Building Resilient Learners: An intervention

Written by: Lisa Whitworth | Published:
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We know that some young people are at risk of getting trapped in a negative cycle of avoiding education, poor academic outcomes and a feeling of failure. The Building Resilient Learners project sought to give these young people practical tools to stop this from happening. Lisa Whitworth explains

Mental health and wellbeing have become an increasingly important issue for schools to address. This has been driven by a range of factors:

  • Rising levels of mental ill health in young people (Kieling et al, 2011).
  • Increasing awareness of the impact of wellbeing and resilience on students’ engagement and educational outcomes.
  • Inclusion of personal development in Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework.
  • The introduction of statutory relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) in all schools from this term, which includes a mental wellbeing strand.
  • The South West having levels above the national average for mental health admissions according to Public Health England data from March 2020 (

As professionals, many teachers are aware that students may disengage from school and their learning due to the barriers that they face in their wellbeing.

Building Resilient Learners aims to provide young learners with practical tools that they can employ when they feel these barriers starting to impact on their education.

Building Resilient Learners

At risk? The cycle of avoidance

Absence from class and school, low resilience and poor wellbeing have a negative impact on pupil engagement, outcomes and life chances (DfE, 2015).

The aim of the Building Resilient Learners project was to evaluate the effectiveness of an emotional health and wellbeing intervention in improving pupil’s wellbeing. The intervention may in turn have a positive effect on their resilience, so that they felt settled in the classroom, were able to attend lessons and improve their school attendance.

Building Resilient Learners is a collaboration between Sidmouth College in Devon, where I am the senior project lead, the University of Exeter (research associate Hollie Gay), and Five Areas Ltd (whose director is Dr Chris Williams).

The background

As part of a previous Character Education Grant project in 2014/15, five schools in the Exeter area looked at addressing wellbeing as a barrier to character development. The evaluation of that project found that the Living Life to the Full Young Persons course – a national cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course – was effective at improving self-reported wellbeing (on the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale) for pupils with initial low scores.

In February 2017, the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Innovation Evaluation Grant was awarded to Sidmouth College to build on the work from the character education grant.

Called Building Resilience in Learners this iteration found that pupils’ self-reported wellbeing showed a positive effect size, with mean Warwick-Edinburgh scores increasing in the intervention group compared with little change in the control group (between-group effect size +0.28).

Further analysis found a within-group effect size of +0.3 for the intervention group, which in public health terms is considered significant.

This suggests a link between wellbeing and attendance. Pupils with low pre-test wellbeing scores (≤ 40 on Warwick-Edinburgh) showed a significant increase in attendance, with a three per cent increase in average attendance for the intervention group compared to no change in the control group (between-groups effect size +0.35).

The within-group effect size for the intervention group is +0.5, which again in public health terms can be interpreted as a medium effect size. This is an important finding and demonstrates that wellbeing interventions can have a significant impact on the attendance of pupils who have initial low wellbeing scores.

Building on these findings, in October 2018 Sidmouth College was one of 10 applicants, from a field of more than 300, to win a share of the NESTA Future Ready Fund (see further information). We have now published our report from this project (Whitworth & Gay, 2020).

The intervention

The Building Resilient Learners intervention, aimed at year 7 students with the lowest wellbeing scores, was called My Big Life and consisted of a six-week series of classes based on CBT principles.

CBT has a wide evidence-base and is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) treatment guidelines for problems such as anxiety and depression.

My Big Life is a refinement of the national Living Life to the Full Young Persons course already mentioned, but shortened from eight to six sessions, and targeted at those with reduced concentration and reading abilities to communicate key skills and messages.

Each session lasted for one hour per week and was delivered as a life-skills lesson to a class of up to 20 students, who were selected based on a screening of all year 7 students.

The sessions aimed to develop pupils’ emotional wellbeing and provide them with strategies to cope with difficult emotions and situations.

Students were given a small My Big Life card that summarised the techniques to use as a step before an exit card (exit cards provide time out of the lesson for the pupil; limited to a few minutes or for the whole lesson).

The application of these skills was supported by completion of a daily reflection journal, supported by a trained member of staff, where pupils recorded any situations they faced, what strategies they employed, and how they felt about the outcome.

Over the period of the intervention pupils gained an increasing toolkit of strategies that they could employ.

This evaluation was carried out in 13 secondary schools in Devon, Somerset and Dorset, led by Sidmouth College, during the spring and summer term of 2020 to deliver the project and evaluation.

Schools were recruited from the South West region. There was a focus on recruiting schools in urban settings and schools with a higher proportion of students with Pupil Premium funding.

In each of the partner schools we created an intervention group and a control group to collect comparative data. A range of data was collected, including validated wellbeing and resilience measures, attendance data and the collation of daily reflective journals to build into qualitative analysis.

As part of the previous evaluation (mentioned earlier), we had found that students who had the lowest wellbeing scores on Warwick-Edinburgh improved in their school attendance most, we therefore decided to screen all year 7 students to identify those with the lowest Warwick-Edinburgh scores to take part in the intervention. The aim was to have two groups of 20 students in each partner school, both taken from the lowest scoring group of students, who were randomly allocated to the intervention or control group.

At the start of the project, 629 students had provided the partner schools with active consent and were able to complete the screening questionnaire. From this data, 409 students were involved in the trial and analysis. In the intervention group, there were 210 allocated to receive the My Big Life sessions. There were 199 students allocated into the control group (who were to take part in the My Big Life session in summer term 2020).

The impact

We found that for the students with the lowest baseline Warwick-Edinburgh scores, post-intervention scores were statistically significantly greater in the intervention group compared to the control group. This low wellbeing group showed an improvement in their resilience scores too, as measured by the Student Resilience Survey (SRS).

We have collected a compelling body of qualitative evidence that the students involved in the intervention demonstrate a change in their behaviour and put into practice the CBT techniques that they have learnt.

The reflective journals were recorded daily for the six weeks of the intervention. Overall, 67 per cent of pupils stated they had done something differently.

Reflective journal tick lists were also recorded on a daily basis. A total of 1,395 tick lists were recorded across the five skills:

  • What’s going on? Identifying thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical sensations.
  • Advice: A self-talk technique using questions like “What advice would you give a friend?”.
  • Breathing: An anger management technique to identify triggers, manage early warning signs and focus on breathing.
  • I’m OK: A positive self-talk technique where students identify things about themselves that they feel positive about.
  • Calm control: A tension control technique used widely to manage anxiety and other negative emotional responses.

Goal-based outcomes were used in the journals by the students to self-monitor their progress. Overall, 69 per cent made an improvement. Students who chose a goal related to the school environment – for example, to get a higher route in science, to speak up in class – made the least progress towards their goal (10 out of 19 pupils).

When the data was separated by wellbeing, pupils with the lowest wellbeing (27 per cent of the sample) chose a goal categorised as emotional – for example: “To not get peed off and lash out.”

Due to the impact of Covid 19, we have been unable to draw any conclusions about changes in attendance. There was no difference between the control and intervention groups, but this may well have been a product of increasing levels of absence already occurring in schools by March.

The impact of Covid 19 and the lockdown has severely impacted on the final stages of the project, including the collection of data after two and four months of the intervention. Thanks to our partner schools, we were able to gather data from the students during lockdown remote learning.


Despite the challenges of completing an evaluation during a global pandemic and lockdown, we can show that the Building Resilient Learners programme has a positive effect on the measurable wellbeing and resilience of students with low wellbeing scores.

This conclusion is supported by the substantial qualitative data we have collected in the form of the student reflective journals. These journals provide us with a rich and colourful source of evidence that the young people involved in the My Big Life lessons were not only learning techniques to help them manage their own difficulties and challenges, but they were actually putting them into practice in their everyday life, both in and out of school.

Sidmouth College has secured further funding from NESTA to widen our approach, including developing a universal offer for all year 7 students. We have successfully recruited more than 30 schools and are beginning the process of training and planning Building Resilient Learners interventions with these schools.

Further information & resources


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