Schools that Strengthen Resilience

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A "symphony of second chances". This is how high school teacher Clint Smith describes a classroom that honours and fosters the resilience in children and youth. In his 2014 Manhattan TEDx talk[1], Smith poetically celebrates human triumph when the world expects the opposite.

How can we cultivate opportunities for "the rose to grow from concrete"? What is the role of schools to strengthen resilience in children and youth?

To maximize opportunities to build resilience in children (the inner strength to overcome adversity) research suggests that there be less focus on “changing children” and more on shaping their environments for positive development. Developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner[2] used the analogy of Russian nesting dolls to describe how development is influenced by the interaction of temperament and the different environments in which the child lives. The family home, neighbourhood, school and child care setting all nest around, interact and influence a child’s growth and development.

This is a powerful call to action for teachers, counselors, school administrators and all school staff who create spaces in which a child spends at least six hours of the day. "Everything that we do that makes it more likely a child gets what they need from us at school, and indeed from their families and from their communities is going to really make that child's life trajectory ... that much more likely to be successful," says resilience researcher Michael Ungar[3].

Both individual classrooms and the wider school culture are opportunities to support child development and student success.

What teachers can do in classrooms:

  • Understand and accept that teachers have a significant impact on learning and behaviour[4].
  • Model resilient skills and behaviours. In order to build resilient students, it is critical that teachers themselves are socially and emotionally competent[5]
  • Show empathy and perceive the world through the eyes of students.
  • Hold positive expectations for all students with clear boundaries and offer a safe predictability. "You can make it! I'll be there to support you!"
  • Actively create a safe and secure classroom climate knowing that fear is the biggest obstacle to learning.
  • Maintain positive, respectful relationships with colleagues.
  • Integrate social and emotional development into the curriculum and not treat it as extra-curricular.

What schools and districts can do:

  • Focus on building constructive relationships with and between students, staff, and families.  Studies[6] show that youth at risk do better when schools communicate with parents and caregivers. 
  • Structure learning experiences to develop consistent attachment relationships between a student and teacher/counsellor.
  • Build opportunities for meaningful student participation[7]
  • Strengthen the capacity of teachers to implement social and emotional learning approaches.
  • Remember that children who face significant adversity in their lives need the more help. Universal approaches are important and should also be augmented by targeted efforts for those most at risk.
  • "Velcro" ideas, programs and successes together to shape the school environment to strengthen resilience. Complex problems require complex solutions. Avoid one-off or fragmented approaches.

Don’t confuse personal resilience and getting good grades. Being able to overcome adversity in life isn’t always the same thing as being able to handle academic challenges. Resilient children and youth, however, feel capable and with access to timely and relevant resources such as study skills and problem solving, they reduce the chance of falling behind in their learning journey.

Educator and slam poet Clint Smith teaches English at Parkdale High School in Prince George's County, Maryland. 

Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) viewed a child’s development in the context of the system of relationships forming his or her environment. He defined the complex layers comprising the child’s environment, comparing them to sets of Russian dolls that nest inside one another. Over the years he made a number of refinements to his theory, including an increased emphasis on how processes in the environment can help us realize our genetic potential.

Dr. Michael Ungar, interviewed by the Learning Partnership, outlines the research that indicates that environments have a very large impact on children's development. In terms of resilience, nurture trumps nature. We can actively create conditions around the child that will most likely build resilience.

"It is essential for educators to appreciate that th eassumptions they hold for themselves and their students, often unstated, have profound influence in determingin effective teaching practices, the quality of relationships with students, and the positive or negative climate that is created in the classroom and school building."

The Mindset of Teachers Capable of Fostering Resilience in Students. Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein

Canadian Journal of School Psychology 2008; 23

Emotional competence refers to having a positive self concept, a sense of humour and an internal locus of control. Social competence refers to having the skills to communicate, maintain positive relationships, show empathy and kindness.

In a bio-social-ecological systems theory of resilience, there are microsystems (eg. families and schools) and mesosystems (the interaction between the microsystems). Youth who are at the greatest risk for externalizing problem behaviours do better when educators (the school microsystem) and caregivers (the parent microsystem) communicate regularly.

Participating in school activities enhance feelings of belonging, responsibility and engagement. In addition, giving students both voice and choice in activities increases a feeling of ownership which is tied to motivation to learn.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.