Building competence in children and youth

A bouncing and stretching article.

Resilience, as defined by the Merriam-Webster  Online dictionary, is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg suggests that there are “7 Crucial C’s” that help build resilience in children and youth. Resiliency skills are very important to help children and youth successfully navigate all the changes and bumps in the road they will experience as they begin to grow up.

In his book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens, seven interrelated components are presented as the building blocks to help begin to build resiliency skills in our children and youth. The 7 C’s of resilience include:

  • Competence: knowing how to handle situations effectively
  • Confidence: the belief in one’s own abilities
  • Connection: having ties with family, friends, school and the community
  • Character: having a sense of right and wrong
  • Contribution: understanding that they can make a difference in the world
  • Coping: having skills to effectively deal with stress
  • Control: understanding they control their decisions and actions

Competence is knowing how to handle situations effectively. According to Michigan State University Extension, children and youth build competence by mastering tasks and facing challenges. Competence continues to develop with each life experience. The more experience a child or youth has with mastering tasks and successfully facing challenges the more competence they will develop in themselves.  Dr. Ginsberg suggests there are seven areas that need to be considered when helping children and youth develop competence.  These seven areas include:

  • Getting out of the way: adults need to recognize when to step in and when to let children and youth explore and build their own experiences.  Dr. Ginsberg suggests three things to do in situations:get out of the way, join in and help a child build new avenues of competence or guide a child to think through situations wisely and safely.
  • Play is a job of childhood: child directed free play helps children and youth become aware of their own likes, skills and competence. It encourages exploration, imagination and can offer a way for children and youth to de-stress. Allow child directed free play as part of your family schedule and participate as directed by the youth.
  • Noticing, praising, criticizing: to help build competence it is helpful for children and youth to have their new skills and abilities authentically noticed and reinforced with concrete and specific praise. Criticism can help build competence if it is given as constructive, positive feedback that focuses on reminding children and youth of their strengths instead of their shortcomings.
  • Thinking clearly: sometimes the way children and youth think about things keep them from gaining competence. Adults need to model positive thinking and approaches to problem solving so that children and youth can use similar techniques to think about situations.
  • No more lectures: children and youth are concrete thinkers; they need to be able to choose between a limited number of choices. This allows them to have control within the boundaries set by adults. Learning how children and youth think can better prepare adults to communicate with them in meaningful ways. Using short, concrete phrases and listening to their response can help open up communication lines and increase competence because they become part of the conversation and solutions.
  • Guiding to find the right choices: children and youth will experience many challenging situations as they grow up. Using practical, experiential techniques to practice responding to these challenging situations can help give children and youth the skills they will need and the competence to overcome these situations.  Dr. Ginsberg suggests using the following to help practice these skills:
    • Choreographed Conversations: a casual conversation between adult and youth that helps steer them through a problem and come up with their own solution to that specific problem.
    • Role-playing: another casual way to talk about what-if situations and see where those situations lead. Use the role-play loosely and ask open ended questions like “then what?”, “what else could they do or say” or “what other choices did they have?” 
    • Decision Trees: this is a visual that can help breakdown vague lessons into concrete steps. Use a realistic, fictional situation to draw out what happens when decisions are made to show children and youth how decisions can affect consequences.
    • What “no” means: teach children and youth to use no and mean it. When adults use no they should mean it as well. Too often children and youth learn that no does not always mean no.
    • Code words, blaming and rumors: sometimes children and youth want to make the smart choices but they don’t know how to do that and save face with their friends. Adults can help by discussing and agreeing on code words (a word that is used to let adults know they need help with a situation), having children and youth blame them (encourage children and youth to use adults as the “bad guys” to get them out of a tough situation) and creating rumors (using what will happen to them if they do something adults don’t approve of).
  • Teaching media literacy: children and youth can sift through the media messages and are in control of their own opinions and self-image. Teach children and youth to question what they are seeing and hearing and evaluate those messages against their own thoughts and beliefs.

For a deeper look at helping build competence in children and youth check out Building Resilience in Children and Teens by Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg. For more information and resources about developing resiliency in children and youth visit Fostering Resilience, the Search Institute and the Devereux Center for Resilient Children. For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the MSU Extension website.

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