership of any organisation means accepting its rules and boundaries; this reinforces a sense of belonging, and so does being involved in the way they are made and maintained.

C is for communication. Both the capacity and the disposition to communicate underpin the way children and young people learn about their world. In relation to the involvement and responsibility that form the basis of citizenship, it is every child's right to have an opinion and for it to be listened to and taken seriously.

It is also every child's right to find out things, and to express thoughts and feelings through speaking, writing and creative activity. The ability to use these rights is rooted in children's early experiences of being listened to, and being helped to communicate in many different ways.

These categories - of agency, belonging and boundaries, and communication - reflect a child's emotional, social and cognitive development; or, in another frame of reference, their mental health.

Is there anything else, I keep asking people, that you think might be important? A frequent answer has to do with physical health - for example, feeling reasonably fit and well, eating properly, getting enough sleep, exercise and fresh air, even laughing. I have described these collectively as "Zing!" - a fourth element affecting resilient well-being.

Ironically, if things go really wrong and a young person is finally in detention, the conditions in our young offenders' institutions and prisons could hardly be worse for promoting resilient well-being. If ABC Z are needed to function reasonably well, what could be more damaging than prison conditions for already vulnerable and challenging young people? Certainly "boundaries" are in place, but unfortunately not the kind of progressively internalised ones young people need.

How do these ABC Z components work in practice? Here is one shining example: I saw a wonderful end-of-term performance of Tales of the Arabian Nights at a primary school with a rich and diverse intake, where 17 per cent of families have English as an additional language. There was a carnival atmosphere, with home-made popcorn, and buggies and grannies were much in evidence among the throng of anticipative parents.

The set, mercifully out of doors in the heatwave, was an Aladdin's Cave of "old stuff". Draped with rugs and fabrics in vibrant colours, it was variously an Arabian market place, the Sultan's palace, the seabed, and an intriguing junk shop. Nearby, open-sided tents provided cover for the band and for the sound and lighting co-ordinators. We sat with our backs to the school football pitch, with excitement in the air and the setting sun behind us illuminating the scene.

This performance had all the ingredients of great drama - humour, suspense and tragedy, music, dance and acrobatics. All junior children had been involved. It was a triumph of inclusivity, with the cast list featuring children who could be challenging. Their great performances brought tears to the eyes of even the most seasoned staff.

Collectively and individually, these children had put the show on the road.

Backed by staff and a community undaunted by risk-taking, they had planned, created and performed it; discussing, trying out, organising, singing, dancing, cartwheeling, story-telling, listening and cheering each other on.

They made the audience laugh and cry and cheer and clap - and won't they always remember the way they belonged with each other for those weeks, and the hard work involved? It was a superb nurturing of their agency, belonging, communication and Zing! - an experience that will, in subtle ways, sustain them all their lives.

HHH Can educational institutions, from nurseries through primary and secondary schools to further education, find ways of "growing" resilience rather than undermining it? Clearly performances such as The Arabian Nights are one way, and here are eight more for a start: 1 Find a way to involve every child in groups that plan, make and eat meals together.

2 Consider the powerful role model you give to children in terms of agency, belonging, communication - and Zing!

3 Critically review your institution's Zing! rating.

4 Listen carefully to even the youngest children, encouraging them to feel they have a voice in relation to the things that they care about, and that matter most to them.

5 Say yes as often as you can. Don't say no if you can find another kind of yes, but...

6 ...When you do say no, mean it.

7 Acknowledge that unreasonable behaviour is almost always reasonable from the point of view of the person doing it.

8 Review your institution's capacity to generate a sense of belonging. For instance, what does it feel like to be a new pupil, a new family, a new member of staff? Are new people looked after, and do they have a base that they can call their own?

Rosemary Roberts was a nursery school head, and is former director of Peers Early Education Partnership (PEEP), in Oxford.She is studying the foundations of resilient well-being, and would welcome correspondence.

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An ABC Z of resilience

Agency This means feeling you can make a difference to your own life - for instance, a strong sense of identity, confidence, curiosity, creativity, positive learning dispositions, and realistic self-esteem.

Belonging and boundariesThis is about having a sense of security, making and maintaining relationships, trusting others, sharing problems, feeling special and wanted, self-discipline, accepting and contributing to routines and rules.

Communication Getting on with other people by explaining your feelings and ideas, and listening carefully to theirs - being able to talk, listen, watch, understand and communicate with other people in various ways. This is also about awareness of the world around us generally, and the impact we make upon it.

Zing! Feeling reasonably fit and well makes a big difference to a person's ability to cope. This is all about eating properly, getting enough sleep, exercising, getting fresh air, singing, dancing, laughing - and, as far as possible,not getting ill.

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