Character Education: Defining and embedding resilience

Written by: Ross McWilliam | Published:
Image: iStock

Resilience is becoming a buzzword in education and is a key part of the character education agenda. But what is it, how should we define it, how can it be embedded in the curriculum and how can we evaluate it? Ross McWilliam discusses some possible approaches

What really is resilience?

According to leading resilience writers Clough & Strycharczyk (2015), resilience is a dynamic process in which a number of elements (protective factors) are available (or not) for a person to use to achieve success.

In simpler terms, they define it as a “stickability” representing the amount of effort and perseverance that an individual is prepared to expend to complete a task or reach a goal.

Zeiger (2014) in her work with younger children defines it practically as the ability to adapt and recover from adversity or incidences of change that arise in life.

Perhaps a more user-friendly explanation of resilience is the ability to bounce back from negative situations. Instead of letting someone or something drag you down, you use it to become a stronger, more focused person. A key phrase for pupils and staff could then be “bouncebackability”.

Indeed, the actual definition could be the start of a resilience programme in your school – i.e. you let pupils, staff and parents come up with their own definitions. This could be in the format of simple familiar words (which they choose from a list or create themselves – like bouncebackability) or better still the use of images or videos to depict what resilience means to them. For example, depicting the following:

  • Resilience in nature: how a beautiful flower can grow out of a crack in the pavement against all the odds of concrete, bad weather and people walking on it! Or how about a forest fire that ravages all the trees, yet in no time at all, another tree sprouts and starts to grow.
  • Resilience in sports: “I have missed the match winning shot 26 times, yet I succeed.” (Michael Jordan)
  • Resilience in business: JK Rowling talks about “the benefits of failure”.

There is a theme here – one of failure at first that is eventually triumphed. Failure is a very powerful word that can evoke equally powerful emotions from past experiences.

As important as academic success

Is resilience just as important as academic success? This is an interesting statement which might be better framed – academic success may be achieved only with resilience, i.e. both are necessary. This is like a symbiotic relationship, where one feeds the other so both become stronger.

It is a fact of life that we are going to fail at something. The true lesson then becomes how can we learn to improve in the future so we become successful? School life can be a microcosm of life, a learning arena where we are constantly judged by exam boards, peers, teachers and parents. The quality of bouncebackability may well be the way we make learning breakthroughs, especially after disappointing exam results, marked work or even, sadly, after unconstructive negative remarks.

The work of Professor Carol Dweck (Mindset, 2006), Barry Hymer and Mike Gershon (Growth Mindsets Pocketbook, 2014), and Mary Cai Ricci (Mindsets in the Classroom, 2013) state the collective efficacy of having resilience to develop a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

Sometimes early academic success can lead us into a kind of learning complacency, a dependence on “clever/intelligent” labels, and even an aversion to taking risks in our learning to propel us even further towards our goals.

By developing a growth mindset, which is driven by resilience, we can spur the learner on, we hope, forever. Alternatively, a lack of growth mindset and resilience makes us perform to our expected lower learning ceiling, scared of being judged by teachers and peers and giving up at the first signs of failure.

An initial exercise with pupils is to use mini-whiteboards in groups to identify past barriers to school success. These could be past experiences, lack of effort, lack of resilience, not knowing how to improve, distractions and so on.

Each of these areas needs to be identified. Teachers may need to help pupils by introducing concepts such as comparison with others, learned helplessness, peer pressure, self-esteem, low aspirations and expectations. Then show how growth mindset and resilience can overcome these barriers.

A useful phrase I use when talking about failure is “success-not-yet” (Cuppa, McWilliam, 2016). The “failure” is only a snapshot in time right now, but with an understanding of how to improve using resilience as our shield we will make progress.

Creating progress measures?

Education is obsessed with measurement, which isn’t always a bad thing as we all need to be accountable. So the question becomes: how can we measure resilience without it becoming too much of a burden on everyone?

Simple pre and post measures are quick and efficient and give real value recordings. An example of a resilience measure is the one discussed in the paper Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-term Goals (2007). It details 12 statements used to establish resilience or character based around consistency of interests (1 to 6) and perseverance of effort (7 to 12).

  1. Developing positive routines and rituals – I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.
  2. New ideas and new projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.
  3. I become interested in new pursuits every few months.
  4. My interests change from year-to-year.
  5. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.
  6. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.
  7. I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
  8. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
  9. I finish whatever I begin.
  10. Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  11. I am a hard worker.
  12. I am diligent.

Alternatively, you could use pupils’ perceptions of their own resilience by asking a few simple questions, perhaps at the start and end of terms. The use of peer questionnaires will also be illuminating, as many young people often put themselves down and, as such, a peer evaluation of their resilience might be more accurate. Pre-questions might include:

  1. What do you understand by the term resilience?
  2. When have you shown resilience in the past, i.e. in school and out of school?
  3. Why is resilience important in school and after school?

Pupils can then be asked to rate their resilience (from 1 to 10, low to high) against various questions or scenarios. For example:

  • Rate your current resilience levels (1-10).
  • Rate your resilience in specific subjects (1-10) including English, maths, science, ICT, languages.
  • You ask a question in class and your peers laugh as it is either silly or perceived as unintelligent (1-10).
  • When you receive failure or success-not-yet, how much resilience do you put into future school studying and success (1-10)?

Other ideas include Clough & Strycharczyk (2012), who use a simple checklist to measure resilience across four components: control, commitment, challenge and confidence.

Specific strategies

All the sources and research referenced above contain several strategies to develop and evaluate resilience. The secret is to determine pupil need first, as many resilience issues are born out of pupils’ backgrounds and expectations – it is difficult to say that one resilience strategy is better than another, they just need to be appropriate to need.

Each strategy depends on the components your school would like to implement – i.e. an individual bespoke approach, a group approach to general resilience awareness and development, or a dedicated component of resilience for a set period of time.

Below is a set of components that can collectively develop resilience. I know some schools that implement these via weekly recording and rewarding systems.

  • Developing positive routines and rituals.
  • Prioritising tasks.
  • Juggling emotions and responsibilities.
  • Being optimistic.
  • Gaining control of a situation.
  • Learning to express yourself.
  • Finding people to confide in.
  • Setting boundaries.

Zeiger (2014) has some excellent practical tips on specific resilience work with great use of contemporary role-models. She takes the pupil on a “flash-back” journey of the past before building up resilience evidence for the present and future.

Role-model strategies can also be used from a cross-curricular point of view to demonstrate resilience. Qualities can be identified and role-modelled over a period of time. This makes the learning relevant to the pupil.

I use a simple navigation chart for pupils to record their on-going progress. Sections to be filled in include:

  • Definitions of resilience.
  • Why is resilience important?
  • Examples from life and school.
  • Coping strategies.
  • Mindset thinking and feedback.
  • How to build resilience.
  • Measurement activities.

You could use the navigation chart or the pre and post questions in conjunction with parents, or trusted peer or teacher review in PSHE, to evaluate the impact of your activities.

Embedding it across the school

The next step is to decide how resilience strategies could be implemented across the school. Key considerations are delivery time, resources, staff expertise, individual pupils, generic and specific expectations, parent involvement, longer term development time, curriculum demands, etc. Try and be specific to your school needs.

If too much effort and resistance is felt initially, a comprehensive and rewarding resilience programme will not gain momentum (this is ironic as we are talking about having resilience).

A Gantt chart may help you implement specific strategies across a number of weeks. For instance you could use the four areas identified by Clough & Strycharczyk and focus on one each week.

Embedding resilience across the school might mean introducing it as part of the learning curriculum and embedding it into learning at least once a week or even during tutor time.

Don’t forget that sometimes a smaller group scenario might be more beneficial to some students, such as those with emotional and behavioural difficulties, confidence issues, self-harm, and so on.

Around the school in general, it would take the form of noticeboards to highlight role-models and latest news of resilient performances. Tutor time could be used to identify resilient behaviour through selected video evidence. I know of a school that created Resilience Points which were given by staff and fellow pupils (under staff guidance) to reward resilient behaviour.

Parents need to be involved too, as what happens at home has a direct bearing on school performance. Specific drop-in parent evenings to explain the resilience work, with specific home strategies, would be very useful. Even if it is only about the use of positive language some progress will have been made.

Further reading

  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going: Resilience and mental toughness, Clough & Strycharczyk, March 2014,
  • Teaching Leaders Quarterly Newsletter: http://bit.ly/1OhAHWs
  • Applied Mental Toughness: A toolkit for the 21st century, Clough & Strycharczyk, 2012, Kogan Page.
  • Developing Mental Toughness, Clough & Strycharczyk, 2015, Kogan Page
  • Developing Resilience: A workbook for teens, Stacy Zeiger, 2014, Createspace.
  • Mindset, Professor Carol Dweck, 2006, Robinson Publishers.
  • Growth Mindset Pocketbook, Hymer & Gershon, 2012, Teachers’ Pocketbooks.
  • Mindsets in the Classroom, Mary Cay Ricci, 2013, Prufrock Press.
  • Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-term Goals, Duckworth et al, 2007, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: http://bit.ly/1VVtyNZ


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