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Supporting Student Resilience in the Classroom

Steve Gardiner

High School English and journalism teacher in Billings, Montana
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Watching a classroom of students working is fascinating. There are students who are engaged, who focus on the task and forge ahead. They get the job done on time, every time. There are other students who start working but get distracted. They work briefly, but as soon as the work becomes difficult or challenging, they give up. They look for help, or they refuse to even try.

What is the difference?

It is a matter of having a resilient mindset. In The Power of Resilience, Drs. Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein explain:

Resilient individuals are those who have a set of assumptions or attitudes about themselves that influence their behaviors and the skills they develop.

For teachers and parents, the good news is that mindsets can be changed.

Charisma and Competence

Anyone who has been the parent of a small child has heard his own words repeated by the child, has seen his own actions replayed through the motions of the child. Frightening as that revelation may be, it shows the power of modeling in learning. Children look up to the adults around them for guidance and, good or bad, accept those adult behaviors as the standard, and pattern their own speech and actions after those adult models.

Brooks and Goldstein refer to these models as charismatic adults. These people could be teachers, administrators, coaches, parents, older siblings or friends, but the important thing is that the student forms a meaningful relationship with the charismatic adult. When that happens, the student has a resource when questions arise. He or she has a support when work gets difficult or life presents challenges.

Support and modeling are part of the way that charismatic adults can help students grow and learn. Another way is through what Brooks and Goldstein call islands of competence. Often students don't succeed because they have not figured out what they can do well. They group all activities together and fail to see how activities in one subject area may be different from activities in a different area. If a charismatic adult can help a student see an island of competence in his or her own life and recognize the success contained in it, that sense of success can then be transferred to other areas of life, leading to more success and a stronger sense of resilience. Even though islands of competence may seem very clear to an adult observer, the student may not be able to see them at all. Becoming aware of those islands of competence is the first step in accepting them and building on them in future projects.

A Sense of Control

Another factor in supporting resilience in a student is the concept of personal control. As students develop an understanding of their islands of competence, they feel more in control. They feel like they can make more of their own decisions and take pride in their accomplishments. Students who are allowed to make significant choices regarding their own educations are more likely to feel some control or ownership of their own lives. This sense of control is powerful in supporting a resilient mindset.

Providing choice to students is critical. In Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, author Edward Deci argues:

The main thing about meaningful choice is that it engenders willingness. It encourages people to fully endorse what they are doing; it pulls them into the activity and allows them to feel a greater sense of volition; it decreases their alienation.

A choice may be as simple as giving options on how to complete an assignment or letting students choose the topics of their writing assignments. That sense of autonomy helps them feel like they are involved. If they have made the choice of what topic to write about, it is easier for them to become involved and complete the task on their own.

In a classroom, there are many variables that a teacher cannot control, such as parental involvement, poverty, nutrition and chemical influences. However, within the classroom, a teacher can become a charismatic adult and model a resilient mindset, identify and communicate islands of competence to students, and give them a sense of autonomy and choice in the work they do. These are simple, inexpensive steps that may make future assignments go more smoothly and keep more students involved throughout the process.

Do you support student resilience in your classroom? If so, please tell us how in the comments section below.

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Steve Gardiner

High School English and journalism teacher in Billings, Montana

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

I like the idea of the islands of competence. A student may say "I'm bad at math" but then excel in a hands-on geometry exercise, and not be able to see the connection between the two. As adults who care about the student, it's our job to help them see the wonderful strengths they already possess.

NadiW's picture

We send small but significant messages to our students all the time. One example is when students show me their creations and say, "What do you think, Mrs. W?" My response is, "What do YOU think?" They are wonderfully reflective and will soon automatically start sharing their ideas without prompting. Just one small way to reinforce their autonomy.

Daniel Jackson's picture

This was very thought provoking. The islands of competence piece is especiall relevant to me as a CTE educator of nearly 12 years. I constructed my own definition of relient individuals from Brooks and Goldstein's as, "Resilient individuals are those who have a belief that concerted, purposeful effort toward goals leads to positive results, though the path may be spotted with failures due to the inherent risks that come from trying something new. These individuals consistently demonstrate behaviors that clearly indicate that they believe in themselves. They are self-assured."

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