Resiliency expert helps day school students navigate trauma
Dr. Andrew Shatte speaks with Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh students following his Nov. 16 talk. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Adam Reinherz. Dr. Andrew Shatte speaks with Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh students following his Nov. 16 talk
COVID-19Dr. Andrew Shatte

Resiliency expert helps day school students navigate trauma

Children are back in school but it’s not easy being a kid. With recognition of these hardships, JFCS asked Dr. Andrew Shatte for help.

Main image by Adam Reinherz. Dr. Andrew Shatte speaks with Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh students following his Nov. 16 talk

COVID-19 is making life harder for local children who have already faced recent and significant emotional challenges, including the antisemitic attack of Oct. 27, 2018.

Recognizing they need more “tools in their toolbox” for coping, Stefanie Small, director of clinical services at Jewish Family and Community Services, looked to an expert for help.

Small credited her colleagues, therapists from UpStreet — a teen mental health service opened by JFCS in 2020 — with aiding hundreds of kids, but said increasing pressures made it clear that more assistance was needed.

At the suggestion of Rabbi Zalman Abraham of The Wellness Institute, Small reached out to Dr. Andrew Shatte, a resiliency expert, to come to Pittsburgh to talk with Jewish day school students. Shatte, Abraham said, could give teenagers some “perspective and bits of wisdom,” even if he is “way overqualified for this type of session.”

Shatte is the founder and president of the consulting and training firm Mindflex, LLC, and an author and research professor at University of Arizona School of Medicine. He’s a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Executive Education and has delivered more than 1,000 keynote addresses on resiliency. He is also a clinical advisor to The Wellness Institute, a division of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.

A $5000 grant from The Steel Tree Fund helped support Shatte’s visit, according to Shelly Parver, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Dr. Andrew Shatte, Stefanie Small and Rabbi Zalman Abraham. Photo by Adam Reinherz

On Nov. 16, Shatte spoke with middle school and high school students from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and Yeshiva Boys School. Community Day School and Yeshiva Girls School could not attend in person due to COVID-19 concerns, Small said.

“There are really seven really powerful competencies that make up resilience,” Shatte told his young listeners. The pyramid of resiliency, he explained, consists of being calm under pressure; solving problems; maintaining focus; staying positive; possessing self-confidence; offering empathy; and being challenge-ready.

Different periods call for different competencies, and at this moment “the capacity to stay calm is being tested more than any of the other six,” Shatte said. “It's the one that has to be in place if we're going to remain resilient.”

Over the course of 90 minutes, Shatte peppered students with questions, quotes and photos in an effort to help them explore their emotions. He repeated Mark Twain’s famous saying (“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”), and — instead of reminding the teens that they represent a demographic experiencing increasing rates of anxiety — he played word games with them and asked how it felt when they were unable to solve the puzzles.

The goal of the entire conversation, Shatte said, was to enable the students to understand where their emotions come from.

“Do you find a signature emotion? Is there one that’s been getting in the way more than the others? Over the last 18 months has there been one that’s been coming up again and again and again?” he asked.

When teens — or adults — explore those questions and emotions, it often leads to a realization of what’s generating those feelings. Those emotions, he said, are often produced “by our heads and not by the environment.”

Consider the case of the word puzzles: None of them were solvable, but, he asked the students, did they allow themselves to be “overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, frustration, embarrassment, shame, sadness, guilt? Your ability to stay calm under pressure, and continue to try to problem-solve, that's what predicts resilience.”

Dr. Andrew Shatte joins JFCS representatives following his Nov. 16 talk. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Alliyah Kimbrough, an UpStreet psychotherapist, said what was most helpful about Shatte’s talk was reminding students to not only express their emotions, but to understand what’s driving those feelings.

“These emotions don’t just come out of nowhere,” agreed Erin Barr, clinical coordinator at UpStreet. “They're valid and they're real and you are allowed to feel those things, but then taking a step back and being curious about why you're feeling that way could give you some perspective and help you get through it.”

“I think a big thing for me was remembering that situations and emotions are temporary,” and that “things will move on, and the emotions will subside eventually,” said Shelby Williams, a psychotherapist at UpStreet.

Throughout his conversation with students, Shatte never mentioned Oct. 27, the upcoming trial of the accused murderer, or even the pandemic.

“I would rather, in a setting like this, not bring back those memories right now,” Shatte said after the event. “I’d rather put this in a much more positive light moving forward.”

Students are facing numerous challenges, he added, and whether a problem is seemingly mundane or highly consequential the “same powerful skills will get us through it all.”

Having Shatte share that perspective, Small said, is why he was invited to speak in Pittsburgh. “Sometimes you just need to hear from the expert,” she said. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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