Skills: Further lessons on adaptability

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Continuing her focus on helping your students to become adaptable, Karen Sullivan offers some practical evidence-based teaching ideas

In my last article, we looked at the importance of encouraging students to become adaptable, resilient and able to cope with and adjust to change, to develop and alter skill-sets that will allow them to face challenges both now and in the future (Learning to be adaptable, SecEd, March 2017:

The reason? Adaptability is related to success, happiness, ambition, academic performance and also a lower incidence of risky behaviours; moreover, it creates the type of flexibility necessary to survive and thrive in the modern workplace, where portfolio employees are becoming increasingly sought-after, and in life, where change is ever-present.

One of the terms used to describe an adaptable student is “buoyancy” – the ability to address everyday challenges (something that Martin et al suggest includes study deadlines, difficult schoolwork, and a poor result) – while “adaptability” goes further, purposefully and specifically targeting uncertainty and novelty. In other words, change. Therefore, one of the most important things we can do to encourage adaptability in our students is to create change and empower them to “self-regulate” and come up with solutions to negotiate it with success.

This can be something as simple as “shaking things up” a little in the classroom. Set an unexpected test for the following day, and make it more difficult than usual – or change a set text at the last moment. Set up a group project, allow the work to begin, and then change the parameters, the deadline or the make-up of the group.

Mix up classes for a week, encouraging students to acclimatise themselves to a new dynamic. Plan a last-minute class outing, a new class or student council position, opportunities to pitch for a new club. Change rotas and break or lunch-times. Offer something completely different to read – some translated literature, for example – or offer impromptu classes in other languages or bring in unusual guest speakers. Create opportunities for success and failure, and push your students outside their comfort zone as often as you can.

And alongside this, supervise and support. Martin et al suggest that we should look at adaptability in its three components (behavioural, cognitive and emotional) and offer advice and guidance that is developed in specific and concrete ways.

For example, they note: “When it comes to students behaviour ... we can encourage students to seek out new or more information or take a different course of action when faced with a new situation. This can be as simple as asking a teacher for some good reading on a new topic or re-organising their study timetable based on a test announced that day. Even just something as simple as thinking about the opportunities a new situation might create or not assuming that change is a bad or undesirable thing can make a big difference. Students can also be encouraged to learn to minimise disappointment and maximise enjoyment when circumstances change. Or indeed, keep a level head when in a winning position.”

They also suggest practical advice, helping students to understand how they can work through new tasks or situations, adjusting their behaviour, thoughts and emotions in order to achieve success.

So, for example, if you throw in an unexpected test with new material, you can focus on the positive: everyone is in the same position, and why can’t it be you who succeeds? What is the worst-case scenario, and how will you deal with it? How can you plan your time to get in some extra revision?

What resources are available to help? What can you do if you are feeling anxious or afraid? What skills do the “succeeders” in the classroom employ, and how can you use them too? Providing the tools to adjust to change helps to demystify it, and instils the self-belief necessary for students to become adaptable – meet demands head-on with the confidence that they can succeed. Be there to offer guidance and to challenge negative thinking.

Look for other opportunities to provide support. For example, when students pick up a new sport or subject, move year groups, or are offered new responsibilities. Martin et al suggest that young people “greatly benefit from clear and direct guidance from competent and caring adults”.
Use mistakes and poor results as a medium for analysis, offer periods for reflection: what went well in a given situation/test/performance, and what didn’t? What can you learn, and what is the next course of action?

Make it clear that successful people have usually left behind them a trail of errors and disappointments – and had to become flexible and to adapt, in order to get where they are today.

Ask students to come up with a long-term goal – their dream job or situation in life – and to plot out how they can get there. Next, ask them to list the hurdles that might pop up, and to work out how they can negotiate them. What would keep them going, and where can they go for help?

Understanding that there is rarely a linear path to attaining goals helps students to understand that they can bounce back, and with determination and resourcefulness, adjust to every situation that can be thrown at them.

Many of us are actively afraid of change, which is often a cloak for fear of the unknown and, of course, fear of failure. Actively encouraging students to embrace change – to see the opportunities that open up when a mould is broken, or a less-used path is taken – is the key to adaptability.

Students need to learn to face up to challenges and never give up; to ask for feedback and to learn to reflect upon it; to take on new initiatives, projects, subjects, friends, sports, jobs – anything that will provide new opportunities for learning, behaviour modification, self-regulation, cognitive development and positive thinking.

Once again, the rewards are almost limitless, and include, according to Martin et al’s research, class participation, enjoying school, positive intentions, higher achievement, life satisfaction, meaning and purpose, emotional stability and self-esteem, and it’s easy to see why that can make a big difference to our students’ lives, both now and in the future.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to


  • Adaptability: How students’ responses to uncertainty and novelty predict their academic and non-academic outcomes, Martin, Nejad, Colmar & Liem, Journal of Educational Psychology, August 2013: and
  • Coping with change: teaching adaptability will help kids grow, Professor Andrew Martin, The Conversation, 2013:


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