Ruth Van der Hallen on how her citizen science project helps children become more resilient

Dieuwertje Bravenboer

In their research, Dr Ruth Van der Hallen and Dr Brian Godor focus on how primary school children in Rotterdam deal with adversity, and how resilient they are. With a specially-designed curriculum, the children learn how to deal with stress. At the same time the lessons introduce them to science. Van der Hallen is Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology (ESSB). Together with Dr Godor she leads this special citizen science project in which social impact and connection with the city are paramount.

What exactly did you do?

"This project is a collaboration with the ‘Wetenschapsknooppunt’ of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Fifteen schools in Rotterdam participated in our research, a total of 700 primary school pupils from Rotterdam-Zuid to Kralingen. Each of these schools went on a research expedition within the classroom with the aid of a teaching package to discover what resilience is, how resilience works, and how science works."

Funnily enough, this is particularly relevant today.

"Yes, over the past few months, children have also experienced how the whole world can suddenly turn upside-down. We have investigated how resilient children in Rotterdam are, and how they deal with stress and setbacks. The innovative aspect of this project is that of citizen science. The idea is that citizens, children in this case, are not just 'researched', but collaborate with the researchers. On the one hand, children learn how scientific research works, and on the other hand, they contribute to our research with their answers. Moreover, the subject matter is of immediate use to them this year. We also share the research results with the schools and parents."

Did you have corona in mind when you set up this study?

"No, the idea for the study arose a year earlier. The pandemic is, of course, an urgent matter to discuss the themes of adversity and stress in the classroom. It became very tangible."

The research is still ongoing. Are there any initial findings yet?

"We now have data from about a third of the pupils. In this preliminary data we see that there are few differences between boys and girls in the area of resilience. If we look at how children deal with setbacks, we see that girls more often seek social support and are more self-critical than boys. We also see that both coping and resilience are related to the extent to which children feel at home in the classroom. Children who feel at home appear to be more resilient."

Why is this project unique?

"Citizen science is not practiced very often, because it is easier for a researcher to hold the reins. This is a shame, because citizen science produces unique results. Moreover, it makes young people curious about science. From the evaluations, we see that both teachers and children really have appreciated this approach. For example, Brian and I received many questions from the children about the life of a scientist during the Zoom meetings. In addition, this is a new educational theme, how to deal with setbacks is not part of the standard curriculum of primary schools. Especially this year, in which the children have had to deal with a lot of disappointments - not being able to go to friends, not being able to go to school - it has been interesting to introduce this theme."

How does such a lesson work?

"During the lessons children learn what resilience is. They have to examine difficult situations for themselves - such as a disappointing grade, or a fight with their brother - and then investigate how other children in the class would respond to the same situation. Do they get sad, do they lock themselves in their room, do they ask for help? By comparing answers the children can inspire each other to use new coping strategies: 'I always do X, now let's try Y'."

How will the project continue?

"We want to continue offering these lessons to schools in the future, even after our research is complete. In this way, we want to ensure that primary school children can continue to use these tools, continuing to explore their own coping methods and capacity for resilience through inquiry-based learning."

Do you have any tips for researchers who would like to set up a citizen science project themselves?

"Just do it! It may be uncomfortable for researchers to step out of their comfort zone. But as soon as you notice how valuable it is, right from the start, to form your research idea in collaboration with your target group, and which insights you would have missed out on otherwise, you are sold."

How to deal with adversity is not part of the standard curriculum in primary schools; our project brings this topic into the classroom."

Assistant professor
Assistant professor