Life can be amazing and life can be tough and these can both be true at the same time. What helps us get through the tough part is resilience. Resilience is not acting tough and pretending things don’t bother us- instead, it involves deep trust in ourselves and our loved ones that we can handle what life serves us. Resilience is an important quality that promotes academic success. When the learning gets tough-and it should-resilience is what allows us to keep pushing, striving, and coping to get through. Without resilience, we just give up on the learning and feel defeated in the process.
Resilience is something parents and caregivers can support at home, but teachers can also support students in gaining resilience. There are two major ideas behind resilience; the first is learning to tolerate distress and the second is finding ways to allow a full expression of those emotions around distress. Shutting down emotions, or ‘pretending’ to be tough is the opposite of helpful. When we offer students the chance to master challenges and tolerate distress, they grow capacity for coping with difficulties and build trust in themselves that they will be okay. Classroom environment and teacher modeling are key for building a community that supports resilient students.
Here are 10 ways to help students build resilience in your classroom:
- Lead with Relationship: Research shows that a relationship with a caring and emotionally responsive adult is one of the biggest factors that promote resilience in children. We can help them build these emotional regulation skills through utilizing our calm presence and our relationship with students to send the message that they are not alone through difficult moments. Remember that “relationship” is a key piece of children’s learning and try to put this first. Think “how can I best connect with this student?”.
- Read and tell stories that illustrate resilience: Choose books and stories to share with the class that illustrate characters that display resilience. Hearing stories about others can support “vicarious resilience” -gaining resilience through hearing stories about others.
- Build a Positive Classroom Community: Building a community of support and connection between students can also help with resilience. Knowing that we are loved and supported by those around us can help calm our inner-critic.
- Welcome All Feelings! Challenge societal thinking about emotions. Students may believe that sadness, anger, and other emotions are “bad.” If you notice your students expressing these thoughts, help them explore what makes them think these feelings are bad. Explore the positive aspects of these emotions. “Sadness lets us know something is bothering us, and our tears can help us release that emotion in our bodies. It’s good to express your emotions.”
- Don’t Try to Fix feelings. When students are showing big feelings, your job is not to stop it- it’s to sit with them in it, remaining calm and empathic while reminding them you’re there to support. This will help build structures in their brain for emotional regulation and tolerating distress.
- Encourage emotional expression: Don’t confuse resiliency and a “no cry” attitude. These are not the same- in fact, a “no cry” attitude can lead to less resiliency. Instead, encourage your students to express their emotions. We recommend having a “comfort corner” set up in your classroom to allow space for students who need some time to express their emotions in a safe place.
- Allow your students to struggle. That’s right-Let them struggle with trying to color that circle the way they want, let them struggle with getting that basketball in the hoop. Provide encouragement and empathy when they feel frustrated. Remember that this is how they build resilience-by doing hard things.
- Celebrate mistakes! Teach your students that mistakes help us learn and grow. Admitting mistakes should be encouraged and the focus should be on the lesson learned or growth that can come from the mistake that was made.
- Encourage your student to face their fears, while offering support. For example, if your student feels afraid of trying a new activity, help them explore what parts feel hard, encourage them to try, but perhaps break it down into smaller, more manageable steps for them. You’re likely great at doing this already for your students- just watch for their “window of tolerance.” This refers to an emotional state where their brains are regulated enough to be in a “learning zone” and they are not too overwhelmed or frustrated that they cannot focus or take-in information. If students are outside of this “window of tolerance,” offer breaks or support to help them get back into their window.
- Encourage students to ask for help: Yes-earlier we said- ”let them struggle” and now we are saying encourage them to ask for help. Both are important! When students ask for help, respond positively. Sometimes young students just need “emotional support” as they work through a challenge. They may not need you to solve it for them. Standing near them and offering encouragement while they work, may allow them the emotional regulation they need to get through the challenge. Little by little teachers can step back and allow students more space to try things on their own.
Some of the most sensitive students can also be the most resilient- if they find ways to express their emotions and reach out for help when they need it. Remember your students have their whole life to build resilience. Teachers can provide opportunities for building secure attachments, safety at school, and allowing their students to feel and experience a full range of emotions. Resilience is contagious - the more we feel resilient, the more others around us experience resilience too.