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Volume VIII Issue VI

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Fostering Student Resilience

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


There is a dichotomy in the behavior of some of our students that is particularly puzzling. How is it that some youngsters can create and send a lengthy text message with great speed and purpose, communicating meaning very successfully, yet they cannot construct a clearly developed paragraph in school? How is it that a student can figure out how to “tweet” a message to a friend using just the right number of allotted characters, but they give up easily when trying to solve a relatively simple math problem? And why is it a common behavior among many children to play video games for hours and hours, persevere when they encounter blockades or setbacks which keep them from reaching the “next level,” yet they give up quickly in school after minimal effort when they face frustration? None of these out-of-school behaviors described above happened overnight. They required tenacity, careful listening, watching someone model the process or procedure, and resilience. The question then becomes: How can schools and teachers transfer the “stick-to-itiveness” that students possess in their personal lives to classroom learning? 

Resilience is one of those terms that fits in the category of “we know it when we see it.”  Nevertheless a good place to start is with some definitions and descriptors from the literature. Psychologist Robert Sternberg describes resilience as the “pursuit of worthwhile goals despite obstacles that get in the way.” It is also the willingness to “defy the crowd in your thinking and actions” to surmount obstacles, to pursue personal passions and to develop personal self-efficacy. Resilience has also been described as the human capacity of all individuals to transform and change no matter what the risks may be. A more technical and medical definition of the term is that it is a concept that proposes a recurrent human need to weather periods of stress and change successfully throughout life; the ability to weather each period of disruption and reintegration leaving the person better able to deal with the next change. Synonyms that are often associated with the term “resilient” include adaptable, irrepressible, flexible, spirited, quick to recover, rolling with the punches and snapping back.

As you will see in the examples cited below, the research on the impact teachers can have on student resilience is very promising.

Resilient Skills
A synopsis of multiple research projects that began in the early 1970’s has found that a child’s ability to adapt and bounce back is impacted by both internal assets including social competence, problem solving abilities, and a sense of purpose about the future, as well as external assets such as family, school, and community. Some students come to school with very few of the internal assets in place but research shows that educators can have a significant impact on the development of these assets as they work with high-risk children. According to the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, trying to steer students away from negative behaviors is less successful and productive than working to maximize their assets. Specific internal assets that schools can promote include the development of empathy, sensitivity; and friendship skills; resisting negative peer pressure and dangerous situations; resolving problems nonviolently; giving the child useful roles in the classroom community; and linking children to three or more caring adults outside the home. Stating it another way, “children in discordant and disadvantaged homes are more likely to demonstrate resilient characteristics if they have attentive, caring adult support.”

The Human Investment
Child psychologist Dr. David Palmeter explored multiple case studies of children who have faced adversity in their personal lives. From his studies, he has determined that children who “come out on the other side well-adjusted” often cited teachers as having made critically important contributions to their well-being. He further wrote that those who benefitted from a teacher’s attention did not necessarily recall the academic content that was addressed but instead recalled the “human investment” of their teacher. The attention that a teacher pays to an individual does not necessarily have to be complicated and can be as simple as sharing a lunch, writing a personal note, or arranging for extra help. It has been suggested that it is important for a teacher to develop a trusting relationship with potentially difficult children early in the school year by taking a personal interest in them and helping them to better identify their strengths, talents, and aspirations. 

Rebounding from Failure
Some students can give up too quickly when they receive a bad grade on an assignment. Over time, these youngsters internalize poor grades as symbols of their inadequacies, and they become “paralyzed academically.” English instructor Leah Blatt Glasser has written that “the shame and embarrassment of producing a less-than-perfect paper or exam becomes a handy shield against the hard work it takes to build on failure.” The classroom should be a safe place where students learn an important life lesson: Failure can often be the impetus to reaching success. To keep students from miring themselves in a sense of failure, teachers can provide opportunities for students to complete self-assessments, examine the causes of failure, and make plans for future improvement. Teachers who focus on learning rather than grading will often give their students the opportunity to resubmit improved work in order to reinforce the understanding that initial failure does not have to be the end product of their work.

Desirable Difficulties
A growing body of cognitive research suggests that when students grapple with challenging materials (as opposed to material that they perceive to be easy), they develop better study skills and remember the content longer. Robert A. Boyle, director of the Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA, calls these challenges “desirable difficulties.” He has surmised that the more students have to “exert their mental muscles” to learn a particular concept or recall content, the stronger their memory and learning will become. He further suggests that problem-solving or inquiry-based lessons, rather than lecture, will strengthen a student’s ability to persevere and develop overall better learning habits.

Perceived Intelligence
Research has clearly demonstrated that students’ mindset that they are either smart or not smart has huge negative consequences for academic success. When teachers give timely and appropriate feedback to students on the progress they are making with their work, these individuals begin to see their own intelligence as something that can be developed and improved. When teachers emphasize students’ strengths instead of their deficiencies, it results in increased intrinsic motivation and helps students develop a more hopeful frame of mind to tackle future work. Catching students being right can help them see that their work ethic and not their perceived intelligence (or lack of it) can lead to academic improvement. If we follow the work of Bernard Weiner and his Attribution Theory, we must retrain our students to understand that it is effective effort (and not luck, task difficulty, or ability) that has the greatest impact on their success in reaching their goals.

At-Risk Students
The term “at-risk,” often used to describe children and families, can have a detrimental effect on the approaches educators use according to Bonnie Benard, author of “Turning It Around for All Youth: From Risk to Resilience.” Ms. Benard has opined that the term, although it has helped families and children obtain needed services, may also have inadvertently led to “stereotyping, tracking, and lowering expectations for many students.” She writes, “Looking at children and families through a deficit lens obscures recognition of their capacities and strengths, as well as their individuality and uniqueness.” Repeated research projects have shown that despite what many believe to be the negative predictive power of risk factors, individual teachers and schools in general are successful in engaging and motivating children and helping them overcome adversity and demonstrate resiliency.

Caring Relationships
Long-term developmental research has studied children born into high-risk environments and found that teachers and schools have the power to transform lives. Researchers have found that between 50 and 70 percent of the children studied, grew into confident, competent and caring persons with the ability to rise above adversity and thrive. At the heart of the research is the power teachers possess to buffer risks by meeting young people’s needs of safety, love and belonging, respect, power and learning. In addition to caring relationships, specific practices teachers followed include positive and high expectations, helping students discover strengths they did not know they had, and the opportunities for students to participate and contribute both in school and in the community.

Sharing Feelings
Rutgers professor Maurice Elias has found that students who encounter difficulties in their personal lives can benefit by telling stories about their feelings and experiences. His findings validated that writing about difficult situations that children may not be able to overcome can be therapeutic because it taps into the “healing and uplifting power of storytelling.” When urban students have been given the opportunity to talk and write about their life experiences and intense challenges in a safe atmosphere, it reduces the emotional barriers that can keep them from making academic progress. Elias further concludes that “academic success and social resilience is grounded in positive, caring relationships.”

Mental Stamina
To promote resilience in students, it is important for teachers to design learning experiences that let students develop their innate resilience in a secure learning situation. Teachers must give students the opportunity to struggle with solving problems which do not have clear and obvious solutions and to build their mental stamina to say to themselves, “Let me try that again” or “Let me take a different approach.” It is important for teachers to help students understand that many of life’s problems do not have clear-cut answers. Parenting specialist and author Sylvia Rimm stated it well when she wrote, “The surest path to positive self-esteem is to succeed at something which we perceived as difficult. Each time we steal a student’s struggles, we steal the opportunity for them to build self-confidence. They must learn to do hard things to feel good about themselves.”

Younger Children
A study of 21,000 children across the country has concluded that children who enter schools with severe disadvantages and who exhibit patterns of aggression are much more likely to face peer rejection and academic failure. The study, however, concluded that two factors that were most often associated with improving student resiliency and counteracting aggressive behavior were a well-organized and smoothly functioning classroom and adequate teaching supplies and materials. Conversely, in a poorly organized or chaotic classroom, the study found that student behavior became “markedly worse.” It is, therefore, important that schools be ready to intervene early in the placement of high-risk children in order to prevent academic failure, promote positive interpersonal skills, and develop resiliency at an early age.

Modeling Resilience
Children of all ages have what one writer has called “a clear antenna for honesty.” Therefore, it is important for teachers to be a model of resilient behavior or share examples from their personal experiences when they were not as resilient as they could have been. Students often operate under the misconception that their teachers know and can do everything and do not succumb to the everyday stresses that are part of a student’s life. We need to share with our students, that when we feel overwhelmed or experience stress, we have to “press on” in our personal and professional lives despite those setbacks. By so doing, we can be models of emotional intelligence and mental wellness. 

Teacher Mindset
Some teachers fail to recognize the huge impact they can have on their ability to foster resilience in their students while others fully understand the significant role they play in the development of student happiness and success. Truly effective educators convey their support for their students by showing them kindness and respect. Likewise they promote positive and high expectations that often challenge students beyond what they believe they are capable of doing. They also give students the opportunity to express opinions, use their imaginations, accept responsibility, problem solve, work with others, and feel like competent members of the school community. When teachers enter their classrooms each day believing that they have the power to transform lives, they often find that they can “tip the scale from risk to resilience.”

In his 2011 commencement address at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, a school that has made impressive gains in graduation rates over the past three years, President Obama praised the students for the resilience they have shown in reaching this milestone. He said, “Nobody’s handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you’ll have earned it.” Continuing he added, “You’ve shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will.” And as he spoke about his teachers, he noted, “I’m lucky my teachers kept pushing, because education made all the difference in my life. And it’s going to make an even greater difference in your lives.” He concluded saying, “You’ve now become role models for all the young people coming in behind you.” Booker T. Washington can serve as an inspiration for all educators and a reminder that each of us can have a life-changing impact on the resilience we instill in our students.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Fostering Student Resilience” Just for the ASKing! June 2011. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2011 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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