Spotlight: Building Resilience With Donna Volpitta

May 8, 2018

As colleges, researchers, and members of the counseling profession strive to fundamentally sharpen the way that colleges review student applications by looking beyond test scores, there has been a movement forming around how to also change what (and how) curriculum is delivered for students in K-12.


Donna Volpitta is dedicated to the burgeoning movement around resilience as a learnable, teachable strength for students. Her Resilient Mindset Model, draws on the latest research in neurology, psychology and education.


We sat down with Dr. Volpitta to discuss the concept of resilience beyond a throwaway line in a letter of recommendation or a college essay.


Channel CCR: These days it seems like there is a movement around how the brain works, and how that affects student journeys to and through college. This includes character, brain science, pop psychology, mindfulness, grit, and other terms that are being used by admissions professionals.


The Institute on Character in Higher Education has recently convened. The Character Lab is putting out playbooks to be used by educators.


What is happening?


Donna: There is a very strong focus these days on trying to develop kids' resilience and character traits. I believe this is due, at least in part, to the trend we are seeing in colleges of an increase in anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide. This generation has definitely experienced a difference in parenting from our generation. There is more pressure to perform at high levels and focus their attention into getting into a good college.


Kids are involved in organized sports at a very young age and parents feel the need to schedule them in all sorts of activities in order to "get ahead."

Unfortunately, this is happening at the expense of unstructured play time, which is when students are able to develop skills that are really critical to help them to become independent. I saw Julia Lythcott-Haimes speak a few years ago, who was a Dean at Stanford University, and I thought she really had a nice metaphor. She said that the better and better the resumes got, the less kids knew themselves and were able to handle even small challenges. She said that it is like the parents had created these perfectly prunes bonsai children, but bonsai children cannot survive in the wilderness.


Channel CCR: How do you understand and define this space and its players? Why is this conversation happening now versus 10, 20 years ago?


Donna: There are a lot of players in the field. There are key buzz words such as character development, social-emotional development, mindfulness, grit, growth-mindset, mindfulness, resilience, and leadership. Several different organizations offer curriculum for teachers focused on directly teaching kids to regulate their emotions in order to make better choices. Some of the big players are Angela Duckworth, (grit- Character Lab out of UPENN), Carol Dweck (growth mindset- Stanford University), the Yale RULER program (social emotional learning) and Mindful Schools (teaching mindful practices). Each has some great tools to help children develop these skills.

Channel CCR: What is brain science?


Donna: Neuroscience is one of the fastest growing fields out there. With new technology such as fMRIs, neuroscienctists are beginning to understand more about the brain and the way it works. This gives us such opportunity in the field of education because we can now apply information about the brain to the decisions that we are making. I spoke last week at Learning and the Brain, a fantastic conference that was started in 2009. When I spoke to the founder, he said that when he first proposed the organization, people literally asked him, "What does learning have to do with the brain?" Now, his conferences and workshops consistently sell out. We have come a long way!


Channel CCR: You work in the space of resilience. Why did you choose that as the headlining topic? 


Donna: When I started on this journey, I did focus my attention on resilience, because as a new mother, I wanted to understand how to actively build resilience in my own children. Now, I would actually say that my headlining topic is the brain science, both because I think that the key to building resilience is to understand the brain science and because my focus is very unique. My goal is to make brain science easy to understand and apply so that people are able to make more resilient choices. There is a lot of neuroscience out there, but most people don't know how to understand and apply it. I want to make that simple.


I define resilience as our response to any challenge, good, bad, big, or small. The way we respond to any challenge is based on the way that we think about what I refer to as the Four Ss of Resilience: self, situation, supports and strategies. The reality of those four Ss is not as important as the way we think about them. The great part is that we can use the four Ss as a framework to help us prepare for, handle and reflect on any challenge, and when we do that, we can proactively build more resilient brain pathways.

However, it is also powerful to understand what is happening in the brain when we are facing challenges. It's funny, we think of choices as "good" vs "bad," like those Flintstone cartoons with the angel and the devil over the shoulders. Our brains actually don't think good/ bad; they think long-term vs short-term. That came from David Desteno's book "Out of Character" and it makes so much more sense. When we begin to understand why we make choices that we do, we can begin to have an impact on those decisions.


Channel CCR: What does this mean for students?


Donna: For students, this is an opportunity. Rather than thinking about challenges as something to avoid, they can look it them as teachable moments. Rather than looking at struggle as bad, they can view it as a means to getting stronger. 


One of my favorite quotations is from Viktor Frankl: “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.”


The brain needs challenges in order to remain healthy. I love to say that self-esteem is not a gift that we can give to someone, it is a neurochemical response that we rob them of when we do things for them that they can do on their own.


Understanding the brain means that we can understand why and how we make choices. This can help students to understand why they are feeling anxious and angry. It can help them to understand their triggers and know what they need to keep their brains healthy. It is very powerful.


Channel CCR: In terms of the college application process, how does this fit in?


Donna: Resilience is important on the college application because college is the first time that some students will be away from their parents, and they will inevitably need to handle challenges. If they can demonstrate that they are resilient, it will make colleges feel more confident that they will be able to handle those challenges successfully, particularly in this age in which so many students seem to be struggling with even small challenges.


College counselors can help students to actively seek out challenges that put them out of their comfort zone, and then encourage students to reflect on those challenges and be prepared to talk about them in the college interview. I do alumni interviews for my college. So many of the students are very impressive on paper, but what really makes an impression is if a student is able to tell stories within an engaging conversation.


Channel CCR: Let's say we don't focus on brain science/pop psychology/character in education. What would the repercussions be?


Donna: That all depends on the students and their experiences. When we were kids, we didn't actively focus on this stuff, we just learned it through experiences. Most of the people I knew when I was a kid had a lot more free time playing in the neighborhood. There, we learned how to plan ahead, organize, handle challenges, fail, get back up, strategize, etc. Some kids will still have that experience and will go off to college and do just fine. In fact, we are seeing some kids in this generation who are absolutely thriving in ways that are incredibly impressive. But some kids will not do well. We are already seeing an increase in depression, anxiety, addiction, drop-out rates and suicide among teens and young adults. I believe that this can be understood and prevented best through understanding the brain science and actively teaching people how to make mindfully resilient choices. 


Channel CCR: What resources or articles would you recommend for folks interested in the concept of resilience?


Donna: I think when we speak about resilience, the most important thing to realize is that it can be taught. The more that we learn about neuroscience, the more we understand that the brain has plasticity--the ability to change--throughout our lifetime.


My first resources would focus on brain development and learning. Here is a great TEDx talk by Dr. Lara Boyd that explains a bit about how we learn and why it is so critical to have kids practice handling challenges: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNHBMFCzznE.


Dan Siegel is always a good resource in terms of brain development, particularly his book The Whole Brain Child. In order to teach resilience, as adults we need to understand how to use challenges as opportunities to develop those resilient brain pathways, so the next thing that I would focus on is how to actively teach resilience.


Several years ago, I co-authored a book called The Resilience Formula to help people understand how to use those opportunities. Though it says it is a parenting book, the tools are just as useful for educators or even corporate leaders.


Because you are focusing in on students who are applying to colleges, the next focus I would have is understanding adolescents.


My favorite books in that arena right now are Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dan Siegel, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims and Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg.


It seems that it is getting harder and harder to raise emotionally healthy, resilient kids, but, I have to say, it is really helpful to know the brain science to help to make those tough decisions in parenting.


Channel CCR: Donna, thanks so much for sharing some insights and resources with our readers!


Donna: Great chatting with you and I look forward to great things with Channel CCR!


More about Donna: Founder of the Center for Resilient Leadership, Donna holds Board positions for One Revolution Foundation and Kids Helping Kids, both of which develop resilience in youth. She is a Founding Member and Global Presence Ambassador for Parenting 2.0, the number one parenting group on LinkedIn. She is an expert for Understood.org and Modern Mom, and has given presentations at numerous professional conferences.

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