Ideas for developing pupils’ resilience

Written by: Garry Freeman | Published:
Image: iStock

They may be the most examined, but many believe that today's children are the most 'untested' in history. So, how can we nurture the resilience they will need in their lives ahead? Garry Freeman offers some advice

“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”
The Fires of Heaven, Robert Jordan, 1994

Less than three months ago, our education secretary let slip that she may have read Robert Jordan’s The Fires of Heaven or at least may have heard of one of its messages. She announced an extra £3.5 million for classes and extra-curricular activities to develop resilience and grit in our children.

Add to that the additional £1 million invested in research led by the Education Endowment Foundation to look at how character can be taught, and we can only draw the conclusion that the government is taking seriously the concerns of many education and business leaders that too many school-leavers lack the soft skills that enable them to succeed throughout their life.

So how can we nurture willows rather than oaks?

Many of our children are now the most tested and at the same time the most untested in history, a feature which runs parallel with unprecedented concern among professionals at the mental and emotional wellbeing of our children.

Our children are more subject to being driven by targets and objectives, and yet at the same time societal change leads to parents diminishing or removing completely their children’s opportunities to develop resilience and character – and test themselves. They choreograph their child’s path to success, resolutely steering them away from potential bumps in the road, instead of helping them to keep going when they hit a rough patch or showing them how to spot hazards and steer round them to keep going.

Resilience is not a character trait

As educators, more of us seem to be embracing the nurturing of resilience; let’s reflect on what practical steps we can take to support our pupils through an on-going process. What tailored approaches can we develop which respond to the needs of our pupils? For high schools, this nurturing has significant importance at key stage 3 as we prepare our pupils for the demands of their GCSE courses.

However our schools choose to address the issue, their approach is invariably founded on pupils having an optimistic attitude, a positive emotion which enables resilience. There are a number of tried and tested ways to work with our pupils to develop resilience:

  • It can be a core element of a nurture group approach in and beyond key stage 3.
  • It could be within a PSHE course.
  • It could be part of a general studies course, life-skills training or elements of all of them.

Whatever the vehicle, different educators, different schools have identified key steps in helping their pupils to develop and build resilience, and approaches to enable them to succeed in tough times. What are the seven steps to build resilience?

Model it: choose your place

Most people, for most of their life, put themselves in a comfortable place – and stay there, hoping that the road to where they want to go will be smooth and uneventful. Encourage children to venture outside their comfort zone: they need to see the adults in their life making mistakes, owning up to them, resolving them and making better choices the next time. They are encouraged by adults trying new things – new ways of working things out, new interests.

Praise the effort: achieve the outcome

Let your pupil know that you noticed how they tackled the challenge of a task, how they set about doing it. You can do this even if you do provide a framework of who, what, why, where, when, how because as time passes, you can remind them of the framework less and less as they take ownership of the effort – and the risk that they might not succeed.

Our pupils need to acknowledge the link between effort and outcome, whatever their ability. If children only think they are successful if they are “clever” they might feel ill-equipped to handle the curriculum as it becomes more difficult. If you praise them for planning and working hard, even if the outcome isn’t successful, they will feel a sense of achievement. They can be inspired by adults who make better choices second time round so that the next time they tackle a challenge, they can succeed.

Purpose: remind them of goals achieved

Children fall many times when they learn to walk, and most don’t just get on a bicycle and start riding. Point out their successes. Remind them that they achieved their goals because they set out with a vision, a purpose and they stuck to their guns.

Teach them about grit: positive mindset

It does not take talent to reach your full potential, it takes perseverance or “grit” and the ability to persist through challenges. What helps, what in fact can be a child’s greatest asset, is a positive mindset, the ability to think positive thoughts, the most obvious symptom of which is a “can-do” attitude.

Dr Barbara Fredrickson (in Positivity: Groundbreaking Research To Release Your Inner Optimist And Thrive) argues that the most effective way to do this is to let go of your negative thoughts, focus on the positive ones and build your positive mindset and that we need to encourage our pupils to accept that it is normal to have negative thoughts and that to build our positive mindset, our inner resilience, we need a ratio of at least 3:1 positive to negative thoughts.

Let them fail: try again

Many parents tie their own self-esteem to their child’s success and this can easily spill over into school. Our children grow as we allow them to make mistakes and then encourage them to try again. The role of educators can be key here: admit our mistakes, model the emotions we might feel when we err, and then verbalise the thought processes we go through when we try again.

Seeing adults who do not give up is an inspiration to children of all ages and abilities.

Gratitude: remember their passion.

Remind your children to be thankful when things work out: this in turn reinforces their positive mindset. More importantly, encourage them to focus on the joy of the journey, not the destination. This keeps happiness in the present moment rather than holding it as a future goal. We as educators can model this by celebrating each successful step along the way.

Let it go: let autism be the model.

The best advice might come from the hit song in Disney’s film Frozen – and it makes a wonderful child-friendly mantra. When they get upset have them say: “I let it go. Everything is okay.”

We can take our inspiration from a successful strategy used by children with autistic spectrum condition: one way of “letting it go” is to write down negative thoughts and events each day on pieces of paper, tear them up and then put them in a special “let it go” box.

If the box is emptied every day, we can reinforce how our pupils need to focus exclusively on positive thoughts.

In summary

Teachers have a crucial role: we are role-models for our pupils, leading by example and sharing our experiences and successes not only with them but also with our colleagues.

Sometimes we, as well as our pupils, need to remember to nurture ourselves so that we feel equipped and in a good position to be resilient. When we are stressed, it is all too easy to neglect our physical needs, not eating appropriately, losing sleep, neglecting mental as well as physical exercise.

Looking after our physical needs is the prerequisite for developing and building our resilience – something we do need to remind our pupils about. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be our guide and can be adapted to use with pupils of almost any age.

  • Garry Freeman is director of inclusion and SENCO at Guiseley School in Leeds. Find him @GS_gfreeman

Further reading

  • Building Resilience, Les Duggan and Mark Solomons (Developing Potential Group, 1994).
  • Positivity: Groundbreaking Research To Release Your Inner Optimist And Thrive, Dr Barbara Fredrickson (One World Publications, 2011).


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