How to help our pupils become more resilient


Resilience is increasingly being recognised as a key life-skill. Karen Sullivan discusses a range of strategies that schools and teachers can employ to help their pupils to become more resilient.

In my last column, we discussed the idea that resilient children would be much less likely to be targeted by bullying and to become victims.

There is much that can be undertaken in a school environment to make students more resilient to bullying and, indeed, to the multitude of stresses that life can present.

One of the methods that research suggests is the most successful to make children more resilient is the development of problem-solving skills. A study in 2001, by Drs Tony Cassidy and Laura Taylor, was carried out using a sample of 236 children aged 12 to 16. The children were asked to complete confidential questionnaires which asked them about their experience of bullying, whether as a bully or a victim, and they were asked to complete a series of psychological tests. 

The tests assessed the children’s experience of bullying or victimisation, problem-solving style, optimism, perceived centre of control and general health and wellbeing.

The results showed that in general children who were bullied were significantly less optimistic, more helpless in problem situations and exercised significantly less problem-solving control. They concluded that problem-solving skills training might be effective in preventing children from becoming victims. An approach called Interpersonal Cognitive Problem-Solving (ICPS) has, in particular, been shown to be effective.

Although a younger age group, one two-year study with nursery school children found that teaching ICPS skills not only helped to discourage a victim mentality, but also helped to prevent bullying. They suggest that teaching these skills improved children’s impulsive behaviour and social adjustment, relative to children in the control condition.

Moreover, well-adjusted children who learned the ICPS skills in nursery school were less likely to develop behavioural difficulties over the two-year period than were well-adjusted children who did not learn these skills. The authors of the study found that teaching children to think, rather than what to think changes thinking styles and, as a result, enhances children’s social adjustment, promotes pro-social behaviour, and decreases impulsivity and inhibition.

Problem-solving should be a key part of PSHE. Above and beyond this, problem-solving can be modelled and taught in many classroom situations. For example, allowing students to make mistakes and correct mistakes themselves is crucial to healthy development. Too often both parents and teachers leap in and tell students what to do or effectively do it themselves, rather than guiding and asking children to come up with their own solutions. 

Students are handed answers and given such tight briefs for producing work and sitting exams that they never work out what has to be done themselves. Not only is this integral to successful education and learning, but it is essential to developing problem-solving skills.

Moreover, all students need to be given some responsibility, whether that be in the form of class contacts, prefects, sports captains or even just regular “jobs” within the classroom or on the school grounds. If children have everything done for them, not only does this cause them to become complacent and lack self-sufficiency, it also completely undermines their ability to use their own initiative – an essential component of the ability to problem-solve and, through that, become resilient to bullies and stressful situations in general. 

What are you doing in your school to help your students learn to solve problems? Please share your experiences and in my next column we’ll look at specific methods that are working, and other ways to encourage resilience.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email



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