Learning to be adaptable

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
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Key among the skills our students need in today’s world are adaptability and resilience, both of which link to emotional intelligence. Karen Sullivan advises

One of the most important things we can encourage in our students in an ever-changing world is adaptability – in other words, the ability to make adjustments in “cognition, behaviour and/or affect in response to uncertain and novel circumstances, conditions, and situations” (Martin, Nejad, Colmar & Liem, 2013).

We are living in a period of enormous political, financial and technological flux, and not only has this had an impact on the happiness and wellbeing of our students, with some 28 per cent of young people admitting that they don’t feel in control of their lives, but it does, of course, change the concept of “future” for young people (Getting back control, SecEd, February 2017: http://bit.ly/2ncSOUf).

Employment opportunities, career choices, even the nature of jobs themselves are less certain and more likely to involve portfolio work and a wider range of skill-sets to adapt to changing markets and demands.

It goes without saying that students who are adaptable, able to adjust to change, will be more successful and, ultimately, happier both now and in the future.

Martin, Nejad, Colmar & Liem performed a study of 969 adolescents from high schools in Australia and found that “adaptability predicted subjective wellbeing and sense of purpose”.

Adaptable students were “more ambitious in their future plans (positive intent), more able to keep up with the rapid pace and variable nature of lessons (class participation), more likely to experience more positive academic outcomes (school enjoyment), and less inclined to manoeuvre defensively (self-handicapping) or give up (disengagement)”.

They showed that “an adaptable student is more likely to self-regulate and be buoyant in the face of everyday academic challenge and difficulty”. Therefore, the ability to adapt will have a positive impact on achievement in school and in the world beyond.

Several studies have found that resilience is one of the keys to adaptability – and over the last four decades, researchers have confirmed that adolescents can adapt and cope in spite of adversity. Empirical evidence indicates that resilience is dynamic, developmental in nature, and interactive with one’s environment.

An excellent paper (Profiles of Coping Strategies in Resilient Adolescents, Jee Hee Li et al, 2016) indicated that resilient adolescents simultaneously utilise not only problem-focused but also emotion-focused coping strategies. Another paper, by Nancy Ahern and colleagues (2008) analyses some of the key research into adaptability and offers examples of interventions.

Encouraging resilience in our students is one of the keys to promoting their adaptability and this has its roots in emotional intelligence. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in the US identified five core social and emotional competencies for students to develop in order to achieve this: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

A number of reviews have found that SEL programmes within schools improve these skills and lead to improved academic performance, fewer behavioural problems and reduced emotional distress (Durlak et al, 2011).

There is also evidence that resilience programmes using cognitive behavioural principles help students to understand the connections between thoughts, emotions and behaviours, to reflect on everyday challenging situations and some of the negative or self-defeating thinking patterns that can emerge, and to identity more helpful ways of thinking or alternative ways of viewing challenging situations.

Other programmes have been shown to encourage adaptability and resilience, including “postive education”, influenced by the work of Martin Seligman, whose PERMA model for psychological wellbeing (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning and Accomplishment) has been successfully used to measure student wellbeing and extrapolated to encourage happiness, resourcefulness and resilience in adolescents, which affect attainment and, of course, adaptability.

Ultimately, our role as educators is to create well-rounded students who are able to face and embrace challenges and change; to adapt (or develop new) skill-sets and approaches in response; to maintain a positive self-concept and self-belief that will allow them to contemplate their strengths and use them appropriately.

Much of this can be undertaken within the existing curriculum, working with students on an individual basis to fine-tune their emotional programming. We can also set up programmes that will encourage confidence and a positive attitude in our students, while presenting them with challenges that will stretch and test them, providing opportunities for resilience and coping mechanisms to develop – all of which underpin adaptability.

After the Easter break, we will look at these in detail. In the meantime, set your students an exercise in self-awareness.

Ask them to assess how well they respond to change, providing specific examples of successes and failures, and what they learned from the latter. Ask them to define the skills they think they will need to “survive” in the modern world.

And then, open it up for discussion in form period or PSHE, and see if you can work out where problems may lie.

Remember that adaptability and resilience is associated not only with better academic performance and behaviour, and a lower incidence of unhealthy risk-taking and mental health issues, but also success in later life, in relationships and employment. In this period of change, nothing can be more important than preparing them for just that.

Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com. To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to http://bit.ly/1SNgg00


  • Adaptability: How students’ responses to uncertainty and novelty predict their academic and non-academic outcomes, Martin, Nejad, Colmar & Liem, Journal of Educational Psychology, 2013: http://bit.ly/2nRBwdm and http://bit.ly/2nn3Mqr
  • Career Adaptability Development in Adolescence: Multiple predictors and effect on sense of power and life satisfaction, Hirschi, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2009: http://bit.ly/2nBsC6C
  • Resilience and Coping Strategies in Adolescents: Additional content, Ahern, Ark & Byers, Paediatric Nursing, 2008: http://bit.ly/2o4wPw9
  • The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A meta-analysis of school- based universal interventions, Durlak et al, 2011: http://bit.ly/2msw97B
  • Martin Seligman’s PERMA model: http://bit.ly/2mU6PDH
  • Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning – CASEL: www.casel.org


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