George Lucas Educational Foundation
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photo of a proud young woman

Over 100 years ago, the great African American educator Booker T. Washington spoke about resilience:

I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed.

Research has since established resilience as essential for human thriving, and an ability necessary for the development of healthy, adaptable young people. It's what enables children to emerge from challenging experiences with a positive sense of themselves and their futures. Children who develop resilience are better able to face disappointment, learn from failure, cope with loss, and adapt to change. We recognize resilience in children when we observe their determination, grit, and perseverance to tackle problems and cope with the emotional challenges of school and life.

The Capacity to Rebuild and Grow From Adversity

Resilience is not a genetic trait. It is derived from the ways that children learn to think and act when faced with obstacles large and small. The road to resilience comes first and foremost from children's supportive relationships with parents, teachers, and other caring adults. These relationships become sources of strength when children work through stressful situations and painful emotions. When we help young people cultivate an approach to life that views obstacles as a critical part of success, we help them develop resilience.

Many teachers are familiar with Stanford professor Carol Dweck's important work with growth mindsets, a way of thinking that helps children connect growth with hard work and perseverance. Educator David Hochheiser wisely reminds us that developing growth mindsets is a paradigm for children's life success rather than a pedagogical tool to improve grades or short-term goals. Simply put, it's a way of helping children believe in themselves -- often the greatest gift teachers give to their students.

Resilience is part of The Compass Advantage™ (a model designed for engaging families, schools, and communities in the principles of positive youth development) because the capacity to rebuild and grow from adversity is a key factor in achieving optimal mental and physical health. Linked by research to happiness and the other abilities on the compass, resilience is one of the 8 Pathways to Every Student's Success.

Compass with Resilience, Self-Awareness, Integrity, Resourcefulness, Creativity, Empathy, Curiosity, and Sociability as compass points

The ability to meet and overcome challenges in ways that maintain or promote well-being plays an essential role in how students learn to achieve academic and personal goals. Resilient young people feel a sense of control over their own destinies. They know that they can reach out to others for support when needed, and they readily take initiative to solve problems. Teachers facilitate resilience by helping children think about and consider various paths through adversity. They also help by being resources, encouraging student decision-making, and modeling resilient competencies.

Five Ways to Cultivate Resilience

1. Promote self-reflection through literary essays or small-group discussions.

Short written essays or small-group discussion exercises that focus on heroic literary characters are an excellent way, particularly for younger students, to reflect on resilience and the role it plays in life success. After children have read a book or heard a story that features a heroic character, encourage them to reflect by answering the following questions. (See the Heroic Imagination Project for additional resources and videos.)

  • Who was the hero in this story? Why?
  • What challenge or dilemma did the hero overcome?
  • What personal strengths did the hero possess? What choices did he or she have to make?
  • How did other people support the hero?
  • What did the hero learn?
  • How do we use the same personal strengths when we overcome obstacles in our own lives? Can you share some examples?

2. Encourage reflection through personal essays.

Written exercises that focus on sources of personal strength can help middle and high school students learn resilience-building strategies that work best for them. For example, by exploring answers to the following questions, students can become more aware of their strengths and what they look for in supportive relationships with others.

  • Write about a person who supported you during a particularly stressful or traumatic time. How did they help you overcome this challenge? What did you learn about yourself?
  • Write about a friend that you supported as he or she went through a stressful event. What did you do that most helped your friend? What did you learn about yourself?
  • Write about a time in your life when you had to cope with a difficult situation. What helped and hindered you as you overcame this challenge? What learning did you take away that will help you in the future?

3. Help children (and their parents) learn from student failures.

In her insightful article Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail, published in The Atlantic, middle school teacher Jessica Lahey touched on a topic near and dear to every teacher's heart: How do I teach students to learn and grow through failure and setbacks when their parents are so intent on making them a shining star? The truth is that learning from failure is paramount to becoming a resilient young person. Teachers help when they:

  • Create a classroom culture where failure, setbacks, and disappointment are an expected and honored part of learning.
  • Establish and reinforce an atmosphere where students are praised for their hard work, perseverance, and grit, not just for grades and easy successes.
  • Hold students accountable for producing their own work, efforts from which they feel ownership and internal reward.
  • Educate and assure parents that supporting kids through failure builds resilience -- one of the best developmental outcomes that they can give their children.

4. Bring discussions about human resilience into the classroom.

Opportunities abound to connect resilience with personal success, achievement, and positive social change. Expand discussions about political leaders, scientists, literary figures, innovators, and inventors beyond what they accomplished to the personal strengths they possessed and the hardships they endured and overcame to reach their goals. Help students learn to see themselves and their own strengths through these success stories.

5. Build supportive relationships with students.

Good student-teacher relationships are those where students feel seen, felt, and understood by teachers. This happens when teachers are attuned to students, when they notice children's needs for academic and emotional support. These kinds of relationships strengthen resilience. When adults reflect back on teachers who changed their lives, they remember and cherish the teachers who encouraged and supported them through difficult times.

Do you have a teacher who played this role in your own life? What do you remember about him or her?

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Mrs. D's picture

Thank you for the reminder that we as teachers play a critical role in fostering resiliency in our students. This is a topic that resonates with me because each September I have little second graders that come to my classroom already lacking a belief in their abilities or a willingness to try for fear of failure. I am continually amazed by how at such a young age children are often already defeated! Each year I intentionally work to create a classroom environment that encourages risk taking and fosters an "I can try" attitude in my students; these are qualities that parents and teachers alike need to model! I love the suggestions listed above. I find that using literature, as a springboard for discussion is a great tool. Each year my class studies biographies and these often times provide ideal opportunities to discuss resiliency in others. Imagine if the Wright brothers had given up after their first glider crashed or if Terry Fox had quit when he was first diagnosed with cancer. History provides us with great resiliency building role models. Thank you for the ideas!

Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD's picture
Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD
Developmental Psychologist, Researcher, Writer

Thanks, Mrs. D., for your comments. It's gratifying to know that teachers like yourself are paying attention to teaching resilience. Sadly, I agree that way too many children are entering the early grades already lacking a belief in their abilities. It takes a combined effort of families, schools, and communities to give children what they most need to succeed in life. Thanks for doing your part!

Lee Johnson's picture

Thank you for posting this article. All points made are very important. The first thing that came to mind as I was reading it was relationship, then found it down there at #5. Establishing genuine relationships will enhance all of the other points made. I don't know that you meant it as a ranking or order, but people often see numbered points that way. If it were to be ranked, I would have relationship on the top.

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

This is a great look at the importance of fostering and maintaining resilience in classroom. With the CCSS new emphasis on argument, could resilience be fostered through argument - an argument in favor of residence or a speaking and listening conference to discuss how resilience has made a difference?

Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD's picture
Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD
Developmental Psychologist, Researcher, Writer

Thank you, Lee, for your insights. I agree with you 100% that relationships are the most important contributor to resilience and I'm glad it came to mind immediately as you read the article! I put it last on the list because I wanted to leave readers with it on their minds. So funny, how each of our minds work differently, isn't it?

Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD's picture
Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD
Developmental Psychologist, Researcher, Writer

Hi Katie. Thanks for your comments. I most definitely think that resilience can be fostered through argument! Whenever children learn to use evidence to weigh both sides of an issue, they discover their own ability to overcome challenges. The topic doesn't need to be resilience. It can be any topic that gives kids practice looking at aspects of a problem and alternative pathways to resolution.

sbarback's picture

Excellent article. I love that you took your main points and translated them into specifically applicable strategies. Very cool. And the article fosters enthusiasm in teachers. And we need that to thrive. Thanks.

Elizabeth's picture

I enjoyed reading your article. I appreciated the strategies you associated with each of the general ideas for building resilience. I also like how many of the activities can be done inside a standard lesson, especially the first with the literature. I cannot wait to try these strategies in my classroom next year.
Thank you for sharing.

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