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How Do You Bounce Back from Setbacks?

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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Educators know many highs and lows. Some of these highs come when our students show us that they have learned deeply, taken what we have presented, and used it in creative ways. One of our greatest highs comes when students persist despite significant challenges in accomplishing a goal.

Our lows come from wanting our students to succeed and seeing them come up short. They also hit us from the many changes and challenges in the educational landscape, the shifting rules and criteria, for example.

Resources for Rejuvenating

The Devereux Center for Resilient Children (DCRC) has taken expertise in resilience with children and extended that to their adult caregivers and educators. They realize the need to build your "bounce" so that you are not beset and stopped by the inevitable lows you encounter as a teacher.

Bouncing back usually means we are feeling run-down, and when that happens, we can turn to the four areas that DCRC has found necessary to help us spring back to life. Here they are:

  • Engaging in Relationships: Rekindle and use one or more key supportive relationships in your life. Reach out to a friend, mentor, or someone who turns to you for support.
  • Positive Internal Beliefs: Remind yourself of aspects of your life in which you matter and are effective. Recount your personal strengths, areas where you are creative, and ways people show you love.
  • Taking Initiative: Take positive actions and make necessary decisions. Get back to your hobbies, find time to do things that allow you to laugh, seek out new knowledge and new approaches, be willing to move out of your comfort zone and reach out to others for help, and don't be afraid to say, "no."
  • Exercising Self-Control: Review your strategies for calming yourself down when upset, finding outlets to appropriately express your strong feelings, and setting appropriate and realistic goals and limits.

Resilience Is Key

The DCRC has an assessment you can use, the Devereux Adult Resilience Scale, to see the areas of your life where you have the most and fewest resilient resources. And once you make that assessment, the DCRC provides ideas for you to bounce back by building up one or more areas of your life that can be a source of resilience.

Here are four examples:

#1. Before You Say What You Think, Think

When someone makes a request of you, before you answer, say that you want to take a little time to think about it and you will get back to them. This allows you to bounce back on your own terms.

#2. Reach Out to Reach In

Showing empathy and gratitude will actually help you feel better about yourself. Think of people you have been out of touch with, or not in as much contact with as you would wish, and reach out to see how they are doing to show that you care.

Similarly, think about who has done something for you lately (even something small), like your children hanging up their clothes, your spouse taking care of something in the house, or your student keeping the classroom orderly. Write a thank you note. Yes, a written note works better than anything electronic.

#3. Get in Touch With What Matters to You

Use some sentence starters or fill-ins to dwell a little less on what is going badly and more on what matters to you. Here are some:

  • When something difficult happens, it's okay because...
  • ...adds so much to my life because...
  • I am most grateful for...
  • I care most about...
  • My belief in...

#4. Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Remind yourself that it is okay to ask for help. It is rare that you are facing a problem or situation that no one else has solved. Make a list of five people you will ask for help, and stay determined to keep asking until you get help. And if you get to number five without success, make another list of five. Don't worry if you have not been in touch with someone before, or if you don't know the person well, or even at all.

The way you ask (as well as the luck of timing) will play a big role in the kind of response you get. Regardless, press on!

Self-Care First

If you are drawing parallels between adult and child resilience, it's no coincidence. The forces that allow people to bounce back, to defy oppressive gravity, if you will, are natural forces and therefore are available in a developmentally appropriate way for our students.

But it's a good idea to start with yourself so that you can also see the challenges that must be overcome to bounce back, especially when you have not had the experience of intentionally doing so in successful ways.

It's easy to think that someone who is down would naturally want to take any opportunity to get off the floor. But sometimes, it feels like we belong on the floor, or that there is no point in arising only to get knocked down again. Just remember, those who seem resilient have gotten that way through practice.

Resilience is developing the habit of being convinced that you do not deserve to be put down and finding the resources to ensure that you -- and your students -- bounce up.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

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Carmilia's picture

I found this very interesting. I agree that we as teachers oftentimes encounter setbacks, but do not know how to deal with them. Having the four areas the DCRC helps narrow down how to control setbacks. I appreciate that engaging in relationships is a key to overcoming set backs. I truly believe that having support and fostering relationships with friends, family, and colleagues is the way to overcome a lot of things we as educators encounter. Thank you for giving your insights on this topic.

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