Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference. The Resilience Project is teaching children the secrets to happiness words Johanna Leggatt
You had children with lots of advantages in life and yet they were still struggling with mental health issues
Hugh van Cuylenburg travels the country speaking to schools, sporting clubs and corporate clients about a skill that has become critical to thriving in our modern world – resilience.
It’s an issue that preoccupies Hugh and many educators and professionals who work with children: how to build resilience among young people who seem to have it all, yet suffer from anxiety and mental health issues.
“It’s a big problem and one that shocked me when I started working as a teacher,” Hugh says.
His career change was sparked almost a decade ago when he headed to the remote region of Ladakh, in northern India, to volunteer at a school.
He was supposed to stay for a fortnight, but what he found in Tickse – a town with no running water, no electricity and few modern comforts – was so astonishing that he extended his stay to almost four months.
“The people had very little, they slept on the floor, but they were so happy, calm and present,” Hugh says.
“When you spoke to the children, they were there with you. They weren’t on phones or looking around for the next thing to happen.
“There was one child who cut the tops of his shoes open so his growing toes would have room, and he thought he was so lucky to have shoes because a lot of kids didn’t.”
Hugh wanted to try to understand what made these local primary school students so much happier than his Australian charges.
“I thought, ‘There is something here that I need to learn off these people’,” he says.
Hugh came to realise there were three things that made the students happier: gratitude, empathy and mindfulness, or what Hugh now dubs the GEM model.
“They showed gratitude every day by stopping to point out things they felt lucky to have,” he says.
“One boy I got particularly close to would say ‘dis’ (he couldn’t pronounce the ‘th’) and point at whatever made him happy. He would do it when he was talking to his friends, pointing and saying ‘dis’ to tell me that he was lucky to have these people in his life.”
When Hugh returned home in 2009, he took a job teaching high school students at an elite Melbourne school but he suffered a severe case of “reverse culture shock”.
“You had children with lots of advantages in life and yet they were still struggling with mental health issues,” he says.
“They displayed a lot of anxiety; you had children who would cry when they dropped their lunch.”
Hugh decided to put into action the lessons he had learned in India by developing The Resilience Project, an Australian Unity-sponsored program designed to help children develop inner strength and wellbeing.
“I was also inspired by my sister, who was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when she was 14 but has since recovered,” he says.
“It took a huge toll on my family, and part of the reason I wanted to start the project was so that I could maybe stop someone else going down the same road.”
Nevertheless, the schools took some convincing.
“I pitched it to schools for a good 18 months, almost two years, before getting anywhere,” he says.
Then in 2013, Hugh spoke at a regional Victorian conference in front of 52 state school principals and a flood of bookings followed. It’s been a packed calendar ever since.
There is some irony to just how hard Hugh had to work to get The Resilience Project off the ground – the persistence needed, the determination in the face of rejection, all of which equated to a form of on-the-job learning.
“I felt like a phony at times because here I was pitching resilience and, of course, some days I was feeling quite flat,” he says.
“But that is the thing about resilience; you have to keep going.” The project involves Hugh – or fellow resilience speaker Martin
Heppell – sharing stories on the nature of wellbeing, intestinal fortitude and happiness with both primary and high school students, staff and even parents.
There is a dedicated journal that children are encouraged to use, and the psychology of resilience is worked into the school’s curriculum.
“I don’t actually use the word resilience when I talk, as I see that as an adult word,” Hugh says.
“It’s about teaching kids to be a little bit happier through sharing my story and being vulnerable.”
The Resilience Project has also been adapted for adults and delivered to all NRL clubs, most AFL teams and a handful of corporate clients. Most recently, a daily wellbeing journal has been produced in appform that prompts users to identify their emotions and record moments of gratitude. Hugh is often asked where he sees the project in five or 10 years’ time, but he doesn’t have a firm plan.
“I just have to focus on being good at what I do right now and being in the moment and five years’ time will take care of itself,” he says.
The Resilience Project is now also an app, available as a download for iTunes and Android. The app works as a daily wellbeing journey, prompting users to identify emotions and record moments.