George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Encouraging Students to Develop Resilience

A framework called Habits of Mind can help students improve their ability to recover from frustrations and get back to learning.

May 3, 2019
A student standing up confidently in the back of a classroom, answering a question
©iStock/Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir

It’s a repeated experience observed across all grade levels and classrooms—student frustration. Teachers recognize the signs—a defeated sigh, a sheepish glance at the floor, or a demeaning self-directed comment like “I’ll never be able to do this,” “Forget it, I’m done,” or “I’m not smart enough.”

All of these statements—and the other signs of frustration—are things that should signal a call for action. But what action?

My answer is that the action needed is reminding students of their resilience. Resilience is the ability to spring back when one experiences failure, roadblocks, and hurdles that impede progress on the path to successful learning within the classroom, and teachers can promote resilience on a regular basis so that students have inner resources when they become frustrated.

Think of resilience as a stress ball. A stress ball is resilient because it springs back to its original shape after being squeezed. Likewise, when students experience stress or frustration, we can think of that as pressure on them that they need to spring back from. The hope in presenting them with strategies that build resilience is that those strategies will ease the frustration and help them get back into optimal and productive focus for learning.

A strategic approach to relieving mental tension while building resilience is to infuse students with a productive mindset known as Habits of Mind. Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick developed the list of 16 Habits of Mind: persisting; thinking and communicating with clarity and precision; managing impulsivity; gathering data through all senses; listening with understanding and empathy; creating, imagining, and innovating; thinking flexibly; responding with wonderment and awe; thinking about thinking (metacognition); taking responsible risks; striving for accuracy; finding humor; questioning and posing problems; thinking interdependently; applying past knowledge to new situations; and remaining open to continuous learning.

These strategies serve as a pathway to finding a solution when one is not immediately apparent. They promote insightfulness, creativity, and perseverance—all dispositions we should want resilient students to have.

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Why Habits of Mind?

As teachers, it is our responsibility to hold students accountable for their learning. At the same time, it is imperative that we prepare them with the habits and resilience they’ll need in the world beyond high school. This begins in the classroom by activating and blending together spontaneous Habits of Mind and a push-through-it, resilient attitude.

There may be many reasons why some students lack resilience, possibly including the assigning of letter grades. A letter grade is meant to reflect measurable learning, but it may also reflect how learners internalize their capabilities and what direction they take when confronted with failure.

Another reason why some students lack resilience could be that some teachers shield kids from everyday frustrations and problems. Experiencing failures, challenges, and roadblocks within the learning environment is crucial to the process of recovery. Teachers can cultivate a resilient classroom where students are given a chance to work through difficult problems.

When it comes to the Habits of Mind, lack of exposure could be an issue. It cannot be assumed that students know how to use skills, strategies, and pathways for confronting challenging problems or assignments. Children are diverse learners in all aspects of life and develop an understanding of themselves at different stages. When teachers model, use common language, and infuse Habits of Mind into the curriculum and culture of a classroom, students are more inclined to make connections and put the habits into action.

4 Ways to Foster the Habits of Mind and Resilience

1. Teaching persistence with brainteasers: Whether as warm-ups, attention grabbers, or transitions from one activity to another, brainteasers allow safe and friendly opportunities for building resilience and persisting. A challenging brainteaser offers students the opportunity to fail and then recover in a safe environment.

2. Guiding students to develop metacognition: When students receive a poor score on a test, project, or pre-assessment, teachers can explicitly guide them to develop a feel for their capacity to recover. This is teaching them to practice metacognition—being aware of their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and the strategies they can employ in a given situation. Start by recognizing how students feel via an indicator of their resilience: Ask them to rate their own resilience on a scale of 1 to 10.

3. Fostering optimism in students’ ability to take responsible risks: Always compliment a student when they take a responsible risk in class and don’t get the best result, such as answering a question wrong, or stumbling on words while reading out loud. Volunteering to go first for a class presentation is also a responsible risk. These are opportunities to build confidence, optimism, and risk-taking, and most importantly, to keep a resilient momentum going forward while in a safe space.

4. Using wait time to manage impulsivity: Class discussions can elicit fear, resistance, and a feeling of insecurity. Implementing a five-second pause after asking a question and before selecting anyone to answer relieves pressure and improves students’ ability to gather their thoughts. This encourages students to practice the habit of managing impulsivity while giving them the opportunity to bounce back and build confidence to contribute. You can extend the wait time if needed.

Pressure is inevitable in life, but we can promote, encourage, and provide opportunities for students to learn from failures while building resilience so that they can quickly recover from setbacks.

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