7 Strategies for Strengthening Vulnerable People

Breaking the Poverty Cycle for South Africa’s Most Vulnerable

Diana G.Pinto,
The Creative Pen

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Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Counseling (EAPC). Horses as a powerful way of helping people restore a sense of self-worth
Image credits: Four Ways Review; Shumbashaba; Random Acts of Kindness

Children and young people exposed to violent environments live in fear, with the perspective that the world is neither fair nor safe, a state of mind reflecting on their behaviour.

Still, the good news is that the opposite is also true. When exposed to positive experiences, vulnerable children and youngsters overcome adversities to develop life skills and build strengths enabling them to make their own choices, relate to others and thrive.

This is possible due to positive education, which is based on positive psychology developed by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000).

The organisations Move for Two, Shumbashaba and Hlumelelisa exemplify how nonprofits can provide the opportunity for individuals who face a harsh environment to empower their strengths.

The organisations’ programs teach practical activities alongside life skills to vulnerable children, young people and adults living in segregated coloured communities in South Africa.

Their approach focuses on systematically building the students’ competencies instead of being stuck in correcting their weaknesses, which aligns with a positive education.

Positive education overcomes cognitive and social difficulties.

Understanding How Environmental Conditions Affect Personal Abilities

Overwhelming negative experiences affect children’s learning abilities. This negative effect translates into struggling with memory, concentration and language, while attachment difficulties decode affected social capacities leading to poor relationships with peers.

Research explains this correlation between environmental conditions and personal abilities. Accordingly, when exposed to traumatic environments, the brain conserves energy for survival and is not in a state of learning or creativity.

Therefore, children and young people exposed to harsh conditions need urgently positive educational approaches to their privations to achieve their potential.

Move for Two in the Gugulethu community, Shumbashaba in the Diepsloot community, and Hlumelelisa delivering courses in the correctional facilities of several communities strive to provide the right tools for their vulnerable students to work on their individual and social struggles.

When in contact with children and youth who live in traumatic environments, the educational path can take two directions:

A déficit perspective,

  • e.g., what deficiencies or developmental struggles does this student face?

Or a strengths perspective:

  • e.g., what psychological resources does this student have to build upon for future success?

Children and youth desperately need positive approaches while struggling to thrive in often unstable and dangerous environments.

Therefore, the founders of positive psychology call for the urgency of “the initial kick” of growth, focusing on prevention and building strengths as buffers to protect individuals from the effects of adverse environments.

Emotional control, impulse management and relationship building are capacities that protect and promote development (more on this below).

But how can individuals build a positive system while living under constant threatening circumstances?

Values are visible solid messages.

“They do anything to survive, not because they want to but because they need to.” Australian Childhood Foundation

7 Ways to Increase the Well-Being of Vulnerable Individuals

Researchers could show that individuals who have traumas can also grow in positive dimensions of well-being because both states of mind are distinct mental constructs. This way, it is possible to build positive traits by “seeing into the soul” hidden skills while repairing the adverse effects of environmental stressors which damage habits, drives, childhood and brains.

Moreover, positive science suggests that a person “can be happy while confronting life realistically” if working to improve the conditions of existence. This way, the children, young people (and even adults) who live under adverse conditions can still benefit from positive, driven regular activities while reducing ill-being. (This is consistent with the trauma-informed positive education (TIPE) model).

  1. Positive activities enhance the well-being of those who feel hopeless:

"I have learned about hope because hoping for something is good."

(Shumbashaba testimonial)

These activities are social intervention opportunities that help youngsters to handle their daily challenges resulting in psychological and physical well-being. In a setting where positivism is encouraged and where positive practices are taught, it is called positive education. And this can work either in children, youth or adults, as the nonprofits Move for Two, Shumbashaba (“lion of the nation”) and Hlumelelisa (“new spirit”) show through their extensive track records.

The outcomes include high levels of hope, gratitude, optimism, health condition, life satisfaction and life-changing. This “spiral of positive growth” helps people engage socially in the community and keeps them away from the justice system. Moreover, researchers concluded that positive emotions help to handle more effectively adverse conditions and vice versa. The ability to employ positivism as a coping method to handle adversity “predicts positive emotions over time.”

2. Positivism is a state of mind that impacts everyday lives.

It is a state of mind that directly affects physical and psychological well-being. This impact reflects how individuals feel about their lives and existence. It depends on the values and goals in contrast to life experiences and expectancies. In this consideration, scholars claim that what is important is how people interpret events, not the events themselves. This way, their state of mind is paramount to handling reality.

3. Positivism is a helpful coping mechanism used to handle reality.

Positivism focuses on creating a positive mind that reflects on what makes life worth living. It helps people ride out and thrive under adversities and the miseries of life, developing positive traits.

For example, according to positive psychology, addressing children under stressful conditions is not just to fix what has been broken but to nurture what they have best.

4. Optimism is that state of spirit that lifts people's moods.

Optimism lifts moods. As a beneficial psychological characteristic with “cognitive, emotional, and motivational components,” people tend to be in better spirits, more successful, and experience better physical health. Positive emotions benefit physical and emotional health.

Moreover, optimistic individuals are better prepared to face unfavourable information about the reality of a disease or the death of a loved one.

5. "Think before you act," self-control prevents dangerous situations.

Positive education equips individuals to learn, reflect on the consequences of behaviours and self-regulate impulses. It gives them the knowledge to prevent dangerous situations and embrace a peaceful and creative existence. For these to happen, space and the right setting are necessary conditions for children and youngsters to develop skills. This way, there is a clear contrast between their real life and the education and activities provided by the nonprofits. Under this safe roof, abilities are learned and experienced among peers.

The positive approach addresses dysregulated behavior by creating the right learning environment teaching students to handle their negative emotions toward themselves and their peers.

Involved are several types of activities that can be either physical activities as well as cognitive. For better outcomes, positively educating vulnerable children and youth should include enough rhythmic repetitions for the body so that the child can then concentrate on mental work.

Nonprofits should help students develop abilities to control emotions through the body and mindful strengths because, as researchers have shown, it reduces aggression, helps build greater empathy, and improves impulse control.

Thinking Thursdays: Stretching and thinking help extend thoughts.

Consider the following examples: when during dance classes, children assume negative behaviours toward their peers, Move for Two addresses their students to reflect on the consequences of their behaviour toward peers to enhance empathy with others and self-discipline. The organisation seeks to balance both capacities through dance and life skills such as personal health care, peer pressure, conflict management, time management, listening skills, leadership, positive thinking, communication, critical thinking and recognising diversity.

"music will also activate a part of the limbic system which associates that piece of music with the enjoyment it triggers in the child each time it is played."

Australian Childhood Foundation

Youth Development program

Another example is the Shumbashaba organisation which embraces the human and animal bond to help people overcome physical and emotional disabilities. The nonprofit provides horse-riding programs while also delivering a non-riding agenda (Youth Development programme) on life skills for emotional, mental and well-being improvement to victims of abuse and emotional trauma. This approach also embraces the human/horse bond (and caring for other animals), aiding the psychological process of their students. The program has already helped over 1600 people in the community.

In turn, the organisation Hlumelelila dedicates life-changing rehabilitation programs on growing food and plants to sentenced offenders and youth at risk (those who have been given a second chance). After receiving horticulture expertise and life skills, students can find jobs after prison.

For those at-risk, embracing the program released them from becoming offenders. By teaching the wonders of nurturing nature, Hlumelelila has changed the lives of hundreds of individuals.

Take the story of Reggie, who turned his life from an ongoing burglar and drug addict from age 13 to becoming a trainee facilitator in horticulture after embracing the organisation’s program.

According to researchers, children and youngsters learn to connect positive external experiences to thoughts and feelings, which will help them to better control their emotions at times of uncertainty, stress, anger or confusion, and think to make a choice.

This transformation enables them to become active individuals who choose their path instead of passive victims of their environment. For example, participants from Shumbashaba programmes reveal their feelings: “the black horse taught me to be patient, not to give up so easily, and the white one taught me about respect and being different;” and “I learned how to respect myself and respect others.”

This strength would not be possible without building solid relationships.

Move For Two dance teachers help students find a passion for life.

6. Personal relationships are associated with happiness.

The positive approach and its outcomes are only possible due to the solid relational interaction in the classroom. These relationships benefit connection and belonging; teacher-student relations emphasise empathy, warmth, and encouragement and provide a sense of identity, which helps secure attachments. Ultimately, positive results affect grades, behaviour, respect improvement, and commitment to activities.

The nonprofits’ leaders and psychologists emphasise this and point out the correlation between relationships, positive action, the students’ responsibility for routine activities and their final grades or accomplishments. Accordingly, relationships enhance engagement and better cognitive skills. This improvement is possible due to volunteers embracing the students as individuals, which is called warmness.

Warmness is not demanding but caring. An essential facet of positivism is cherishing the individual. This approach means that the student is cared for unconditionally. Only unconditional caring facilitates the environment where h/she feels directly safe and valued. Adult support affects the student’s engagement in positive activities and their development. One way to release tensions is through humour.

Play and fun facilitate interaction between students and teachers. According to the book Building the bonds of attachment, the author Daniel Hughes (2006) emphasises that learning within a safe place sparks spontaneity, curiosity, and exploration. Furthermore, playfulness expresses optimism and can interrupt students’ sadness, heaviness, or frustrations. As a positive consequence, humour and laughter raise the child’s energy and creativity, develop a healthy brain and facilitate social relationships. In addition, these settings provide a vision of the good life, hope and optimism for the future and streaming happiness in the present which optimises their positive moods.

7. Individuals choose behaviours that make them feel good.

According to research, people choose paths that make them feel “fully alive, competent and creative.Because according to studies, there is a need to feel competent and autonomous at the same time that there is a need to belong. Research considers these three needs stimulating forces that optimise personal well-being and development. When individuals are motivated to reach their full potential, they “seek out progressively greater challenges.” It brings passion, pleasure and long-term satisfaction and the thrill of achieving these feelings keeps them going.

Positive education is “nurturing their strongest qualities,” it is finding ways so that they can “best live out their strengths.” (Martin Seligman)

It is necessary to look beyond the victim and nurture the individual’s ability to overcome hardship.

A safe roof facilitates individuals to focus on creativity, virtues, and flourishing communities.

Positive educational programs under a ‘safe haven’ ultimately offer social change opportunities.

Moreover, positive education is "nurturing their strongest qualities," it is finding ways so that they can "best live out their strengths" (Martin Seligman).

Ultimately, positive educational programs under a safe haven offer the opportunity for social change.

Final Thoughts

A positive approach has a fascinating effect in magnifying vulnerable children's strengths to buffer against their weaknesses.

Working on courage, optimism, faith, work ethic, honesty, perseverance, hope, and interpersonal skills are human strengths that act as buffer systems against harmful behaviours. At the same time, the students gain mature defences like altruism, humour, anticipation and inhibition that promote joyful life, breaking the victimology pattern. This way, the individual is no longer a passive subject but someone who can act upon an adverse condition. They become someone who can make choices, has preferences and has the weapons to become a decision-maker, preventing major emotional disorders while making the most of human potential.

This approach demonstrates how to achieve well-being leading to positive individuals who develop positive traits like interpersonal skills while building relationships, caring for others, developing sensibility, courage, forgiveness, spirituality, and cognitive senses like talents and wisdom.

Adding positive experiences while diminishing negative ones stimulates well-being, and positive individuals build positive communities.

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Diana G.Pinto,
The Creative Pen

Writer and Consultant. Passionate about human and social development. MA in Holocaust & Genocide Studies. Nature Lover. diana-gpinto-consultant.com