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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

5 Strategies for Building Resilience in Children and Youth

peer leaders and students participating in the
Flourish summer camp session in 2019

photo courtesy Mental Fitness, Inc.

Guest post by Robyn Hussa Farrell, Mental Fitness, Inc. 

For the last 14 years, Mental Fitness, Inc. (a national nonprofit agency) has connected with researchers from multiple disciplines to deliver evidence-based programs that build resilience in youth.  With one in three adolescents struggling with depression, and with suicide being the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10 to 19, there is an urgent and critical need to build the shared protective factors against substance use, mental health disorders and suicide.

By using a trauma-informed framework, we can be sure to reach children and youth from a wide range of socio-economic and demographic backgrounds. Here are five strategies that we've found particularly effective.

1. Find and source local licensed clinicians who are certified in evidence-based trauma-informed practices prior to launching any prevention, intervention or postvention programs in the school.  
a. When it comes to evidence-based treatments, below are four “best practice” recommendations for treating patients under a trauma-informed care model, as outlined by Dr. Timothy Brewerton, a PTSD and Substance Use / Eating Disorder researcher.  This data was published in the 2019 Journal Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma:
i. Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) 
ii. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)  
iii. Prolonged Exposure (PE)  
iv. Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (for children/adolescents) 
b. Each of the above sites offer a searchable database that can help you locate trauma-informed specialists in your region. 
c. Keep in mind that students and their families will need a range of public health, sliding scale, and multi-lingual resources for support and treatment, so schools should be proactive in creating resource lists in advance of launching programs.  

Taylor Davis, Ed.S., LPC, provides a training for the
Suicide Prevention Task Force members in South Carolina
photo courtesy Mental Fitness, Inc.

2. Collaboration is key.  Connect with other organizations in your region who are sharing in this work.
a. Consider building the network by launching resiliency-focused task forces.  Seven years ago, our county launched a Behavioral Health Task Force through our local United Way.  This task force has connected over 40 agencies who are involved in mental health / substance use treatment and prevention.   
b. From the primary task force, create relevant work-groups to address key issues.  Examples include a Substance Use and Opioid Use Disorder prevention work group, a Resilient Schools initiative and a Suicide Prevention Task Force.  Each of our partners offer unique and powerful perspectives on primary prevention / intervention and postvention.   
c. Task forces that have specific action-based outcomes provide a safe space for transparent discussion and infuse community trust. 
d. Here are a few examples of successful collaborations between Mental Fitness and other local organizations:
i. Collaborative grant funding to support prevention and early intervention of mental health and substance use disorders.
ii. Creation of tele-mental health and tele-psych services. 
iii. Evolution of a peer-support living room / treatment facility. 
iv. A state-wide trauma-informed training curriculum designed and led through our local university’s Child Advocacy Studies program, through their national Child Protection Training center. 
v. Over 50 suicide prevention / intervention and postvention trainings led by suicidologists.  This initiative is based on the ZERO Suicide framework, and led out of our state Department of Mental Health / Suicide Prevention Office. 
vi. Increased support and self-care for the members of the task force.  We all serve as a resource for each other, to prevent burn-out and compassion fatigue. 
vii. Multiple agency collaborations in schools, for example we now bring a 4-hour symposium “tour” into our schools, so administrators, school professionals and counselors can learn best practices around substance use and suicide prevention from a trauma-informed lens. 
viii. County-wide integration of mindfulness curricula in classroom setting.

Local service providers are trained in evidence-based models
such as "How To Manage Serious Mental Illness in Schools."
photo courtesy Mental Fitness, Inc.

3. Establish a community definition and standard for following “evidence-based” best practices. By creating protocols that outline the community’s definition of evidence-based programs and standards, it sets a tone of professionalism and rigor, and can easily be pointed to as a foundation for the community’s resilience-focused logic model.  
Below are examples of sources to incorporate:- According to the 2005 EBP Task Force Final Report, “evidence-based practice in psychology is the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and preferences.” 
- In the mental health space, researchers and practitioners consider it best practice to refer to the “3 stools of evidence base” as outlined by Dr. D.L. Sackett.  We also defer to the APA’s policy statement on evidence-based practice in psychology, which reads:
o “Researchers and practitioners should join together to ensure that the research available on psychological practice is both clinically relevant and internally valid. It is important not to assume that interventions that have not yet been studied in controlled trials are ineffective. However, widely used psychological practices as well as innovations developed in the field or laboratory should be rigorously evaluated and barriers to conducting this research should be identified and addressed.”
- In their 2016 publication, Peterson and colleagues emphasized that all three components of evidence-based practice “are considered essential for providing optimal care in the treatment of [mental health] disorders. However, the extent to which these individual aspects of evidence-based practice are valued among clinicians and researchers is variable, with each of these stool ‘legs’ being neglected at times.”

4. Create a community of self-care by building in opportunities for educators, coaches and parents to learn and employ stress management and mindfulness activities.  
a. We have deployed mindfulness programming county-wide as part of our suicide prevention initiative.  We ask parents to practice some of the activities at home, so the conversations continue well beyond the classroom.  Of course, parents also learn how to better manage their own stressors, while modeling self-care for the entire family. 
b. Deploy “5 Minute Mindfulness”activities on the same day in the classroom or in athletic clubs or groups.  Last year we piloted our “Mindful Mondays” curriculum every Monday for 15 weeks in the alternative schools in our county.  The results were so positive, we will be launching them state-wide in August for all alternative schools in South Carolina.

Flourish youth leaders leaders learn mindfulness techniques
well enough to teach them to elementary students
photo courtesy Mental Fitness, Inc.

5. Engage Youth Directly 
a. By bringing youth directly into the discussion, we can strengthen our impact.  A few things that we have tried over 15 years, include:
i. Deploy arts-focused events that inspire youth to share their perspective or story.  We hold a “Nourish Arts Park” on school campuses to create a safe and interactive environment to talk about mental health and resilience.  At each Nourish Arts Park, students can learn how to build their own journal, the importance of journal writing and other mindfulness resources.  Additionally, we hold workshops where students learn how to create positive statements out of negative thoughts or fears.  The resulting affirmations are painted into beautiful works of art.
ii. Create a peer-led resiliency group.  Flourish is a peer-led resiliency model that empowers college students to learn specific content that improves social-emotional skills, mindfulness and stress management. They learn the techniques well enough to teach high school or middle school students.  The entire program is led by a trained Facilitator who manages the curriculum and roll out.  The foundation of the program is the “5 Minute Mindfulness” curriculum that each participant must learn and teach to a near peer.  The model has rolled out as an in-school program (during lunch hour or during ASTRA or other school programming) and as a summer camp model.
iii. We have deployed hundreds of peer-led video campaigns that allow the youth to serve as the experts.  Examples include: What is Beautiful campaign which directs students to answer three specific questions on camera: (What is Beautiful? What is Inner Beauty? What is Happiness?) and Sources of Strength --  a film-based approach to the national model, whereby students express the individuals in their life who they can turn to.  We also taught youth how to create their own films and build documentary stories about resilience and overcoming adversity. Consider bringing existing film programs to your area such as Arts with Impact or others.
b. Bring the students onto task forces for mental health, substance use and suicide prevention.  Through a structured framework, we can learn their ideas and suggestions for mitigating risk and building protective factors. 
In our community, we have found it invaluable to engage on a public health / community health level to address the many risk and protective factors collaboratively.  Already our schools have sent thousands of educators and school professionals to be trained in these best practice frameworks and have provided much needed hope and healing to the youth and families we serve.  
Even more importantly, our mindfulness programs in classrooms and after school programs have positively impacted the educators and administrators themselves, decreasing burn out and improving empathy and patience.

We hope you find these 5 tips useful for building resilience in your school or community setting.   We are happy to share our models with you.  Simply email

About the Author

Robyn Hussa Farrell, MFA, E-RYT is the founder of four companies: Mental Fitness, a national nonprofit, Resiliency Technologies / Sharpen, Transport Group Theatre Company and White Elephant Enterprises. She spent fifteen years working with researchers to create evidence-based resiliency programs for K-12 schools and treatment centers.  Those models have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals.  More detail is available by emailing her at


related posts: 

8 Principles of Trauma-Informed Yoga and Mindfulness Teaching

How to Responsibly Teach Yoga and Mindfulness to Adults and Children

Training Compassionate Educators to Respond to Childhood Trauma

A Very Brief Introduction to How Trauma Affects the Brain

Video Playlist: Building Community Through the Arts