Strategies for teaching resilience

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The new government trend is for character education, but many schools already deliver it. Newland College, for example, has long prioritised the teaching of key resilience-related skills. Darlene Fisher explains

One of the clearest things my colleagues and I have learned through many years of teaching and leading in both state and independent sectors is that being prepared for exams, university and later life is only partly about knowledge. It is also about resilience, which is something children can gain through their time at school.

We have chosen to make this a staple of our curriculum at Newland College. We emphasise whole-child development and developing a culture of resilience; teaching children to have the resilience they will need to flourish, both in their studies, and perhaps most importantly, when they reach university and beyond. I will outline here what it means to develop a culture of resilience.

The argument from experience

From time-to-time, everybody needs to overcome adversity. The problem is that some people seem naturally resilient, while others need more of a helping hand. 

However, we can see from our experience that no matter how resilient a child is when they join a school, everyone (teachers included) can always get better.

Teachers have a special responsibility for helping young students to develop resilience. We are role models in all that we do and say. Therefore we also need support through leadership, management and mentoring to help us develop our skills. Students and teachers alike benefit from support and guidance related to resilience.

At the schools I have run, we have trained teachers and students in the skills related to developing resilience. The skills we believe are vital among teachers and students are as follows.

Resilient thinking skills

When life provides challenges, your response alone can nudge it towards being a learning opportunity or a hindrance.

We have to provide opportunities for students and teachers to learn and train their resilient thinking skills by developing a process of bouncing back from failure with a positive attitude, reframing the problem, practising and developing new approaches – and all the while still retaining a handle on reality.

Students have to be able to consider, expect and plan for the positives in any situation or possible future while preserving strategies to deal with the difficulties; they have to accept setbacks as opportunities to understand issues more deeply; and they have to recognise this is the well-worn path to become better at something.

Positive relationships

Resilience considered in the context of an isolated individual is only a fraction of the story. Students and staff have to be able to empathise as well as manage their own feelings, if they are to communicate effectively, respectfully, compassionately and caringly with friends, colleagues and “bosses” in the workplace, and with parents and other stakeholders in the wider community.

Managing our emotions

The key is to understand our feelings without being led by them. We have all hopefully experienced the magical and motivational energy that feelings can inspire – what Dr Angela Lee Duckworth might refer to as “zeal” in her research into “grit”. The challenge is to harness these feelings, to turn them to good that will help us to move forward in many areas of life.

Making a contribution

Being able to contribute to a better world through understanding and respecting ourselves, while developing each individual’s strengths is an important component of resilience. Knowing what you are doing has a social dimension has been shown to be a significant motivational force and at school, we owe it to ourselves and our students to reveal this hidden component. For some people, some of the time, this could be a deciding factor.

Practical application

There is plenty of academic research centred on resilience. One model that can be used practically by teachers is described by Brendtro and Larson in their book The Resilience Revolution (2006). 

Their model posits four basic needs for children, which when met will help them to develop resilience: belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. Teachers can address these four needs in the following ways.

A culture and environment of trust

One of the elements of the learner profile in the International Baccalaureate, and an attribute considered increasingly important among all students, is risk-taking. In order to encourage students to take risks, we need to create the right environment for them to learn through failure. We have to show by our own behaviour how to develop supportive relationships, because by helping one another deal with adversity, trust is gained and students learn empathy and how to bounce back from adversity.

Encourage a focus on mastery

In order to achieve mastery, students have to be encouraged to persevere, overcome difficulties and develop personal strengths. 

If the “quest to become competent” is one of the core motivations of human behaviour, as Brendtro and Larson argue, then encouraging students to achieve mastery provides them with enhanced motivation – so long as they recognise that failure is also acceptable.

Promote independence

Independence is an essential adult trait and children need to be given the space to develop their own sense of their power to achieve goals. We advocate leadership as an important student trait and one that will open doors for students later in life.

Create a sense of purpose

Setting vision or creating purpose has been identified as a leadership trait in the world of business as well as education. By giving students a sense of how their personal activity ties into wider shared goals, they can be motivated to go further to overcome adversity, while learning about another important leadership quality.

Learning from inside and outside

At Newland College, we have chosen to focus our pastoral care programme on resilience, focusing on developing modules to provide opportunities for students to develop their knowledge, understanding and skills in a range of areas of life that are not covered in the academic curriculum.

This is not to concede to the false choice of test scores versus quality teaching – it is rather a recognition that by providing some essential strengths for engaging successfully in the changing world of the 21st century, we will develop young students who are also more capable of handling the challenges and the workload required of them throughout their school career.

But we can’t learn everything through personal experience, we have also turned to outside specialists. We are currently working with a specialist who coaches and trains children and adults alike in leadership skills – Emma Judge from How to Thrive. With experts like Emma, we developed foundations built on the original work of pioneers in teaching resilience, including the likes of Martin Seligman, the original founder of the positive psychology field from the University of Pennsylvania, and Emmy Werner of the University of California.

There are well-known cases where schools took these concepts on board, with positive results. Geelong Grammar in Australia has been the subject of much academic research into its emphasis on positive education and has developed a number of successful academic and pastoral systems as a result.

Wellington College in Berkshire has also been a strong advocate of instilling resilience in school, with the departing headteacher Dr Anthony Seldon being acclaimed for his introduction of mindfulness and meditation sessions for students.

At our school, we feel as though we are joining a focused group of schools developing students’ personal strengths as well as their academic skills through the emphasis on resilience. I hope there will be a broader adoption in the UK in future across both state and independent schools.

For all our experience, I am conscious that there are many doubters about the possibility of teaching resilience in schools, or even whether this is something teachers should have responsibility for. I invite as many teachers as feel inspired to explore the positive contributions made by some highly respected academics over the course of more than 50 years. Debate there may be, but there is also a sound body of research to back up the principles we have found to be so effective in our classrooms.

Yes, resilience exists. Yes, it’s a useful thing for every child to have. Yes, teachers can help them to learn it.

  • Darlene Fisher is director of education at the SKOLA group of schools and head of Newland College in Buckinghamshire.

Photo: Newland College


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